A ‘Great City’ is Planned in China


Privately planned & developed new satellite city for 80,000 people (30,000 families) will be built on a green field outside Chengdu as a model ‘Great City’ for the rest of China.


Urban planners Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill of Chicago (www.smithgill.com) have been commissioned to design a 1.3 km2 city on a 3 km2 site for Beijing development corporation Vantone. The urban footprint will occupy 40% of the site. Measuring 33-chain in diameter (650 m) it will build out as a high-rise cluster of skyscrapers. The remaining 60% of the site will form a green belt around the core. The walk from edge to centre is planned as a 10-minute walking distance. Completion is slated for 2020. [http://www.dezeen.com/2012/10/24/great-city-by-adrian-smith-gordon-gill-architecture/].


Great City is designed to be “self-sustaining” benchmarked as:

  • A node on a regional mass transit network
  • 60% open space (320 ac urban/480 ac green belt)
  • Urban footprint:
    • 60% building plots
    • 25% streets (half dedicated to automobiles)
    • 15% park space (urban footprint)

Compared to contemporary development of equivalent size the design aims to achieve:

  • 50% less energy
  • 60% less carbon dioxide
  • 60% less water
  • 90% less landfill waste


Great City resolves the relationship between high-density urban living and sustainable development. This project will provide all basic services to its residents through a sustainable infrastructure that supports education, commerce, culture and an improved quality of life. It demonstrates how China can reduce its ecological footprint while creating economic conditions that are affordable for the majority of citizens and address contemporary social concerns”, states co-designer Adrian Smith.


“The design is attempting to address some of the most pressing urban issues of our time, including the need for sustainable, dense urban living at a cost people can afford. Accordingly, we’ve designed this project as a dense vertical city that acknowledges and in fact embraces the surrounding landscape—a city whose residents will live in harmony with nature rather than in opposition to it. Great City will demonstrate that high-density living doesn’t have to be polluted and alienated from nature. Everything within the built environment of Great City is considered to enhance the quality of life of its residents. Quite simply, it offers a great place to live, work and raise a family”, says Adrian Smith.


Great City will host a medical campus, office, commercial, light manufacturing and residential space. Trails connect the center, through the green belt, into farm fields on the periphery. All residential units will be within a 2-minute walk to a park.

In addition to improved building performance Great City will store summer waste heat for energy use in winter; and feature co-generation power and heating, including integrated waste water and solid treatment.





Great City re-works the Mile High city proposed by Frank Lloyd Wright (Testament, 1956); the Paris Ville Contemporaine (1924) and Plan Voisin (1925) of Le Corbusier summarized in the Ville Radieuse (The Radiant City, 1935); the Futurama (1939) designed by Geddes for General Motors Corporation’s New York World’s Fair pavilion; Lucio da Costa’s  Brazilia (plan 1956); and more recently examples like Hong Kong and Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Yet, there is a growing consensus among urbanists and the general public that the built examples and the theoretical treatises of this type of urbanism are abject failures. In the few cases where hi-rise districts work they serve a narrow, hi-end range of the population that spend the greatest part of the day either indoors or some place else.

(1) Too Much Heavy Lifting

The Great City project is yet another iteration of the utopian project of superimposing modern technology and hi-rise construction on the other type of urbanism, the traditional human-scale city.

The hyper-scale urbanism privileges a small sector of the construction industry—the hi-rise developers—at the cost of everything and everyone else. When co-designer Adrian Smith states that, “Quite simply, [Great City] offers a great place to live, work and raise a family…” he is not telling the whole story. More simply still, all the calculations in Great City are about maximizing profits for the developer Vantone. While it is true that innovators are making headway in energy and waste performance, there is no connection between environmental sustainability and hi-rise towers. In fact, the numbers point in the opposite direction. Great City would achieve even greater economies in waste management and energy consumption if it were built using conventional construction technologies, renewable resources and human scale architecture.

Efforts at shoe-horning the investment-driven priorities of the hi-rise industry have yet to produce communities and neighbourhoods presenting high levels of social functioning, never mind laudable ecological performance. Only luxury residential and hotel projects are touted as successful examples by an elite, while entire business districts wallow in the shadows cast by the corporate towers moving among oppressive streets and public spaces dominated by traffic. In social housing hi-rise ‘projects’ have been high profile failures. Famously in St. Louis one project was demolished just 15 years after completion (Pruitt Igo, 1971). In developing nations the concentrations of capital in the hands of just a few developers—vis a vis the general level of low income and poverty in the population at large—is seen as a root cause for the endemic political, economic and social disfunction.

As detailed by Danish urbanist Jan Ghel, these schemes are necessarily hatched from the top level down and fail on the ground level or at the intimate scale of human contact or the human scale:

From that height the elements of the development, the buildings, blocks and roads, can be moved around until the composition is in place and everything looks good — seen from above and from outside… The most significant financial interests are also concentrated here, and highly specialized planners are available to handle problems on the basis of a large body of experience.

The situation is very different for the human scale, a difficult and rather intangible scale to work with. Both experience and relevant information tend to be scarce, which also means that there are seldom any useful architectural programs available in support. The financial interests tied to the [high level] scales are not as obvious for the human landscape.

[For Ghel this is…] ‘The Brasilia Syndrome’, where the top-level scales are treated [and the] small scale is neglected, is unfortunately widespread as a planning principle.

Cities for People (2010) p. 196-197.


(2) The Human Scale Urbanism

A sobering and worthwhile comparison pencils out the alternative urbanism at of 80 units/acre, using human-scale, ground-oriented, fee-simple (no strata) product. Neighbourhoods and districts are planned as nodes on a regional transit network. The urbran footprint touted by Great City’s designers is in fact the footprint of the human scaled urbanism with:

  • 60% building lots
  • 25% streets (local streets with pedestrian priority)
  • 15% Park space integrated in the urban footprint

 While the environmental performance of human-scale buildings will be aided by features missing in the glass towers, including: 

  • 15% Great City towers used up by common area and circulation space
  • 0% common area and circulation space in human-scale buildings
  • 90% exposed building envelope in Great City towers
  • 45% exposed building envelope in human-scale buildings
  • Green-house effect of the glass tower’s glass skin

All savings in energy conservation, co-generation power and heating, integrated waste water and solid treatment, are available to both human-scale urbanism and towers. However, the human-scale build out can leverage these innovations as much as doubling the benefits that accrue. For example:

  • Human-scale urbanism achieves passive-solar heating and cooling, and rain water capture not possible in towers.
  • Social functioning presents in human-scale neighbourhoods in a manner not visible in tower and condominium districts.

(3) The Pictures Don’t Tell the Whole Story

Neither the site plan, nor the various artist and computer renderings of Great City shown above tell the whole story. Just in terms of shadowing alone, the lack of solar penetration in tower and hi-rise districts is not adequately illustrated much less discussed. Streets and outdoor spaces in Great City will experience shadow and loss of sunlight for most of the day during most of the year making less appealing the need to walk 10 minutes just to get a ray of sun. Furthermore, the impact of this metric will be magnified at each private dwelling unit. There the sun—if it shines at all—will only shine through a narrow slot during a marginally delimited period of time. This aspect of tower urbanism is seldom discussed in sales literature or planning review by the governing authorities.

The claim by co-designer Adrian Smith that Great City, “demonstrates how China can reduce its ecological footprint while creating economic conditions that are affordable for the majority of citizens and address contemporary social concerns” is based on a false assumption. It a fallacy that we have to build hi-rises in order to achieve hi-density. Furthermore, it is a dangerous mistake to exclude the urban footprint from measurements of ecological areas. The human species is not separate from nature. We just need to form a more complex understanding of our role in maintaining the natural balance while we strive for an urbanism where inputs equal outputs. As to the claim for affordability, towers are having the same inflationary effects in China as in the rest of the world. Reports for July 2014 show home prices on the rise by as much as 17% in the major centers.

The commodification of ‘privilege’, the polarization of politics along social groups and economic lines, and the washing away social functioning at the level of the street, the quartier and the neighbourhood, are among the hidden pitfalls of Great City.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s