Article by Greg Lindsay
Departures  |  October 2011

Instant Cities

Are made-from-scratch metropolises the answer to Asia's urban overpopulation? Greg Lindsay investigates.


Two years ago, developer Stan Gale cut the ribbon on the world’s newest city–a man-made island in the Yellow Sea named New Songdo. The chairman of New York-based Gale International had pledged in 2001 to borrow $35 billion to build a city the size of downtown Boston modeled on Manhattan, complete with a hundred-acre “Central Park” fronted by South Korea’s tallest building. Songdo won’t be finished until 2016 at least, but Gale isn’t waiting around. These days, he’s pitching China’s mayors on his “city-in-a-box”–a kit to build their own smart, green city of the future in as little as three years. “We’re going to be the special sauce of city-building,” he vows.

Is it even possible to build a city from scratch, at least one we would want to live in? This may be the defining challenge of our era–Earth’s urban population will nearly double by 2050, requiring the construction of hundreds of new cities. China is already building the equivalent of a Rome every few weeks to absorb another 400 million peasants streaming from the countryside in search of work. The question facing us as an urban species isn’t whether to build cities tabula rasa, but how. And nowhere is this dilemma more pressing than in Asia.

The archetypal Asian city isn’t Art Deco Shanghai or post-war Tokyo, but the “Overnight City” of Shenzhen, which was still a fishing village when it was tapped to be Communist China’s capitalist enclave more than thirty years ago. Today, it’s a sub-tropical metropolis of 14 million sprawling for miles, sprouting clusters of skyscrapers from an impenetrable canopy of factories and elevated highways. Unplanned and uncontrollable, Shenzhen and its neighboring cities represent 20th-century urbanism at is worst–ugly, inequitable, and unsustainable. Surely we can do better in the 21st?

Plans for utopian cities date back to the Renaissance, although a modern example is Brasilia, the Oscar Niemeyer-designed, made-to-order capital built in 41 frenzied months during the ‘50s. Following Brazil’s lead, Malaysia started construction on its own new administrative center in the late ‘90s. The domes and spires of Putrajaya and its sister city, Cyberjaya,, were hacked from rubber and palm plantations and linked to Kuala Lampur, 15 miles to the north, via a fiber-optic “Multimedia Super Corridor.”

But what was supposed to be Southeast Asia’s answer to Silicon Valley turned out to be too much of a backwater to attract the country’s entrepreneurs, who preferred Kuala Lumpur. Instead, with a current population of around 68,000, Putrajaya ended up a quiet, manicured campus for technocrats–a Washington, D.C. without the tourists. South Korea is heading for the same situation next year with Sejong,, a “multifunctional administrative city” two hours’ drive south of Seoul. Originally envisioned as a new capital, it will become the home of several exiled government ministries. (An epic power struggle over its fate last year threatened to split the ruling political party in two, and its critics doubt whether anyone will actually move there from Seoul.)

More than politics, sustainability is the driving force behind these developments. While half of humanity now lives in urban areas–whether high-rises, suburbs, or slums–cities consume 75 percent of all energy, suggesting that building cleaner ones is the key to combating climate change. This goes double for China, the world’s biggest polluter and burner of coal. What’s missing is a prototype for the cities environmentalists have in mind. Lying west of Beijing–the home of weeklong traffic jams–Mentougou Eco Valley,  aims to be the first.

Designed by Helsinki’s Eriksson Architects, Mentougou is the brainchild of Finnish designer Eero Paloheimo. Scheduled for completion by 2020, the imagined city will have floating geodesic domes and solar panels dotting the hillsides, hiding the scars of former strip mines. Nestled in the valley will be nine research institutes, each devoted to some aspect of the city’s sustainability, whether water treatment, traffic, or geothermal energy. Mentougou’s 50,000 residents will double as the subjects in a larger experiment–“the idea was to develop the perfect ecological city,” says Eriksson founder Patrick Eriksson, “which may be a utopia, but the closer we get it, the better it will be.” Its creators will settle for carbon emissions a third of those normally produced by a city its size.

On the far side of Beijing, the city of Langfang,  has hired the architects of international firm HOK and Australia’s Woods Bagot to retrofit it as an “eco-smart city” using a technique known as “biomimicry.” First settled 4,000 years ago, Langfang (population: 800,000) is caught between the converging megalopolises of Beijing and Tianjin. But it could be “the Sonoma of Beijing” according to Janine Benyus, a co-founder of the Montana-based Biomimicry Guild, which is also involved in creating Langfang 2.0. Benyus’ plan would create canals running throughout the city and a skyline mimicking the triple canopy of an old-growth forest, using hardwood veneers on buildings and fresh plantings of trees and ginseng below. “Langfang didn’t have a elegant entrance to the city, so we created one – a patchwork of forest and wetlands,” Benyus says. Highways will be replaced by streetcars connected to the city’s dominant feature–a station on the new Beijing-Shanghai high-speed rail line threatening to subsume it into the capital’s anonymous suburbs.

China’s biggest-ticket green city lies further east on the outskirts of Tianjin, Beijing’s grittier answer to Newark or Long Beach. As its tongue-twisting name implies, Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City,  is a joint venture between the two nations–an audacious effort to build the cleantech industry’s Silicon Valley, once again using an entire city as a laboratory. Slated to be larger than Pittsburgh or New Orleans on completion in 2020 (residents, mainly middle-class Chinese, are scheduled to begin moving in this year), the Eco-City will replace a brackish wasteland with a “Lifescape” and “Urbanscape” of terraced hills and high-rises, all comprised of swooping arabesques suggesting Zaha Hadid trying her hand at landscaping.

Like its nascent cousin Sino-Singapore Guangzhou Knowledge City,  (the planned home of 77,000 software developers due to open in 2015), the Eco-City’s actual goal is to write an instruction manual for bright, green cities any bureaucrat can follow. In Knowledge City’s case, this translates into an obsession with cities’ “software”–not the digital code humming beneath their screens, but the policies, practices, ways and means of building and managing one (assuming “quality of life” is something you can achieve by ticking the right boxes off a checklist.) Smart, green credentials aside, their purpose is help China’s cities look and feel a lot more like Singapore.

“Despite Singapore’s minuscule size, it’s the role model of the world’s largest state–China. And China’s not the only one,” says Parag Khanna, a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation and author of How to Run the World. “Every time diplomats from other cities travel to Singapore, they leave copying everything Singapore has done right,” whether it’s water, traffic or citizenship. “Many of Singapore’s ministries have set up consulting arms selling their own brands and services,” he adds. The city of the future, in other words, will be franchised.

The most ambitious instant city of all remains New Songdo, which aims to be the template for dozens to follow. Originally commissioned by Korea’s government to lure multinationals from Singapore and Hong Kong, Songdo is less of a Korean city than a Western one floating just offshore from Seoul. Eschewing the sci-fi trappings of Tianjin or Mentougou, Songdo’s architects at New York’s Kohn Pedersen Fox chose to cherry-pick the signatures of beloved cities and recycle them as building blocks. In practice, this means its streets and Central Park are modeled on Manhattan’s, its canal inspired by Venice, and its gardens borrowed from Savannah’s. (The golf course is courtesy of Jack Nicklaus.) This model has proved wildly popular with middle-class Koreans, who bought the first 1,600 apartments in a wild weekend scramble in May, 2005. Roughly a third of Songdo’s 65,000 envisioned residents now live there; the rest are expected to move in by 2017.

Songdo, too, is being touted as the greenest, most energy-efficient city in the world. All of its water and waste will be recycled and buildings will boast solar panels and sod on their roofs, specially glazed windows, and superefficient fixtures for efficient heating, cooling, and ventilation. It’s also meant to be “smart” in the sense that every square inch of the city will be wired with digital synapses–from the trunk lines running beneath the streets to the filaments branching through every wall and fixture. To what end? Stan Gale and his partners at Cisco Systems aren’t sure, but imagine if a city operated like an Apple iPhone–they would like to sell you the apps for everyday life.

Once again, it all comes back to the “software.” This is what Gale is referring to when he touts his city-in-a-box–a step-by-step guide to cloning Songdo using his architects’ plans and his partners’ products, run from the top down. Whether out of greed, prestige, or sheer necessity, instant city-builders of all stripes believe new cities should conform to Moore’s Law–faster, better, cheaper. Just as this mentality produced the high-speed rail crash that has shaken China’s faith in progress to its core, it has also produced a municipal debt bubble running into the trillions of dollars–nobody knows for sure. Will the desire to build the perfect city produce the perfect economic storm instead? “A major feature in all of these projects is that they start out with high hopes and goals, and then the money starts talking and we’re back to basics,” says Patrick Erkisson, one of the designers of Mentougou.

Even Songdo, which is widely perceived as the most successful of these instant cities, nearly sank under the weight of its financial burdens. “The third owner typically makes the profit on these projects,” says Gale, referring to the track records of mega-developments like Reston, Virginia, or The Woodlands, Texas. “I’m trying to buck that trend.”

Whether any of these projects will be as smart or as green as they promise remains to be seen, but their creators are convinced that the world needs a better model than the urban free-for-all of Shenzhen – “Less land, less energy, more recycling, and more reuse,” in the words of Ko Kheng Hwa, CEO of Singbridge, the Singaporean developers of Guangzhou Knowledge City. Building an instant city may sound crazy, but not as much as the alternative.

About Greg Lindsay

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Greg Lindsay is a generalist, urbanist, futurist, and speaker. He is a 2022-2023 urban tech fellow at Cornell Tech’s Jacobs Institute, where he leads The Metaverse Metropolis — a new initiative exploring the implications of augmented reality at urban scale. He is also a senior fellow of MIT’s Future Urban Collectives Lab, a senior advisor to Climate Alpha, and a non-resident senior fellow of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Strategy Initiative.

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