A recent conference in China impressed but left big questions about urbanisation unanswered, says Nick Schumann
Over the years I have been fortunate to be able to attend numerous conferences and industry gatherings, but I have to say that the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH) conference in Shenzhen, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong last month was one of the best.
The CTB is well known for producing excellent information and for carrying out very useful studies. And the way it organised this conference, which was attended by more than 1,300 delegates from all over the world, was exceptional.
My lasting impression is of the sheer enormity of the task our industry faces in providing places of work, accommodation, entertainment, caring, and so on for a rapidly growing world population that is becoming increasingly diversified between the haves and have-nots.
How do developers and architects cater both for the growing middle classes with significant spending power and for those left, for whatever reason, in poverty?
As an industry we will never solve these problems alone, but we will be given the responsibility to deliver urban habitats which cater for mass movements from countryside to towns. This is no longer a challenge for the future: it is happening at this very moment all over Asia, South America and Africa, and it is in these continents where the biggest challenges occur.
The conference’s agendum was clear: we have to plan and deliver mega-cities of very high density, which offer a quality of life for all, within clear parameters of civic responsibility, quality, transparency, connectivity, affordability, lifestyle and sustainability. Our solution at present seems to lie in building ever taller buildings, which connect appropriately to the ground, encompassing good urban planning.
The conference reinforced my admiration for our industry and for clients who invest significant sums, often at high levels of risk, and who are prepared to entrust us with the responsibility to deliver these huge buildings on time, on budget and to the desired quality. Developments in China, Hong Kong and Singapore have got so much right – and the rest of the world is now, quite rightly, using those as prototypes and models.
Nearly all of the projects were commercially driven, which may work well for the better-off, but does nothing for those with low or no spending power
It struck me, however, that nearly all of the projects presented were commercially driven, which may work well for the better-off, but does nothing for those with low or no spending power, who rely on government and local authority initiatives to get them off the ground. This is an area that needs to be urgently focused on.
Cities of any size, let alone mega-cities, all have one thing in common, without which they fail, and that is transportation. This subject cropped up in almost every presentation, such that it is a key driver for private development anywhere in the world.
High-quality rail systems are essential and have to be the first priority. Take Hong Kong and Shenzhen, for examples. When I lived there in the 1980s, Hong Kong was building its first Mass Transit Railway (MTR) line and Shenzhen was a small border town. Now they are thriving, with Shenzhen a city of 10 million people.
None of that would be possible without the major investment in MTR systems, which have kept people moving and businesses expanding.
Nick Schumann is director of Schumann Consult, specialising in specification and design management