The Chinese Museum Boom

One of the more visible characteristics of the Chinese frenzied construction boom has been the equally frenzied but less talked about construction of museums across the country. All over China, from smaller cities to the  megacities museums are becoming a ubiquitous part of the urban landscape. The constructions are initiated by institutions and people as diverse as the museums themselves. There are museums of contemporary  art commissioned by local authorities, developers, banks, the wealthy elite and many other institutions in China. In 2010 alone, some 395 museums were built in China. This number increased to 400 in the following year and hundreds more are being added annually as China embarks on an impressive construction of cultural infrastructure.

Chinese Pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai Expo

China Art Palace

This obsession with museums and other cultural infrastructure reflects the tastes of the new Chinese middle class elite, freshly minted from the economic boom. The museum exhibits are inspired by broad themes ranging from contemporary Chinese art to Western art, ethnological, historical and the rich cultural heritage of China. One of the most  impressive of these museums is the China Art Palace housed in the iconic Chinese Pavilion of the 2010 Shanghai World Expo. It offers over 600,000 square feet of exhibition space, comparable to New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Another  impressive and really spectacular Chinese Museums is the  Power Station of Art, it is housed in a 19th century power station.  The gigantic China Art Palace exhibits works from 20th century Chinese modernism.  While China’s impressive museums are an expression China’s great ambition, the bulk of China’s over 3020 museums are actually much smaller in scale and offer thousands of diverse displays. They range from the privately funded museums to the vanity museums of some of the Chinese wealthy elite. It is expected that some of these museums will become brandable domains of their own.

Yinchuan Art Museum

Yinchuan Art Museum

China’s museum construction boom however seems to outstrip the supply of art goers.  Art education is still very low in a culture that places great premium on academic excellence so the museums are still relatively empty in spite of the very low charges for exhibitions, sometimes as low as $1.30. Is China risking developing thousands of “ghost museums”?  Another key challenge faced  by developers of China’s museums is the general lack of curatorial talent in the country. Many Chinese art schools are currently on a crash program on museological courses to plump up the country’s talent and increase administrative oversight.  For the foreseeable future however, it seems the museums will keep on coming as the economy revs on. China like Japan, which at its peak had over 3000 museums down to today’s 900 museums, will eventually hit a plateau and then a dip to a sustainable number of museums which are well managed and which offer substantial and more valuable exhibitions.

Infographic: Urban Matters

Infographics are quite effective in illustrating and simplifying seemingly complex concepts. This SAP Urban Matters infographic illustrates the power of the cities and the importance of having sustainable efficiently run cities.

Cities are already playing an increasingly vital role in our lives and the global economy and increasingly becoming points of convergence for many ideas, dreams, cultures and aspirations.  They host universities, cultural centres, museums, parks, multinationals, financial infrastructure and sports facilities and are therefore indispensable to all those who aspire to a modern lifestyle.  In the developing world, cities are land of opportunities and the place where dreams are realized. Some 3.5 billion of us currently live in cities, a number that is expected to increase to 6.5 billion by 2050. Some 120 cities currently account for 29% of the global GDP or $20.2 trillion. By 2025,some 600 cities are expected to account for 65% of the global GDP. Being the hive of economic activity, cities are also the biggest polluters  accounting for some 71% of greenhouse gas emissions. Those HVAC, vehicle and industrial emissions are exerting their fair share of damage to the environment. But as the infographic states, it is not enough to build a smart city but the city must function and adapt quickly to meet new challenges.

So what makes a best run city? Several factors must converge to create a city that delivers to its inhabitants. These include governance, infrastructure, financial expertise, strong economy, resilience and sustainability, societal character, human and social capital. A best run city must have efficient urbanization, smarter economies, sustainable growth and empowered communities. These are the key drivers that catalyze the evolution of cities and urban development in general.   Check out the SAP Urban Matters infographic for more information on why best run cities are improving lives.


Urban Matters Infographic

Urban Matters Infographic

Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City: Greener Urban Development in China

The Tianjin Eco-City is located some 140 km from Beijing, and is a product of collaboration between the Chinese and Singaporean governments to construct a sustainable and harmonious city that will be home to some 350,000 people and will generate its own power from green energy sources.

Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City

Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City

The rate at which China is adding new cities is simply mind-boggling and it is estimated that hundreds of new cities are being constructed across the country including the country’s famous “ghost cities.” But this development has rarely been sustainable. Chinese cities are amongst the most polluted in the world. In the gold rush to meet the massive housing demand for the millions streaming into the cities, there’s little regard for the protection of the environment. But some developers and urban planners are beginning to think green.

Amongst the thousands of urban development plans in China, there are a few green plans and even more elaborate Eco cities and smart cities. The Tianjin Eco-City is not the first Chinese eco-city however. One such vaunted smart city, the Dangton eco-city located in Chongming Island has seen construction come to a sudden halt over corruption and funding issues. It was a big blow to many who wished that the rapid Chinese urban development would embrace more sustainability instead of simply green washing massive construction and destruction of the environment with piecemeal green building initiatives.

The Sino Singapore Tianjin Eco-City promises a greater degree of success as it is an initiative by the governments of the two countries and it is also being built on a massive scale. Construction will be completed by 2020. The city will be carbon neutral with energy efficient buildings, “green trips” through greener transportation modes such as walking, cycling and the use of electric powered vehicles and efficient recycling of waste and water.  But the Tianjin Eco-City is an exception in a country where many such initiatives have been shoved aside for “more realistic” real estate and urban development projects. Chinese policy makers are however making efforts towards more sustainable urban development by funding several renewable energy initiatives in the country although it is still a drop in the ocean. Learn more about the Tianjin Eco-City here.

Iskandar Malaysia: Malaysia Smart City of the Future

The “Smart City” is now a fairly popular concept in urban development with the myriad of smart cities in Europe and around the world but Malaysia is pioneering one of the most extensive smart cities in Asia-the Iskandar Malaysia. This is a massive urban development project which will incorporate several facets of 21st century urban life and is built on the three key pillars of the economy, the environment and social factors.  The project aims to create sustainable and inclusive communities that live in a smart, connected and technological ecosystem and assures residents of a very high quality of life along with social cohesion.  The Iskandar Malaysia is located in Johor, a key growth Corridor in South East Asia, facing Singapore and the smart city is expected to accommodate some 3 million people by 2025.

Iskandar Malaysia Smart City

Iskandar Malaysia Smart City

Smart cities optimize the use of resources to deliver sustainable and livable cities. In case of Malaysia’s Iskandar Smart City, there are several factors that will be synergized to deliver South East Asia’s first smart city.  For example, the concept draws on smart economy, smart governance, smart environment, smart mobility, smart people and smart living in a holistic approach to a urban development.

A smart economic development will be realized through innovation in economic development, entrepreneurship, an equitable distribution of wealth, and value creation in economic development.  Iskandar Malaysia hopes to be the catalysis that will attract global businesses to this South East Asian economic corridor and also ensure that these businesses operate in a smart way in congruence with the vision of the city.

On the environmental front, the Iskandar Malaysia is planning to roll out a set of incentives for developers who conserve the environment and incorporate green technologies in urban development.  Under its smart environment program, the Iskandar Malaysia hopes to simulate a green economy, create a clean environment, support environmental protection initiatives, develop green infrastructure and ensure a smart growth underpinned by socially and environmentally responsible approach to development and business.

Iskandar smart mobility involves creating a greener and more efficient urban infrastructure to facilitate smooth and environmentally sustainable flow of traffic and information.  Smart mobility in Iskandar Malaysia will mostly be about connectivity and ICT development. This will entail the development of efficient public transportation systems and road accessibility, non motorized accessibility for city residents and the building of a sound IT infrastructure for the city residents.

There are is also a key human aspect of Iskandar Malaysia smart city development. The city plans to create smart people and smart living, but how will it achieve this? There are several proposed initiatives which will make Iskandar a great place to live in. For example, there is great emphasis on cohesion, skilled human capital and a caring community. The smart living aspect will aim at creating a secure low-carbon lifestyle, quality housing, education and cultural institutions.

The Iskandar smart city model is expected to accelerate growth in the Johor economic corridor and even complement Singapore, transforming this region into a key global business corridor with a high standard of living and innovative approaches to economic development. The ultra modern project has already received $30 billion in commitments.

Urban Development Germany: An Architectural Wasteland in Berlin

Berlin is something of an artistic Mecca in Europe attracting millions and generations of artists from around the world making it one of the most vibrant cities and a culture capital. All is not quiet on the architectural front however. There are thousands of dissenting voices with regards to the direction that the city’s urban planning has taken in the past decade. The German newspaper der Spiegel has described it as an “architectural wasteland”. So what ails Berlin’s urban planning department?

Money for one is a problem. The onrush on real estate investments and developments seems to have created what der Spiegel describes as “aesthetic opportunism” which drives thousands of real estate investors to put numerous cheap construction projects in the city. Berlin adopted an open arms policy towards investors at the turn of the millennium without proper vision for the architectural future of the city and the result was the rudderless building boom that has been witnessed in the last decade.  Buildings are coming up which are “as charming as the cash register”.  Several government buildings and building areas were auctioned to investors to put up architectural facades without regard to what Berliners actually want for their city. This pure commercial motive is what has created Berlin’s “architectural wasteland”.

Did Berlin Miss Opportunities to Shape its Urban Architecture

The fall of the Berlin Wall two decades ago at first created new opportunities but the city’s new urban planners embraced an anti-modern “critical reconstruction” which was a throwback to the city’s past architectural heritage.  So Berlin missed the first opportunity to truly define its architectural future after the reunification.  While Berlin’s general architectural landscape has been stuck in a stillbirth since the early 90s, the city has experienced some architectural wonders over the past two decades, such as the Berlin Jewish Museum, the German Historical Museum, and the DZ Bank Building. Other notable architectural exceptions to Berlin’s dearth of innovation in the architectural sphere include Norman Forster’s Reichstag face-lift.

DZ Bank Building

DZ Bank Building

Building 21st Century Berlin: Collective approaches

Many developers are busy building new luxury houses for the city’s wealthy elite, a trend which has been described as the “Russification” of Berlin. The social housing schemes have come to a halt and the city is busy building for the high earners. But Berlin is also changing old building habits and embracing more collective approaches to urban development which include citizen participation in urban planning and development. An example of this collective approach to the 21st century urban development can be seen in the Holzmarkt project which is based near the Spree River and offers hope that Berlin may adopt bolder and more innovative architectural designs in harmony with the aspirations of city residents.


Cluster Development in India for Urban Regeneration and the Heritage Conservation

One of the factors that many old cities have to grapple with is meeting residential housing needs with limited spaces and a backdrop of high value heritage buildings and residential areas where communities have established livelihoods for generations. Cluster development provides a means to maximize land use and preserve the city’s heritage value by grouping the residential developments in one location while reserving  a large amount of land for public spaces and pedestrian use.  The practice is growing popularity in some Indian cities such as Mumbai and Pune where it has been adopted in urban development.

What Indian Cities Can Achieve with Clustered Urban Development

Indian cities have never been the most orderly and as more Indians move to the cities, the resulting overcrowding is expected to exert greater strain on the city’s resources such as land and the existing structures and core urban areas of heritage value. Clustered development will allow for greater regeneration of old city areas and lead to greater improvements of the city’s infrastructure and social amenities.  The second advantage of clustered development is that it permits for better planning and development of well spaced and well lit residential buildings away from the poorly lit narrow streets of the old areas  of the city. Many of the city redevelopment initiatives have been abused by greedy investors and clustered development eliminates this by prioritizing and structuring redevelopment programs which eliminates the loopholes and the abuse.

One of the biggest city redevelopment initiatives of the older core urban areas that will utilize clustered development is the redevelopment of Mumbai’s Bhindi Bazaar, Byculla.  The redevelopment program is expected to impact as many as 20,000 lives and will see some 3200 housing units being restored. There are other core areas in the city of Mumbai which have been marked out for redevelopment.  These areas have very rich historical and  cultural heritage and are  a melting pot of several cultures and traditions from different parts of India. Cluster development is needed in such areas to cater for the very minute needs of the populace.

Cities need to employ an amalgamation of plots for cluster development  so as to prevent new constructions from sprouting from every corner of the cities and cannibalizing the few public spaces reserved for pedestrian use, amenities, roads and lots of sunlight inside the buildings  and fresh air.  City development plans in India must increasingly put the social needs of the population into consideration, particularly in regeneration projects and this can be adequately accomplished by employing cluster development plans.

New Social Housing Models Needed for the Global Poor

The wealth divides are deepening and the base of the pyramid is feeling the greatest strain. In cities across the developing world, evictions of the poor are becoming more commonplace and the local authorities are unable to find solutions that address long term housing problems at the bottom of the pyramid. The evictions are becoming increasingly brutal as the nouvea riche in the developing countries are increasingly viewing the poor as a nuisance and an “embarrassment” to their well laid out lives. In Africa and many Asian cities, the situation is set to get bleaker as more people migrate to the cities leading to overcrowding and the stretching of resources.  These cities will double in size in the next 20 years and no contingency plans have been made to expand services and increase access to affordable housing. In poorer countries, the situation is exacerbated by poor land laws and regulations, corruption, and a nonexistent or poor synergy between the private and public sectors.

Current market trends not favourable for social housing

The response to this housing crisis has been wanting. In the developing countries, many under-resourced NGOs have been making social investments to bridge the gap but it is a pitiable drop in the ocean. Even in the developed markets, lack of affordable housing has pushed many to homelessness.  Austerity measures in most Western countries have seen many governments and local authorities cut down on budgets for public housing projects.  Local authorities are off-loading public housing schemes to the private markets so as to expand revenue base.  Many government initiatives that were traditionally aimed at social housing providers are now attracting the big real estate developers further diminishing the potential of the social housing market.

Meeting the Challenge for Social Housing

Meeting the challenge for social housing requires a very multi-pronged approach. There is a need for synergy amongst the disparate players-real estate developers, social landlords, financiers  and policy makers so as to meet the housing challenge for the poor. Some of the players have deployed a hybrid approach towards this problem. For example, some social landlords are diversifying into private rented sector and reinvesting the profits back to the social housing market to ensure sustainability. This mixed business model can be profitable and sustainable but the social landlords must have good knowledge of the private market.  Many large commercial real estate developers are also diversifying into the social housing market.

Funding for Social Housing

Social housing initiatives have traditionally relied on grants to invest in their communities but there’s a need for a paradigm shift and new business models. Can social housing  companies pursue new investment and funding channels and still remain profitable? The social landlords must improve their capacity and learn to compete in a tough financial climate.  Greater partnership is needed with local authorities, and other partners in the industry to develop longer term investments in the communities.  The onus is on social housing providers to increase efficiency and emphasize the importance of their work to gain greater support from key partners.

The 2010 Shanghai World Expo to be Redeveloped into a green business district

The 2010 Shanghai World Expo Centre hosted one of the largest expos with the theme “Better City-Better Life” and attracted some 73 million visitors. Three  years later, the glitter of the pavilions is long gone and most of the pavilions have been dismantled but the centre is about to get a fresh lease of life with a new redevelopment program which will transform the expo centre into a sustainable and green business district.

Dubbed the “Green Valley”, the project will see several buildings being converted into green office spaces, public parks, gardens and lots of vegetation. The Green Valley is once again designed by Danish architect Schmidt Hammer Lassen, who designed the Shanghai Expo Centre. The new development is located next to the iconic Chinese Pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo.  You can check it out below:

Chinese Pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai Expo

Chinese Pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai Expo

Much of the detail regarding the new redevelopment plans are available on Lassen’s website but from a quick glance, it will involve the creation of restaurants, office spaces and parks and the redevelopment initiative certainly adheres to the Shanghai Expo theme of sustainability.  The site has the advantage of a highly developed infrastructure, park system and promenades which provides a great base from which to build the site into a more permanent business centre. The center’s green spine will form the heart of the new green business district. It has lots of greenery, soft landscaping and buildings on either side and will guide the redevelopment on either side.  This is a good example of utilizing event areas long after the events are over. There are hundreds of underutilized little “ghost towns” around the world which could borrow from this example and breathe some life into the areas with a little innovation.

Urban Renewal Project in Duisburg

Duisburg was once a booming industrial town in the German industrial heartland but a series of economic shocks in the 80s, unemployment and the flight of the young talent had seen the town go through several decades of decay.  That was until recently when a new urban renewal program has given the town a fresh lease of life. The project has involved an inner harbour development by Forster and Partners to connect the city to the old waterfront.  The new harbour redevelopment has seen the company put up a penthouse and apartment buildings. The company has also created public spaces and rebuilt the neighbourhoods so as to encourage the footloose residents to stay longer and build their lives in Duisburg.  This will also encourage new businesses to come up in Duisburg and help in the urban renewal of the city.

Duisburg Inner Harbour Development

Duisburg Inner Harbour Development

The project is not only employing creative urban planning and development but also beautiful architecture to keep the residents in. And the results are already trickling in. New businesses are coming up in Duisburg including a new restaurant that was recently launched in the redeveloped area.  There is a local market, several events being launched in the city, and lots of socials attracting residents of all age groups. The neighbourhood currently has a total of 13 restaurants. From the 80s low when Duisburg inland harbour supported some 200 jobs, the town currently supports up to 4000 jobs thanks to the urban renewal program.

How the Ruhr was Reclaimed

The renewal project in Duisburg and other post industrial towns in the Westpalia were initiated by the Land of Westphalia. The authorities established the International Builders Exhibition (IBA), a think tank composed of planners, architects, government representatives and created new institutions,forums, and seminars to explore new ways of reviving Ruhrgebiet’s old industrial towns. These forums and exhibitions generated lots of ideas many of which have been applied in towns like Duisburg with considerable success.  The IBA ideas have been used to create several mixed-use communities in the former Ruhrgebiet and have been a core part of the urban regeneration program in these cities and towns.

Apart from creating neighborhoods and communities, IBA has also led to the creation of several cultural resources such as museums, events and performance centres and new office spaces which are attracting businesses to these post industrial towns. IBA has managed to preserve the identity of the Ruhrgebiet while recreating it to meet the demands of a modern city.  Between 30-40% of the old buildings have been preserved, refurbished and adapted to modern living and office spaces.  Back to Duisburg, the redevelopment will see 700 new apartments built in the town. The key landmark of Duisburg will be the remarkably designed Eurogate building that will be constructed in the coming years.  The public investment in the project has also seen an injection of a great deal of private capital. Duisburg shows how much can be achieved with a little initiative.


Flexible Building Facades with Soft House in Hamburg

The Soft House is a winning project that seeks to create a very adaptable and carbon neutral living and working environment.  The project was conceived by the KVA Matx Team and exhibited in Hamburg earlier in the year. The Soft House model incorporates a great deal of customization to meet individual user needs. The ecologically friendly housing model allows occupants to reduce their carbon footprints as much as possible while also offering some very innovative features such as a very movable and functional infrastructure to maximize energy savings and the living space.

Hamburg Soft House Model

Hamburg Soft House Model

The exterior of the housing is designed with the energy needs of the occupants in mind. The model harvests as much energy as possible from the sunlight. The interior is also built with a very flexible and movable infrastructure to configure and manage interior spacing. For example, there are smart curtains in the house which help the occupants of the home with the configuration of the space and management of solid-state lighting functionality inside the home. The house is also fitted with a solar-powered technology that allows one to create interior micro-climates.  It is a housing model that optimizes the natural resources such as sunshine, wind and land and ground water to create a very dynamic and self-sustainable urban living space. It is even possible to carry out urban agriculture on the Soft House.

Construction of the Soft House

The Soft House construction makes use of the more traditional spruce-wood materials. The joints are made of wooden dowel and the whole structure can be recycled in case the building is no longer being used. The wood-based construction is further complemented with flexible PV-based solid-state technology which moves in the direction of the sun’s orientation to maximize on the solar radiation. This intelligent design also sees the house casts a shade inside the house during the summers while maximizing light that gets inside the house during the winters.

LED lighting is provided inside the house via the smart curtains.  The smart curtains can also move inside the house to create a Visual Breeze, a great ambient luminous expression.  The smart curtains are programmable and it is possible to create multiple luminous expressions based on a user’s preference .The Soft House is a demonstration on how intelligent technologies can be used to create very flexible and movable urban living spaces through smart urban building management. You can learn more about the KVA Matx’s Soft House on its web page .