Decentralising Australian cities via high speed rail

I lived in China for over 10 years and saw the transformation of cities through the building high-speed rail connections. The first weekend of my time in China in 2005,  I took a K-Train to Suzhou(about 100kms from Shanghai) to see the gardens, and it took about 55-60 minutes on the train and we passed through a couple of other cities along which I think were Anting and Kunshan.

Move forward to 2008 when High-Speed Rail started D-Train (“Dongche”, 动车) in China at 250km/h (155mph) and then later in 2010 the new G-Train (“Ggaotie”高铁) that can reach 400km/h (280mph) when the same trip between Shanghai and Suzhou now takes 23-32 minutes cutting the time in half.   HSR has been so transformative that some air routes in China no longer exist.

The high-speed rail(HSR) has transformed China and has been used to create new cities and relieve the transport stresses placed on major cities by decentralising the population of cities. Whilst we still continue the same work paradigm of working in offices in Central Activity/Business Districts we will require people to travel into “downtown” in the morning and then leave and return to their homes in the cities. Whilst we all still ponder the possibility of autonomous vehicle travel we have to look toward solutions including decentralising populations from major cities. Melbourne and Sydney have both now sprawled over large areas with populations of over 4 million, the density is low although increasing over the last decade there is still major stress on the transport system.

The has been an ongoing discussion for the last 30 years of a high-speed rail line between Melbourne and Sydney due to the number of flights between the cities (one of the busiest in the world) and also due to the fact that they are the largest populations in Australia. However, this discussion often doesn’t go beyond expensive feasibility studies. I think that the premise of connecting the two biggest cities is the wrong discussion around high-speed rail infrastructure but in fact, the discussion should be focusing more on connecting regional cities (Geelong, Ballarat, Bendigo and Newcastle, Wollongong and the capital Canberra) to the main centres to decentralise the populations and increase business centres.

Through HSR we could see populations move and grow these regional centres with most populations being 70,000 to 400,000 people whilst the major cities have grown beyond 4 million.

For Melbourne, it would seem the best solution would be to first connect Geelong and Melbourne via Avalon Airport with a travel time of 18-24 minutes cutting the current travel time(1 hour) by over 60% and would connect Melbourne’s second airport to the city.

In Sydney, it would seem that connecting Canberra via the new airport at Baggerys Creek and Wooloongong would be the first route due to the amount of travel (car and air) that happens between the cities. Currently, the travel time is 4 hours 8 Minutes to travel 280-350km, which high-speed rail this could be cut to 1hr 30 – 1hr 45 based on two intermediate stops.

The financial benefits for regional cities are generated through increased population growth and tourism and reduced costs for major cities due to the reduction in the needs creating new housing and infrastructure.

Australian Governments have attempted to shift populations by moving departments or statutory authorities to regional cities, however, it is often hard to get people to relocate due to the distance from friends and family.

The issue with most planning studies and models we see from planners and architects show increased density in the central business district with higher towers. This is not the answer but will increase the current problems due to increase density and reduction in open space.

There are numerous issues around the current population growth in Melbourne and Sydney, each having grown by over 1 million people in the last decade, however, we constantly keep looking at the solution of increased density with new surburban rail stations on overcrowded lines as the silver bullet. However, there are numerous regional cities that have populations of less than 10% of major cities and by connecting these to the major business districts through rail and increasing the density of office buildings and mixed use in these centres rather than increasing residential populations through large towers.

These idea is only one of many but it is a large idea that could make the largest difference to Australia’s major cities.

China | more thought needed about urbanisation

Rapid urbanisation of millions of Chinese has occurred and will continue to occur over the next 25-30 years. There is a change in focus from mega-cities to smaller cities and towns as the country transitions from exports to consumerism based economy. What has changed in a urban design focus have to do with economy? In short, everything. China for the last 30 years has been focused on developing big cities and as we can see from the 10 mega cities developing in China that the increased density and hyper density are two different things. There is a limit to the a liveable population density and city size that can support without major environmental impact. Hyper-density is where we start to reaching over 5,000-10,000 people per square kilometre, once you get beyond this there is an environmental and sociological impact on the city. How do we change this?

The rural areas of China are being transformed into new cities, fast trains, inter-city roads and the push for urbanisation as a form of efficient way of providing work, housing, and food. But the question is the current model going to work – that is creating mega-cities (10+ million) and regional cities (5+ million) really the solution. They may be successful in terms of financial growth and GDP but fail in terms environment and liveability. Thankfully, it was announced recently that local officials will also have their success measured by level of pollution in their city. This is a step in the right-direction, however more could be undertaken for officials to be accountable for the liveability of the city.

Liveability includes not only GDP and housing, it includes access to services(health, education, transport), the amount and quality of green open space, pollution levels(air, water, soil). Green open space is on the increase but the quality of the space is often poor. With the spaces often large ‘beautiful green’ areas with little programming. They maybe successful from a environmental

I think China would benefit from allowing for more townisation rather than large urbanisation of rural areas. Building mega and smaller cities will in the long run create a shortfall in rural workers and continue the inefficient use of land with plot farming. Building towns with technical skill training centres in towns will allow for a smooth transition from small family plot farming to more efficient farming with higher quality, higher yield and high-revenue crops. More efficient land use is key to providing the fast growing middle class with the amount of food they will demand. Also changing land use and farming practices is one of the quickest ways to reduce pollution (air, water and soil).

Also hukou reform will occur over time and I see that the changes may occur in bigger cities first and then trickle down to 2nd, 3rd and 4th tier cities. I think that the biggest need is for a re-evaluation of how cities are created in China and whether mega-cities are the answer for the remaining 750 million chinese or is there hybrid model that can occur. I think the planning system would benefit from more flexibility and also more research and analysis of recent new cities.

Interesting things I read this week
China’s next chapter: The infrastructure and environmental challenge | McKinsey & Co
Urban planners eye China’s cities | People’s Daily
China to hold local leaders responsible for air quality | Channel News Asia
Hutong Vs. Highrise: A Photo Essay On China’s Radical Urban Changes | Gizmodo
Techno-utopias are wrapped up in their own visions of nature” | Dezeen

I have started reading China Greentech Report 2013: China at a Crossroads 中国绿色科技报告 2013:站在十字路口的中国 and will make a blog post later.

Response to Sean Chiao: Planning China’s megacities

Mega-cities are becoming a hot topic in China and academics & government seems to moving on from eco-city and low carbon city to mega-city. Recently Sean Chiao, the executive vice president of China for AECOM posted Planning China’s megacities on McKinsey stating that Mega-cities need to be planned, managed in an innovative way. Scott goes on to talk about rules and guidelines for cities.

For Chinese megacities to function properly, there must be clear state policies on how to build and run them, as well as strict audits to ensure that the laws are followed. Rules and guidelines on how to build a “green” infrastructure—from buildings, bridges, transport networks, and sanitation systems to power grids, incentives for consuming power efficiently, and disincentives for energy abuse and malpractice must be mandated and put into practice.

He also discusses that planning of mega-cities should be multi-disciplinary and that government and private sector need to work together due to the complexity of the planning a mega-city.

I agree mega-cities need multi-disciplinary teams to create, design and retrofit existing mega-cities and regulation is required to ensure that the design is implemented. The greatest area that needs to be addressed in urban planning in China is assessment and auditing of the implementation of urban plans in China. Assessment of the implementation of Conceptual Master Plans and DCMP’s is key to learning what has been successful and what has failed. Often in Urban Design Masterplans are implemented but the formal independent assessment needs to be improved – there is abundant anecdotal evidence and some reports from government but this information needs to be formally recorded and assessed to allow designers of future urban designs to be able to learn how to design a successful CBD, new area development, or revitalise an old city. Cities should be commissioning independent assessments and reports and then placing this information in a system platform that all government departments can access.

Regulation and guidelines are key to planning mega-cities but we can over-regulate thus stifling innovative and creative solutions for cities. Often regulations go too far by setting too many constraints such as colour palettes for architecture. If we over regulate we often end up with generic cities or monotonous superblock after superblock of the similar architecture with same colours. Regulations and guidelines have their place in urban planning but they need to be used with utmost care.

Mega-cities are a good solution to creating energy efficient and productive cities but we need to ensure that the social aspect of these cities is catered for through urban parks, urban plazas, pedestrian streets, and forests with varying scale of developments with enough community and social services to cater for the people of a mega-city. Providing spaces for social interaction is just as important to a city as providing energy efficient buildings, integrated transport systems, and green infrastructure. Cities are merely buildings and roads without people.

What does a landscape architect do?

Landscape Architects design outdoor spaces (and sometimes indoors) from small gardens to large highways and they play an important role in every city in shaping its spaces. Landscape architects can formulate city policy, undertake an environmental impact assessment, create a masterplan for a natural area or heritage area or a new city, design plazas, malls, streetscapes, parks most landscapes that you see will have some design input from a landscape architect. Landscape Architects work with many other design professionals including urban planners, urban designers, architects, engineers, horticulturalists, arborists, surveryors, heritage consultants, construction managers, construction workers, artists, designers, lighting consultants and many more.

Most Landscape architects spend many hours in the office thinking about concepts and formulating ideas with some field work during site inventory and also during construction.

Landscape architects who focus on design concentrate their design skills on the arrangement and style of the space including the paving, planting, furniture, structures, water features, drainage, land forms, roads, signage(ci), and lighting.

Landscape Architects not only design they work in many other areas and specialisations including planning, park management, construction management, research, heritage or environmental conservation and many more.

Low carbon cities are the way of the future for China

The Low carbon city has become a popular topic in recent times and is an important concept and idea for urban design. Developing low carbon cities is important as energy use, economy and environment are all connected and determine the prosperity of a city.

A low-carbon city is more complex than using alternative energy such as solar and wind but also requires designing a city efficiently to maximise the energy used. Cities can design cities to be efficient with appropriate land use, integrate transport system, efficient electricity and water use, using locally produced food and construction materials and integrated project management to reduce waste and rebuilding. To become a low carbon a city needs to integrate sustainable design and construction techniques for urban design, architecture and landscape architecture into their master planning process.

With new cities being planned in China for the next 20 years, China has the opportunity of developing and using the latest theories and techniques in low carbon and eco-cities to become the world leader in urban design. By developing and using efficient sustainable design for infrastructure, architecture, and urban design China can create liveable cities that will become the example for the world.

Research & Education is fundamental in implementing low-carbon cities. Universities need to lead research and development of low carbon city design with the best techniques made available to its students and also to the public through professors presenting at conferences. The theory and findings of research are only useful if it is put into practice in the real world.