Urban Design Focus
We all know Shenzhen has been massively urbanizing like no other place in the world over the last 20 years, endless new districts, roads and highways. It may feel like an experiment in urban planning on a gigantic scale except for the fact that disappointingly there has not been much experimentation going on. The Shenzhen plan is much like that of other expanding cities in China and just the same as happened in the industrialized world through the latter half of the last century. It is ‘road oriented development’ and it is bringing the same old problems long since identified in developed countries.
Trends overseas continue to show a movement away from city road building and road widening projects, to that of streets dedicated to wider public use solutions such as dedicated bus and cycle lanes, shared streets and pedestrianisation schemes. Not only are new roads not being built, but existing streets in urban areas are being torn up, narrowed, greened and redefined. In the US, car sales have decreased year on year since peaking in 1986 at almost 11.5 million. 25 years on, annual sales are roughly half that number and the trend can be expected to continue despite the ever growing population. Such precedent must be expected to follow in China, however it has now become the world’s biggest car market with 38,000 new cars taking to our streets every day, fuelled by the need to keep the economic boom at full tilt. According to China’s State Statistical Bureau, the country had merely 0.5 million cars on the road in 1990, but the number exploded to 43.22 million privately-owned cars by 2011. It is estimated that annual sales are forecast to reach 22 million in 2020; roughly 60,000 vehicles per day. The impact on our cities from increasing motor vehicle sales will be devastating.
The problems with traffic congestion are already well apparent, however the issues go far beyond this. Awareness of the health issues from vehicle emissions are of particular concern in congested city street conditions not to mention the psychological stress resulting from noise and safety issues. Emissions include particulates from diesel engines, NOx, volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide and benzene. A World Health Organization study found that diesel fumes directly cause an increase in lung cancer. It's not just exhaust fumes that are likely hurting us; brake dust, tire fragments and even tiny bits of road can get into the air and these make up a similar proportion of the airborne particulate matter (PM) resulting from vehicle use as exhaust emissions. A statistical study in California of children with cancer under 6 years old found that living near smog results in a 5% to 11% increase in cancer risk. Carbon dioxide is non-toxic to humans but is a major greenhouse gas and motor vehicle emissions are an important contributor to the growth of CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere and therefore to global warming.
CARS IN THE CITY – PEOPLES BEST FRIEND?
Beyond these significant concerns is the fact that traditionally streets acted as places of mixed use function. A variety of events could exist in the public street beyond merely travelling, including trading, eating, playing, watching, resting, chatting. Communities are established via the interaction of people on the streets, giving cities vibrancy and sense of place. Currently China’s adoption of road orientated urban planning is rapidly creating large no-go areas for citizens. The road kerb defines an area of streets where pedestrians are not welcome and empowers motorists to behave autonomously. Cities are severed by wide roads with fast moving traffic, with citizens hemmed in behind railings and barriers and cordoned like livestock. Modern roads also prohibit flexible movement of pedestrians through the community and turn the use of what is essentially public space into land predominantly for private vehicle use heightening the equity gap. The traditional functions of streets are lost and the diversity of space and unique local context are replaced by standardized road engineering solutions, resulting in soulless, carbon-copy, unsophisticated urban areas. Is this happening in Shenzhen today?
So when we read about the public bicycle scheme and that Yuehai Subdistrict in Nanshan District has installed a 200-spot bicycle stand near Shenzhen University Station on the Luobao Line to facilitate bicycle-commuting in the area, does this show a coming of age for the city?
NEW PUBLIC BYCYCLE STAND AT SHEKOU
Shenzhen initiated the public rental bicycle scheme two years ago, however the system has proven not to be user friendly. Firstly registration is required via a district office. The smart card is dedicated rather than integrated with the ubiquitous Shenzhen Card and the cycle rack locations are often unrelated to potential users, with no sign of the bicycle racks at metro stations, outside commercial centres or residential schemes. Of course the info stands have no instructions in English but let’s hope the new schemes coming on line are better thought through and that the current cycling renaissance can overcome these difficulties and be extended into giving back dedicated road space to cyclists and introducing more car free zones in the city.
If you want to rent a public bicycle remember you need to register first. The charge is essentially 1 RMB per hour. There are 800 regular bicycles and 200 mountain bikes in the Luohu public bicycle system with 34 renting spots and 1250 locking posts.
Interestingly Shenzhen currently ranks first among 286 Chinese cities in terms of urbanization quality.
Barry Wilson is a practicing Urbanist, Landscape Architect and university lecturer. Based in Shenzhen, his company, Barry Wilson Project Initiatives, have been tackling urbanization issues in China for almost 20 years.