Urban Renewal Eases China's Growing Pains

An endless panorama of high rises towering over the Beijing and Shanghai skylines has smog-choked populations longing for more "normalcy" in the way of promenades, parks and recreation.

This was the message of veteran San Francisco architect Ellen Lou, who kicked off a lecture series: Women Speak: Four Architects on Design and Urbanism, sponsored by the Berkeley City Club Conservancy, a nonprofit devoted to preserving the historic City Club building and promoting the legacy of its brilliant architect, Julia Morgan.

The Conservancy organized the series to help raise funds for badly needed repairs to maintain the integrity of the "little castle" while offering educational opportunities highlighting the future of architecture in today’s climate of global warming and energy concerns.

The Director of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill's (SOM) Design and Planning Practice in San Francisco, Lou shared a fascinating window into her innovative design and planning projects in the Pacific Rim. Among the most ambitious is a massive, high-density residential, hotel, retail and office complex in Shanghai between its ancient walled city and dynamic downtown.

As people there and throughout China confront explosive industrial growth, urban planners like Lou are forging public and private spaces that bridge old and new while adding room to breathe.

"The people in China desperately want more outdoor spaces – water features, parks and walkways connected to the housing and business centers, and they say this will make them a lot happier," she explained, describing pedestrian-friendly and transit-oriented solutions such as man-made lakes, modern retail promenades and small parks with benches bringing relief to city dwellers.

Adding to her challenge in producing sustainable, energy efficient districts is the choking air pollution from cars and burning coal. When questioned about the hazardous blanket of gray smog which has ushered in the protective mask as an outdoor staple, Lou  admitted tackling the ominous transportation crisis is high on the list of urban planners teaming with these governments.

Meantime, in rural villages left in the wake of decades of rapid industrialization, Lou described ongoing negotiations between governments and farmers as officials expropriate land, promising compensation after homes are razed and acreage is left abandoned while awaiting development. These farmers, too, are at risk of being displaced as crops give way to grid lines and a frenzied step up of  wind and solar capacity.

A native of Singapore where she also is a registered architect, Lou is sensitized to the push to scale down urban skylines.  Adding in more parks (other than Six Flags) seems to promote a sense of calm.

At the same time, there also is a strong sense of clinging to tradition. In planning and executing new city districts in China and Vietnam, the strategy is to preserve historic neighborhoods and treasured landmarks which loom large amid the urban sprawl.

"This is an essential part of the scope of our work," she said, projecting renderings on a large screen of a master plan for forging a modern district in Foshan in the Guandong Province (China’s leading center of art and scholarship) where new sensibly scaled buildings and walkways are interspersed with sacred ancient quarters such as the section of Foshan Zumiao, the 900-year-old Song Dynasty Ancestral Temple at the heart of Donghuali Old Town.

The next lectures in the women architecture series are  October 27 (Marsha Maytum): and November 9 (Alison Williams).

Women Speak: Four Architects on Design and Urbanism: Please join us for the entire series ($50, available only through Eventbrite) or for individual lectures ($15, available through Eventbrite or at the door). All lectures will begin at 7:30 PM at the Berkeley City Club.

Cover Rendering: Courtesy of SOM
credit: Pete  Andreotti


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