Thursday, July 21, 2011

Shenzhen Urban Design Projects

Guangdong Province, China



Near the end of my tenure there, Shenzhen University "farmed me out" to consultation with a private design firm, Austin Landscape Architects. This relationship offered an opportunity to collaborate on projects that were most appealing to me: the redevelopment of the shabby urban core of Shenzhen. On my very first visit to the city, I was appalled by the stench from the Buji River: where any other city would embrace such a natural asset, Shenzhen had walled it off as an open sewer. Somebody should really do something about this, I thought. This was an opportunity...

I agreed to participate on one condition: that we offer no timid response to the problems. "Make no little plans" has long been my mantra (lifted from Daniel Burnham) and this was the time to put it into practice. I had found that most fresh thinking in China "dies in committee" and never gets presented to a client: the immediate refrain to an unexpected solution is "bu keyi!" ("you can't do that!"). My new collaborators promised that my ideas would get a fair hearing.

Our first effort was for the development of Book City Park, a potential urban centerpiece:





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The principals of Austin Design held their breath as we presented this thinking to the client, the City Government Planning Director (along with the fall-back conventional solution that they insisted upon preparing). To their amazement, the Director responded with great enthusiasm: he commended us for thinking "outside of the box" and beyond the property line, for considering the potential "big picture", and instructed us to proceed with our "fresh thinking".

Our second presentation was a Schematic Plan for the area:




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The Director chose to broadcast this presentation to representatives from relevant departments; he instructed us to meet with those responsible for subway construction, streets and traffic, and the owners of the surrounding buildings, and to coordinate our efforts. Such incremental design is rare in China: urban design solutions normally emanate from the top, in slick generic renderings and photoshopped scenes of unrestrained urban bliss. We were instructed to proceed on the step-by-step course we had established...




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On a parallel track, we were instructed explore the possibilities for redevelopment along the Buji River:







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Work on these projects continued as I made a short trip back to the States. On my return I learned that Book City Park had been submitted for government review. The only problem was I no longer recognized the project from what had been submitted for review...





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Long story short: the changes were never rectified, I ended my association with Austin Design.

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