2 July 2016 – by Paul Yandall
Forty miles southwest of Seoul, Songdo International Business District sits like a sated siren.
Built on land reclaimed from the tidal marshes of South Korea’s north west coast, the city, its glass towers now glistening in the sunlight, was designed to lure new residents and businesses with an irresistible mix of high technology and eco-living. It aims to become nothing less than the world’s first truly smart city.
Now, eight years since ground first broke on Songdo’s construction, it is almost three-quarters complete. It has around 70,000 residents and the $40bn, 1500-acre development looks to be making good progress on meeting that lofty ambition.
But it didn’t start off that way.
In a world where rocketing population figures, housing shortages and urbanisation are rife, new cities have been billed by many as one solution to the problem – particularly in China where there is the space to build whole new settlements without much of a second thought.
But tales of resulting, uninhabited ghost towns are commonplace – evidence that, unless done right and meticulously planned, the success of new cities is by no means a forgone conclusion.
So how exactly did Songdo turn its fortunes around after a rocky start? And what lessons can be learned to avoid costly mistakes in the future?
Planning for success
Planning for the super high-tech Songdo development, which is majority owned by New York developer Gale International, began 15 years ago in 2001 with construction beginning in 2004. The first residential schemes were completed in 2009.
In the years that followed, it endured the indignity of having its near-empty streets sniggered at by critics lining up to question whether the city was really so smart after all. What use was a sophisticated pneumatic refuse system that sucked rubbish directly from your kitchen if there was nobody around to peel potatoes?
Then, in 2014, everything started to change thanks to the opening of three foreign university campuses.
“After more than 15 years of planning and development, we are just now seeing the social fabric truly mesh with the built environment,” says Stan Gale, chairman and chief executive of Gale International.
Global Real Estate link button“A variety of factors played into Songdo hitting its stride and achieving a ‘critical mass’ of residents and urban activity. Certainly having more than 25,000 university students is helpful.”
But if these students have proven to be such a vital ingredient to the success of the city, why were they not there when the city was ready to take residents in 2009? “It is simply not possible to build everything simultaneously, much less in a ‘perfect’ order,” says Gale.
The scheme focused first on its large public facilities, such as the 100-acre Central Park and the 781,000 sq ft Convensia Convention Center. The residential element was another primary focus with funds from sales used to back commercial development.
“Timing is important, yes,” says Gale. “But so is patience, a financing plan that enables construction to proceed in a phased approach, and a strong belief that you are putting the right pieces in place.”
One size fits all?
For Songdo, the student cohort was the spark that helped bring the city to life. But every new city is different and a strong education offering alone is no guarantee of success.
On the south-eastern edge of Egypt’s Cairo, New Cairo started coming out of the ground a decade ago. Spread across a vast 70,000 acres, the plan was to create a wealthy, sustainable city of more than 4m residents to help relieve pressure on old Cairo’s straining infrastructure.
It houses numerous educational institutes including The American University in Cairo’s new campus, the German University in Cairo, Future University in Egypt and the Canadian International College. Yet, to date, only a few hundred thousand people have moved to New Cairo.
“They can’t get many people to live there because your average Egyptian just can’t afford to,” says David Sims, an urban planner based in Cairo and the author of Egypt’s Desert Dreams: Development or Disaster?
Poor planning, a lack of investment, and a development process hijacked by politics have contributed to the faltering development of around 23 new towns across Egypt, says Sims.
“There’s a complete disconnect,” he says. “They build public housing but it remains largely vacant because the average Egyptian doesn’t have a car to travel from these new towns and there’s no public transport. Where are they supposed to work?”
Bearing in mind that new cities are being built in various regions across the globe with different requirements, inhabitants and infrastructures, the key is making sure there is a need beyond accommodating people. Even as population figures spiral, people have to want to live somewhere.
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But equally, there are common elements crucial to the future of these cities. An efficient, well-used public transport system is a key component.
In Songdo, a new high-speed train system will soon be shuttling people to Seoul in only 30 minutes.
“The impression is that Songdo is a utopian place that works because of the technology there,” says Juliette Morgan, a partner at agent Cushman & Wakefield in London and head of property at Tech City UK.
“Actually, Songdo became occupied because of its education offerings, its rapid transit system, and the ease of access to the city. Those are very fundamental requirements.”
The desire to learn, the ability to access the city and to move around it – as well as public transport, about 25 kilometres of cycle lanes are planned for Songdo – appear to have done more to attract residents than the myriad of hi-tech features built into the city.
“I don’t know anyone who has ever moved for a broadband connection ahead of neighbourhood, community, and access to work and education,” says Morgan. “And I think that still holds true.” Having said that, she adds that technology, like education and transport, still plays a vital role in helping new cities thrive.
One important use is helping to run a dashboard for the city so planners and engineers can look at real time data from services such as public transport, energy and water and allocate resources appropriately.
“Another interesting technology is using transaction data that is being generated in the city. That could tell you, for example, which parts of the city are gentrifying before you can actually see it,” says Morgan. “Cities themselves are becoming brains with processing power. They’re starting to act like a scaled-up version of our own brains – the ‘conscious’ city.”
But just being smart, or even conscious, is not enough to ensure a new development will succeed, says Wilfred Lau, East Asia masterplanning and urban design director at engineering and planning firm Arup. “Smart, green and resilient – you need to consider all of those three dimensions together to take a holistic approach,” he says.
Indeed ‘Smart Green Resilient’, or SGR, is a relatively new planning approach championed by Lau and Arup to help guide developers in their quest to build better, more sustainable cities.
Rapid urbanisation in Asia has left many communities vulnerable to economic, environmental and social upheaval, and SGR has been developed to respond to the challenges, says Lau.
“If you start from scratch then you need the scientist, you need the engineer, you need the economist to all work together with the masterplanner to create a vision for the development. Then you need a multidisciplinary team of professionals in order to achieve it.”
SGR is a way of helping that team take a single, consistent, three-in-one approach to building prosperous, sustainable cities, adds Lau.
And it is not just a city’s physical and economic sustainability that can be enhanced by the SGR approach. It can also fuel social sustainability.
“A lot of the time, the social aspect has not had the importance put on it that it has needed,” says Lau. “If the social element is missing then can it really be said that a development can stand the test of time?”
This is where community spirit or culture comes in. Often a missing ingredient in many of the world’s new high-rise, hi-tech or green cities, culture is making a comeback in the planning and design processes.
Spurred by its rapidly urbanising population, China is now compelling developers to do as much as possible to retain the culture and heritage of a location in new developments. That will help new cities foster their own unique characteristics and identity.
“In the early days of development, you could go into any North American city and it’s almost always the same – the same shopping malls, the same chains – without its own characteristics,” says Lau.
It is not just having strong, identifiable, unique characteristics that make culture so valuable in the make-up of new cities.
“It is also a very important element of social resilience, and time and time again we see that communities under pressure respond much faster because of good social resilience,” says Lau.
That awareness has prompted a design push for more space for festivals, local markets and open places for people to gather and exchange ideas, says Professor Barbara Norman, chair of urban and regional planning at the University of Canberra.
“New cities in Indonesia and Malaysia are being developed in societies that are, in many respects, very tribal,” she says. “It’s fantastic to have the jobs and opportunities that may come, but communities are also saying, ‘We don’t want to lose our culture as well,’ because that’s what makes a city special. It defines one city from another in many ways.”
Keeping it green
Unfortunately, rapid and poorly planned urbanisation like that seen recently in the south east corner of China could easily tear apart attempts at building a socially resilient community.
“Now is the critical time to develop sustainable metropolitan planning strategies to actively manage the sort of growth we’ve seen in China,” says Norman. “Otherwise there is a very big risk that cities will start to merge into each other and the green spaces in between will start to disappear, and that is not a sustainable future.”
That green, sustainable ethos was one Stan Gale was keen to adhere to in designing Songdo.
“Sustainability is absolutely key – and a moral imperative as well,” he says. “Songdo was conceived as a green city from the start and that began right in the masterplan with a design that is 40% green space, which is a high percentage for any city but especially so in Asia.
“Our emphasis is always to put people first in planning, design, development and operations. Residents of Songdo experience the city on their terms and we set out to build a community and business environment to enable that. In that sense, the citizens and workers in Songdo are the ones ‘creating’ this new city as we speak.”
That is a clear acknowledgement of probably the most important element of them all: whether a new city is smart, or green or resilient, or a complex mix of the three, what will ultimately ensure its success is the quality of the oldest ingredient – the people.