When cities redesign traffic-clogged highways, they often make them wider—despite the fact that tends to make traffic even worse. In Shenzhen, China, a team of designers thinks the best way to modernize a 12-lane highway is to shrink it instead, and rethink how highways work.
"We believe, in the future, cars won't be operating the way they are now," says Vicky Chan, director of Avoid Obvious Architects, which partnered with Tetra Architects and Planners and BCCI on the proposed design. "With drones and driverless cars, we think that we'll be able to drive faster, and have fewer cars if we share. I think the concept of having a 12-lane highway is just irrelevant."
In the design, two four-lane roads are enclosed in tubes to control pollution. By elevating the road, the eastern and western sides of the city can be reconnected; right now, the G107 highway stretches longer than the length of Manhattan, splitting the city's Bao'an District in two parts.
Under the proposed elevated highway, the designers envision green spaces and pod-like coworking offices. With the road enclosed, the theory is that the spaces will be clean enough that people want to use them again. The design also includes channels that can collect water, helping solve the city's water management problem.
"They built the city very quickly," says Chan. "If you look at aerial photos from the 1990s, it's all farms—it took just 30 years to do it. After all this crazy construction, they realized, oops, we built too many buildings, and they don't have enough water treatment plants."
The current water treatment plants are 40% overloaded, leading to pollution in the city's canals. The highway design separates industrial, residential, and commercial wastewater, and filters some of it back into groundwater. "We think since they're doing this massive construction, they can tackle these two things together," he says.
The highway is designed to wind back and forth around buildings, making room for green spaces and giving pedestrians access to new bus and subway stations. Above the road, the designers propose creating the first drone highway.
"One way to reduce traffic, besides driverless vehicles, is to actually change the whole transportation mode altogether in terms of delivery," he says. Currently, much of the traffic on the highway is trucks making deliveries. The designers think that drones could replace many of the trucks. Shenzhen is already home to two major drone manufacturers.
The city is still considering the proposal, which was submitted as part of a competition. If the idea moves forward, it will also need to go through a process of community review. But the designers are hoping that it becomes a model for other cities in China.
"When we work with different cities in China, they told us that they think a 12-lane highway is the symbol of development, the symbol of a developed country," says Chan. "They thought, a lot of cars and buildings, that's great. That concept has to change if they want to be green and sustainable. I think our proposal of changing the whole image and function of a highway is fundamental for the future of China."
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[Renderings: Avoid Obvious Architects + Tetra Architecture & Planners]