In Europe the relevant issues are largely connected to the redevelopment of the existing historic cities. This might explain why the wave of large metropolises being built in Asia feels like an exotic but nevertheless irrelevant issue to ‘us’. But is it really? There are many reasons why we should pay a close watch and maybe even get involved.
Actually, the West is already involved. With many of the new cities under development in Asia having been initiated and/or designed by Western architects and engineering firms, it seems like Western planning become endemic in the East, just like so many other technologies originating in the West. Looking at the abundance of high-rise buildings and the fixation on car-based mobility, these cities even bear an uncanny resemblance to typical modernist planning of the 1960s.
But how these cities are being planned and built is a far cry from the way this happened in Western Europe, where New Towns were initiated, organized, and financed by (national) governments. Part of a large scale spatial policy, these new Towns were planned and produced where government, institutes, and organizations met one another. These diverse parties cooperated on the basis of a consensus on economic growth, modernization, emancipation and the equal distribution of knowledge and income.
In the present generation of new cities in Asia the government role has, to a large degree, been taken over by private parties, mainly large multinational enterprises. A similar structure of cooperation, embedded in society and deploying long-term social agendas, is lacking in most of the countries of Asia when it comes to building and spatial planning.
With astonishing figures of GDP growth and a corresponding rate of urbanization, there is clearly a strong connection between the accelerating prosperity and the increasing amount of planned New Towns in Asia. It is especially the rising middle and upper classes who are witnessing an exponential rise in living standards and who are able to move to the New Towns. Here they find either the real estate they wish to invest in for reasons of speculation, or the quiet and safe living environment they prefer to the hustle and bustle of the metropolis. The New Town offers those who can afford it a suburban safe haven to retreat from big city problems. This is something that is hard to understand -let alone appreciate- for western critics.
So: what could the West learn from these Asian new cities, which are so very different from what we know? Let’s have a closer look at a few cities with characteristic features, which provide interesting experiments in the field of economy, governance and technology.
The use of smart grids and technology is best exemplified by the Korean city New Songdo, developed and financed by American developer Stan Gale. He coined his product ‘City in a Box’, taking standardization to the next level by putting the whole city on the market as a profitable, standardized product. Working with companies like Cisco, the city will be one of the first in which residential, medical, educational and business information systems are linked. The ‘total connectivity’ makes governance more efficient and aims to provide its residents with a comfortable and convenient lifestyle. Though highly criticized because of privacy issues and the abundance of (possibly oppressive) control, the city is being marketing with its ubiquitous IT possibilities to attract businesses and investment. The sustainability ambitions are taking shape in green spaces, bicycle lanes, metro lines, bus services, and a charging network for electric vehicles.
Also the Indian city of Lavasa is a completely privately developed, suburban city, which has grown into a hugely popular retreat for the growing middle classes from nearby Pune. The project meets the market demand of middle class families, attracted by safety, a picturesque setting, clean streets and a coherent architectural character.
The developer organizes all public services; even the road connecting the city to Pune was built (and is now owned) by the Lavasa Corporation itself, redefining the roles between government and developer. By providing reliable infrastructure, Lavasa is offering a quality of life unusual in India. It thereby poses an alternative to the many township developments in India built and finished before they are even connected to a road, power grid or water system, like Gurgaon.
Lavasa is based on an innovative, profitable business model, in which the corporation is partnering in more than fifty joint venture companies (low and high tech), which are service providers in Lavasa.
Reforming governance was the main challenge in realizing this city. In terms of governance and service delivery, Indian cities score poorly. Lavasa wants to become a (Indian) prototype of how a city for all income levels can be built. It is reinventing a governance model based on best practices from around the world.
On the level of the developers, the new phenomenon is that the design, planning, and construction of a whole new city can be a profitable business. For the first time in history, the city can be considered a commercial product. And this tendency of privately developed cities is not limited to Asia; it is also invading Western Europe, where -partly due to the crisis-, government resources are steadily diminishing.
In London the building of Strand East is being built with investments by Inter IKEA, putting the capital of the furniture multinational to use in the redevelopment of an urban area, which will in its outcome still be very close to the urban models we are familiar with: it is inclusive, diverse and small scale. But also this urban area will be innovative in the way it is managed and in the way IKEA takes a long term and wide ranging interest and responsibility for Strand East.
Another example is the future city PlanIT Valley in Portugal; a novel concept especially in its financial construction, organizational model, and design. The fundament of the city is its IT infrastructure developed by the initiating company Living PlanIT, an operating system managing every single aspect of city life. But also the business model is innovative: hundreds –and eventually thousands- of partners will be involved in an ‘integrated ecosystem’, based on the IT platform owned by Living PlanIT, which is licensed to business partners.
City leaders: players or referee?
One thing is for certain: at this moment in time, Western European cities will need to find new organizational and financial models and there is dire need for innovation. But: organizing and financing are not goals in themselves, but a means to an end. In what kind of urban society do we want to live, what are our priorities and our ambitions? How can we enhance city life? How can we make a better future? How can we safeguard public interest in the long term? How can we create dynamic strategies that are resilient enough to deal with uncertainty and clear enough for instant action, participation and results? Here is a very clear and obvious call to order to city leaders.
The new Asian cities can perhaps offer examples because in these greenfield developments experiments and innovation find a fertile soil such as new technologies in transport, infrastructure and communication, and solutions for a sustainable city. Also these cities are laboratories to invent new financing strategies, ways to increase the investment rate, and new partnerships in urban planning, development and governance.
Now that we find ourselves in the middle of the urban age, traditional ways of developing the city have diminished. Private parties play a more significant role than ever. But in the necessary remaking of the relationship between the government and the market it is of crucial importance not to confuse the roles of the player and the referee. Being business and investment friendly does not obliterate the fact that private and public parties have different roles and responsibilities. While cities are becoming more and more proactive in stimulating growth and investments, now is the time to become more rather than less proactive in thinking about the essential qualities of urban life. Pragmatism and market awareness, much needed in the present-day crisis do not rule out the need for city leaders to be visionary and inspiring; to anticipate on other factors, that may look like luxury now but will in the long run determine the attractiveness and competitiveness of a city. Identity and reputation are not only impotant to attract business and investment, but also to sustain its quality of life and local specificity. The city’s urban culture, mentality, inclusiveness, diversity, flexibility, social equality, resilience, the quality of life for its citizens have all proven to be essential elements of our western cities in succeeding or failing.
What is the role that city leaders should adopt? A strong vision is needed. Not only financially or economically. But what will be the quality and value of our cities in the long run? And how will they be governed? Is efficiency and control the highest goal we’re striving for? Or do we also want an inclusive, flexible, diverse and dynamic society mirrored in our cities? These are questions that city leaders need to be addressing now more than ever.