From Tinajin Eco-city to Nanjing and Beijing…
I traveled from Tianjin to Beijing to Nanjing and the morning the day after I’d arrived in Nanjing the headline in the China Daily News proclaimed “Beijing’s Traffic Slows to a Crawl.” It was good timing in that later in the morning I made a presentation to the chief city government planners of an enormous new development on the West side of Nanjing, far side of the Yangtze River, and I quickly added the image you see here, with headline, to my presentation.
The fact is that the number of cars in Beijing increases by about 8% a year and at that rate the photograph could be taken in just two or three years of a record very light day of traffic. As they are building massive development in China, though dense, the pattern is also largely designed around the demands of cars, a real disaster seems to be very close to freezing up the entire city.
Out my hotel window on another day, this time in Beijing, I noticed an enormous structure rising over the adjacent intersection. Traffic was so intense the entire surface of the intersection had been given over to cars, buses, trucks and scurrying little motorcycles and bicycles. All the pedestrians had to climb up and over the intersection on this table-like structure with stairs and a hole in the middle to connect perpendicularly across a street or diagonally across the intersection. Needless to say, there was no wheelchair access. Later I was picked up by my hosts from C&P Architects, our design and planning partners in China, who we are working with in both Beijing and Nanjing and I counted eight blocks of driving down the street that ran in front of the hotel and under such crosswalks with no opportunity for pedestrians to cross anywhere except by climbing up and over the motorized barely controlled chaos.
But… the opportunities for redesign, and after that on another nearby site completely fresh design from the land use patterns on up look promising in Nanjing. I was shown a model of a project involving dozens of buildings over several hundred acres. Though it was immediately evident that major commitments had been made to the usual super-sized blocks of big buildings it was also evident that a smaller area of several blocks could be carved out of the scheme for a powerful ecocity fractal. One site was especially tempting: the point where two major canals branching off the Yangtze split from one, a kind of reverse confluence. It could be a good location for what we call an ecocity “fractal,” a fraction of the whole with the essential parts of the ecocity present and well organized in miniature in just a few blocks. The big river itself is just a block’s width to one side of the interesting water course feature. The tentative layout showed in model and drawings the placement of a tall building right on the peninsula-like point of the confluence, or reverse confluence as it would more accurately be characterized, a small marina on one of the two side canals about a block from the peninsula tip of the land at the point where the three waters focused. Along one side of the development area an automobile stuffed boulevard ran and then spanned over the point of the peninsula, covering it in asphalt, and landing on the bank on the other side of one of the canals, continuing up stream along the shoreline, a daunting barrier to crossing from the town to the water’s edge.
To me the better solution by far would be to place their large building a block or two back from the point of land between the canals and integrate it into the back or side of a keyhole plaza with its open side to the point where the waters of the canals diverge. Other high density and very mixed use buildings would surround the back and sides of the plaza, looking out and over the waterways at a natural vegetation and habitat fringe of the canals, perhaps with orchards and/or various plaza arts and design elements but not the alternately careening and clogged highway right there fuming and making loud noises while completely obscuring the water and landscape that could be a restored natural feature. That, the highway, I my design, would pass north of the ecocity fractal development area including the keyhole plaza and cross the river upstream from the truly “eco-“ development. For several blocks just above the confluence, and all the way to the point, naturally, would be strictly pedestrian, serviced by bicycle and transit. I counseled all the bells and whistles, which are not frivolities at all but what would make the project the genuinely complete living organism that an ecocity fractal or whole ecotown or ecocity should be. All those features contribute essentially: accessibility to rooftops and terracing, pedestrian bridges for intimate pedestrian accessibility, gardens up there on the buildings, both native plants and orchards, restaurants, cafes and other places of pleasure with spectacular views, exterior glass elevators as part of the vertical pedestrian transportation system and facilities to make convenient, even celebrate the bicycle and transit connections. It is apparently a hot place for about half the year, so shade structures might be a good idea and yet at the same time the articulation of solar greenhouse to be tapped into for heat in the winter and plants year round. The small sheltered marina? Definitely – people love watching boats wander the waters, and taking advantage of the opportunity to be on them once in a while.
There was a basic principle here in addition to creating a full-on design for people, not cars, and that has to do with the principle of honoring both culture and nature simultaneously. The (I have to say) reflexive design offering of placing the most iconic building right on top of the most precious natural/ecological feature, the point where the canals join, with a highway jumping right over the river there and dominating the view with yet more cars, is a cultural conceit blind to nature. The product of culture, the big, fancy building gets all the attention and the key point of the people-centric design. Where is nature in this design? We can’t see it. Instead we look down from the tall building, far removed from the ground at the traffic below or at the building if we are anywhere else, missing the poetry of the beautiful location completely.
Enough on all that, but I’ll include here a photograph of a keyhole plaza in the city of Pira in Slovenia. Imagine the basic arrangement – in the Pira case looking out over the Adriatic Sea, in Nanjing’s case toward the canals that connect with the grand Yangteze River.
One last item of note. I’ve been advocating the idea of a World Ecocity University since about 2002 and even came up with the idea on an early trip to China. The latest trip was my 16th by the way… Mr. Lan Jian, head of the office for C&P Architects at Beijing thinks the idea has enormous potential. Maybe that project too!
So it all does make me wonder if the inertia, the mental blockage that clogs up the imagination about what ecocities might be might burst away any day now releasing the flood of ecocity advance. Both the negative and the positive are strengthening – when will the bolt of lightning span the gap in a flash of enlightenment? Ah-hah! So this is the ecocity future.
Richard Register is Founder and President of Ecocity Builders and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org