rimary responsibility for planning the Xiongan New Area, a new megacity in Hebei Province, about 100 kilometers southwest of downtown Beijing, falls to the China Academy of Urban Planning and Design (CAUPD), which sits under the Ministry of Construction.
Former CAUPD director Li Xiaojiang, also a member of the advisory committee on the collaborative development of Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei (known as the Jing-Jin-Ji project), heads quality control for the zone’s development. In the 1980s, Li worked at the institute’s branch in the city of Shenzhen, where he witnessed first-hand the development of Xiongan’s most recognizable historical analog.
Li, who started the preliminary work for Xiongan New Area before plans were officially announced, says the project will be a historically significant model for rapid, high-quality urban planning and construction elsewhere in China. NewsChina spoke exclusively to Li to get an insight into the urban planning process, recent developments, local environmental protection, as well as the challenges it faces.
NewsChina: When did the urban planning work for Xiongan New Area commence?
Li Xiaojiang: Xiongan New Area was first proposed as a way to phase out some of the non-capital functions of Beijing during a meeting of the Politburo Standing Committee chaired by President Xi Jinping on March 24, 2016. The next day, I was told to begin preliminary urban planning work. I asked several young scholars to collect information on the area, as well as the development history of Shenzhen, before making a technical analysis.
CAUPD led the urban planning of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone in the early 1980s. The Politburo officially approved the decision to build Xiongan New Area on March 27, 2016. The area’s urban planning began internally two months later. All the information remained internal, and our team made a two-day field trip to Xiongan to study its geothermal environment.
NC: What did the area’s urban planning work involve?
LXJ: In August 2016 we organized a large-scale meeting of senior experts from the advisory committee and related agencies, along with senior officials from Hebei Province. The main work was grouped into two parts: the general plan – and the protection of Baiyangdian Lake, one of North China’s largest freshwater wetlands.
In April 2017, work was divided into 22 areas, including construction standards, environmental protection and transport. In June, the detailed urban design of an initial 30-square-kilometer area was opened for global bidding. To date, we have selected 12 agencies from nearly 300, and three agencies will eventually be shortlisted.
NC: Can you update us on the latest developments?
LXJ: Progress has advanced steadily and the planning agencies involved hope to release a general plan soon. Haste makes waste and we have to study everything carefully before construction begins, given Xiongan New Area will, as President Xi Jinping said, be of national significance and crucial for the millennium to come.
NC: The proximity to Baiyangdian Lake has been described as a main reason for the choice of location. What challenges will it create from an urban planning perspective?
LXJ: We know that a new town should never be built on a seriously polluted lake, so some have doubted the logic of building a new town near Baiyangdian. But in my opinion, if we can get pollution there under control, it will be a major achievement. It will be difficult, and it will take a long time to repair the ecosystem.
Other critics say it is virtually impossible to build a new town with a population of more than 10 million in an area of 2,000 square kilometers. The central government is acting cautiously, and the new area will cover roughly 100 square kilometers initially, and expand to 200 square km in the medium term and to 2,000 square km in the long run. By moving gradually, it is unlikely there will be an additional burden on Baiyangdian and the entire zone.
NC: And the villagers that already live in Baiyangdian? Will they stay or relocate?
LXJ: There are villages scattered around the lake and on its banks and some residents even have to take boats to get around. These villages are a significant source of pollution, and some of them are quite big, which will make relocating them very complex.
Regardless of whether or not the villages are relocated, the villagers will have to change their way of living. First, sewage and other pollution have to be reined in. Second, fishing and the aquaculture industry will need to be phased out. The goal is clear – reducing the ecological burden.
NC: President Xi Jinping has called for “world vision, international standards, Chinese characteristics and high goals” in the planning and construction of Xiongan New Area. What does that mean on the ground?
LXJ: “Global vision” and “international standards” mean that we will bring in advanced overseas layout concepts and invite top international teams to join.
Many overseas city-planning agencies have participated in international bidding. We hope they will offer specific plans and advice. The city construction process in Xiongan is open and inclusive and it could never be a replica of Paris or London. “Chinese characteristics” and “high goals” mean that the area will become a demonstration area for innovative development, and that the bulk of the urban planning teams will be Chinese.
NC: What will be the main architectural features in Xiongan?
LXJ: The majority will be multi-story constructions rather than high-rises. The drawbacks of high-rise living are becoming increasingly obvious, particularly in maintenance, repair and fire control. High-rise buildings will turn out to be a serious social burden for China in the future.
NC: What can Xiongan learn from the experience of Shenzhen?
LXJ: The most crucial element in building any new town is flexibility. When Shenzhen was constructed almost 40 years ago, there were fewer than 100,000 local residents. Back then, our layout concept was that the infrastructure would serve 1.2 million people and its transportation would serve 1.8 million people, in a bid to leave more room for urban expansion. We divided the city into several functional zones, including industrial regions, residential areas and centers of public infrastructure.
At that time, we could never have foreseen that Shenzhen would develop into a city of more than 10 million. Even as the population exploded over the years, the city remained in good shape without noticeable issues. It is anyone’s guess whether Xiongan will reach a population of five million, and we will stick to a balanced and inclusive development strategy to leave enough room for the city to grow.
NC: In comparison with many cities, Xiongan is virtually a blank slate. Does that make planning more or less difficult?
LXJ: More challenging, in my opinion. In most cities the infrastructure is already there, and our job is to optimize things. In Xiongan, we must start from scratch. But it’s also a rare opportunity. It has the potential to be a model for future urban planning, offering a new paradigm and unique opportunities to experiment. The process, however, will take arduous effort. We can use advanced technology to bring the most advanced concepts to life. But the construction process will be complex, filled with a lot of uncertainty.
NC: Xiongan aims to be a city renowned for residential comfort. How will it overcome the urban issues common to many big cities?
LXJ: Unlike Beijing, Xiongan will have multiple functional areas. Over the years, the singular functions of many of China’s big cities have caused what we call a ‘growth conundrum.’ Large residential communities in northern Beijing such as Huilongguan and Tiantongyuan, also known as ‘sleeper cities,’ are very far from industrial centers, meaning residents have to spend several hours commuting each day.
By laying out Xiongan in a way that reduces time spent on things other than working and living, we can meet the basic needs of residents more effectively.
NC: Xiongan will give priority to innovative high-end and high-tech industries. How will you attract talent?
LXJ: Innovation is dependent on talent and the new area has great potential to become a model economic zone driven by reform and innovation. In a survey of high-end workers who have studied overseas, we found they prefer to spend five minutes commuting to work, 10 minutes to send their children to school, but two hours in the gym.
Many industrial parks nowadays boast big square, wide roads and high-rise buildings, but young talented workers aren’t really interested in those things. What they care about most, besides work and their salaries, are the standard of living and public services; whether their children have access to a good education, and their parents can come to live with them. My ideal models of urban planning are the areas of Shekou and Nanshan in the city of Shenzhen, which are merely one or two square kilometers in area, but are famed for combining convenience, livability and sound public services, which have quickly become a magnet for talent.