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The New Urban Planning: Look Upward, not Outward

Super tall buildings like Gensler's Shanghai Tower, which is currently under construction, can help urban planners think in vertical terms instead of horizontal ones.

I like to think of myself as a nomadic architect. I've travelled around Asia for almost 30 years, doing work in many different countries and emerging markets, and learning more than I ever could have anticipated.

The most striking change that I’ve observed from my experiences abroad is a highly accelerated demand for urban living that has fueled the design and creation of new cities. In countries such as China, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Malaysia, large segments of the population that have traditionally made their homes in rural areas are flocking to cities in seek of jobs. This has serious repercussions for how we think about urban planning.

Consider what’s happening in China alone. From 2000 to 2010, 250 million people moved from rural areas to urban ones. That number is set to exponentially increase over the next two decades. China’s government understands that its citizens are moving to cities, and they are building cities from the ground up to meet these demands. By 2025, China will have erected enough skyscrapers to fill 10 cities the size of New York.

What’s troubling is that too many emerging cities in China and other parts of the world are adhering to an outdated urban planning model that will ultimately prove to be unsustainable. This model involves building a concentrated urban area in which all the amenities traditionally associated with cities are located, and surrounding it with mega-suburbs for people to live in. It puts too much distance between the people and the downtown area. It requires workers to commute through dense traffic. It puts a strain on the environment. In 2010, Beijing added 1 million automobiles to the road as more people became reliant on cars to get where they need to be. Think about what all those carbon emissions are doing to the environment. Something has to change.

The problem with the current paradigm for urban planning is that we think about cities in horizontal terms rather than vertical ones. We over utilize land and underutilize the vertical space that sustainable tall buildings create. We now have the ability to build cities that will better integrate buildings with each other, conserve resources, and house office space, parks, and other amenities in the same place. We need to think about the designing and planning of cities from an entirely new perspective.

I recently spoke about this problem and its ramifications at a TEDx event at Connecticut College. The video of my talk is below. It begins to simply touch the surface in terms of designing cities from a vertical perspective It begins illustrates how a focus on horizontal design is limiting the potential of our urban environments, and explains why the only way to change this is to stop looking forward and to start looking up.

Dan Winey is a member of Gensler’s Board of Directors and the Regional Managing Principal of our Northwest region. Our offices in Shanghai and Beijing were launched under Dan’s purview, and he’s been a key member of our Shanghai Tower team from initial project win through construction. Contact him at dan_winey@gensler.com.

Reader Comments (2)

Great talk and inspiring building!
09.14.2012 | Unregistered CommenterElisa Garcia
Dan, great read and talk about the thinking on the "z" axis!
09.17.2012 | Unregistered Commenterdoug wittnebel

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