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In China, New Sustainable Cities Are Rising From Nothing

China is planning a building explosion of dense, sustainable suburbs, connected to its megacities by public transit. Can these "prototype cities" alter the course of the country’s unsustainable development?

In 1902, a self-taught urban planner named Ebenezer Howard published his utopian vision for "Garden Cities"self-contained circular towns radiating from a central city, connected only by train. Neither town nor country, they were a dense, compact fusion of the two: suburbia without sprawl.

Although Garden Cities never really caught on in the West, the Chicago-based Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture has resurrected the idea with Chinese characteristics: a "prototype city" twice as populous and 20 times as dense, with a tower taller than the Empire State Building at its core. Working with one of China’s largest real estate developers, the firm aims to build them by the score.

© Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture/

The first is slated for a patch of farmland roughly 10 miles from the core of Chengdu, China’s westernmost mega-city. Designed according to the specifications of Beijing Vantone Real Estate Co., the master plan calls for 80,000 residents to live and work within a half-square mile circle in which any point will be at most a 15-minute walk away.

To achieve that level of density—which is comparable to the Chicago Loop—"the average height of the buildings would have to be 18 stories," says Adrian Smith. But to preserve a 480-acre greenbelt around the city, and to mollify officials anxious about developers chewing up so much farmland, the plans call for towers as high as 400 meters (1,312 feet), taller than anything in Chengdu itself. (At least until AS+GG complete their commission for a separate 450-meter tower downtown.)

Trains and mass transit will connect the satellite city to Chengdu’s core as part of the firm’s plans to restrict cars and dramatically reduce the city’s carbon footprint. With the help of infrastructure consultants Mott McDonald, the city will deploy a raft of tactics and technologies to holistically address waste, water, and energy in a manner designed cut landfill by 89%, wastewater by 58%, and energy by 48% compared to a typical Chinese city its size—which is good, because Vantone plans to sell at least one to every mega-city in China.

© Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture

As Smith tells it, his partners at Vantone settled on the parameters of their neo-Garden City even before they found a site. "They were looking outside Beijing as well," says Smith," but the first [city] that said ‘let’s do this’ was Chengdu."

"The old Ebenezer Howard satellite city concept never happened much in Europe, but with the growth and control that exists in China, it’s possible," Smith adds. "It’s what, 80,000 people? That’s not huge. You’d need 12 to get to a million people."

Vantone and AS+GG aren’t the first to propose a bright green protoype for China’s mega-urbanization. Not content to design entire cities-from-scratch, a raft of foreign architects, developers, and even sovereign governments are offering their projects as templates. Maybe the most famous is Songdo, the "city-in-a-box" designed by the architects Kohn Pedersen Fox on behalf of American developers Gale International. Plans to build as many as 20 sequels across China are on hold, although one is proceeding outside the provincial capital of Changsha without Gale’s involvement.

AS+GG’s Smith is looking even further abroad. "We think it makes sense not just for China, but for India as well," he says. "Since India has no infrastructure to speak of," or at least not enough to double the densities of its already mind-bendingly populous centers, "you have to build out from the city’s core." Ebenezer Howard would be proud.

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  • Eric Tan

    All I can say is, Good Luck!  In China, the phrase "if you build it, they will come" doesn't really work.  There are thousands of new property developments all over China that are modern and well designed, but also empty of tenants and with shopping arcades that have no shops.  Are these designs aimed at housing the new middle class?  In Chengdu?  Okay....

  • Erica Gutiérrez

    Great article on the new (garden) cites phenomenon in China. But what do you mean the Garden Cities movement didn't catch on in the West?  We've certainly got amazing examples of garden cities built in the U.S. including Sunnyside Village in Queens, NY & Radburn in NJ. Even as far west as California, we have Baldwin Hills Village, and many more, Park La Brea, for example. Howard's ideas did spread to the west throughout the early to mid-20th century, though perhaps imperfectly, and maybe not as robustly as we are now seeing them unfold in places like China over a century later.

  • Ruud van Winden

    It is interesting to see cars depicted in the multilevel cut through however not a single road (or underground) on the other pictures. What are the cars doing there? A hint that roads are coming later anyway?

  • Shaun Smakal

    Sooo... Basically what you're saying is that there's absolutely nothing--from the economic and developmental framework it's based upon to the built form to the infrastructure to the way that it's built and lived in--that's actually sustainable about any of these developments? There's nothing in the pictures or content that support any claim of sustainability.

    Maybe I missed the part where there's it generates all its own power, supplies its own food, and uses only locally available materials to build.

  • Pradocaj

    It's like all the most obvious problems of being sustainable were ignored. Hopefully the project leaders did consider that and the person who wrote this just assumed all that. :D