Americans Are Designing Asia’s Future

The scale model diorama at Forest City in southern Malaysia, the largest private real estate development in the world. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

One of the many critical details of 21st century change, learned during a decade of global reporting, is that Asia is the dominant continent of the century. Another thing is that development patterns in Asia’s big cities, the glittering metropolises along the Pacific Rim, are different than they are in the West. And the third essential feature of 21st century change is the big role American architecture, engineering, and planning firms are playing in designing Asia’s future, which is to say designing the century.

Asia’s urban design strategy is forming in an arc of big Pacific Rim cities from Seoul south to Jakarta. Within the arc are Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore. I’ve reported extensively in almost all of them, most recently in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.

The design fosters economic development principles and values that stresses density, public transit, coastal protection, resource reclamation, walkability, energy efficiency, and land and water conservation. The really interesting and important feature that links the cities and the new buildings, transit lines, river reclamation projects, park construction, energy efficient housing and other infrastructure is this: Five big American global architecture and design firms are doing a significant share of the master planning, design work, engineering, and construction management.

The world’s greenest city, Singapore is a showcase of sustainability. Much of it is designed by U.S. firms. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

In Malaysia, for instance, two new Kuala Lumpur automated transit lines (over 100 kilometers and $11 billion in investment) and a $1.2 billion river restoration project were designed and engineered in large part by AECOM. AECOM also is involved in the design and engineering for a $14 billion, 688-kilometer fast rail line that crosses the Malaysian peninsula.

River of Life project in Kuala Lumpur is restoring the health of the Klang River and fostering shoreline development. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

The master plan for Forest City, in southern Malaysia, perhaps the largest private mixed-use real estate development in the world, was prepared by Sasaki, a Boston-based architecture and design consultancy. Sasaki prepared the Beijing Olympics master plan, and was involved in designing a number of its installations. Skidmore Owings and Merrill (Chicago), KPF (New York), and the SWA Group (Pasadena) also have a lot of big transformative projects in architecture, design and master planning in Asia.

What’s so compelling is that Americans are designing urban spaces that are, in large part, a repudiation of the auto-oriented, land wasting, resource-consuming, sprawling land use and metropolitan development patterns of America’s 20th century, which were first introduced in GM’s Futurama exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. And in really stark contrast to the reluctance to invest in infrastructure that describes America’s experience over the last three decades or so, Asian nations are pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into the civic equipment that helps make nations and urban centers work. Though the May 9 election trimmed Malaysia’s infrastructure spending there are still over $60 billion in projects that are either under way or about to get started. Vietnam, Thailand, China, Indonesia, Korea and India also have enormous infrastructure development programs.

Forest City, in southern Malaysia, is the largest private real estate development in the world. Its masterplan was developed by Sasaki, a Boston-based firm. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

AECOM’s revenue in its Asian Pacific operations totaled $1.3 billion last year. They also are heavily involved in India Prime Minister Modi’s project to build what he calls “smart cities” between Delhi and Mumbai.

One more signal thought. American design firms are involved in master planning, designing, and engineering installations in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the $1 trillion, 70-country project to establish new trade routes from Beijing and Shanghai to Europe, Africa, and Southeast Asia. In doing so China is completely reworking the global trade and transport system, a system that the United States basically developed and helped to manage over the last 70 years. The White House-sponsored tariffs and trade stresses are pushing China to quicken its plan to develop and dominate new supply and customer markets, which are steadily expanding China’s sphere of influence and accelerating its global trade goals. American architects and planners are playing a big role in shaping what those new Belt and Road installations look like, and how they will perform.

— Keith Schneider

New MRT1 automated metro line in Kuala Lumpur, designed with the help of AECOM, a U.S. firm. (Photo/Keith Schneider

July 4

Zion National Park, Utah. The Trump administration removed protections for 2 million acres of public domain in the West. The proclamation the president signed in December 2017 reversed 150 years of American land conservation precedence. Election Day 2018 will decide whether that continues, or not. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

BENZONIA, MI — On this disruptive, bittersweet July 4 let me draw you back 155 years. On this same day in 1863 the blood of the dead and the wounded seeped into the grassy fields of Gettysburg. Spawned by irreconcilable principles and values nearly as virulent as those that exist today, the Union army victory was the strategic turning point in the Civil War. It provided military and cultural momentum for the winning progressive view that free will was an American virtue guaranteed to all races. It also confirmed the views, and cemented the historic legacy of the gifted and courageous anti-slavery voices of the 19th century — Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, William Lloyd Garrison.

Fast forward to now, and further to November 6, election day. In my mind the 2018 mid-term election is tantamount to an American political Battle of Gettysburg. The outcome of that day, regardless of which side wins, will measure the American character and define our national direction for decades. I stand with progressives who support justice, human rights, job and economic opportunity, fairness, environmental protection, and peace. Make no mistake, the other side, supporters of a venal man and the fact-free politics of fear and grievance, bring to the battle equivalent reserves of energy and intensity.

The right wing of the United States has succeeded in building an ultra-conservative counter culture. Its supporters, and their brazen leader, understand the power of their movement and its capacity to impede, if not reverse, a half century of civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, environmental safeguards, and workplace advances.

Our generational Gettysburg fast approaches. On this day of Independence, I commit to voting for an American way of life that makes the national town square safe and welcome to everyone. I commit to bringing every eligible voter I know with me.

The November Election

President Trump during December 2017 appearance in Salt Lake City to announce his decision to remove protections for 2 million acres of public land in Utah. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

SOMERSET, KY — I’m not at all concerned by the talk about the “end of the American empire.” I saw that needless arrogance slipping by nine years ago in Beijing’s spotless and soaring international airport, fast subways, faster intercity high-speed rail lines, and well-dressed professionals building the Asian century on boulevards flanked by state-of-the art offices.

No, what keeps me up at night — quite literally, I’m not sleeping well these days — is my creeping conviction that President Trump has opened the door to the dungeon of American ugliness. Our most grotesque cultural behaviors are being turned loose. Innate violence. Racism. Hate. Ignorance. Intolerance.

The administration’s program of separating babies and older children from their parents along the Southwest border, and holding them in chainlink enclosures, is cruel. It’s also supported by nearly all the people who voted in 2016 for the president.

It’s starting to appear that the last half century of cultural advance — civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, environmentalism, access to higher education — may be an aberration. A remarkable period when America really tried to live up the social contract framed by its founding documents. That half-century, though, may soon be regarded as a departure for a nation that enslaved and sold human beings, waged war on its indigenous people, subjected millions of its citizens in the South to decades of state-supported separation and terrorism, met its union organizers with machine guns and bullets, assassinated its prophets, and concocted lies to dispatch its young to die in losing wars of ideology.

Oh Lord. What will the November election tell us about the American character? It better be good.

— Keith Schneider

30 Years Later — James Hansen Was Right

Lake Powell, the second largest reservoir in the U.S., is steadily drying as long-term drought settles on the American Southwest. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

SOMERSET, KY — This was the week 30 years ago, third week of June 1988, that global warming rose to the top of the list of national priorities. I was a young correspondent for the New York Times that summer, dispatched to Montana and the northern Great Plains to report on an unfolding drought so deep that elderly farmers told me it reminded them of Dust Bowl conditions a half century before.

On June 23 that week, the day after I returned to my desk in Washington, James Hansen, one of NASA’s top scientists, told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that Earth was warming. Hansen said he was “99 percent certain” it was the result of human activity. Hansen’s testimony received powerful validation from broad print and TV news coverage in the U.S. and in Europe.

Later that summer a mammoth wildfire raced across Yellowstone. It’s gotten steadily more dangerous since.

I was in the car two weeks ago listening to Rush Limbaugh aggressively make a religious case that, and I’m paraphrasing, mankind could not possibly be powerful enough to produce forces capable of altering the global atmosphere. Only God was capable of that. And, said Limbaugh, if there actually was any evidence of the meteorological disruption described by liberals, scientists, and the ridiculous mainstream media, God was responsible.

Limbaugh’s frustrating assessment reflects a popular theological doctrine that justifies a political construct. Half the country rejects irrefutable evidence of climate change. The back story, of course, is how impediments to climate action support the fossil fuel industry and its user group allies — utilities, railroads, airlines, vehicle manufacturers, elected officials. They are flat out scared breathless by the prospect that $20 trillion in black fuel reserves still in the ground will get stranded.

Climate change is battering Malaysia. A titanic storm last year brought down this retaining wall on Penang island, destroying residences about to open. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

If God is to be thanked, we all should express our gratitude to her/him that the U.S., despite the Trump administration’s market-buffeting interference, has maintained a good bit of its Obama-era momentum to shift the electric-generating sector from coal and gas to renewables. Other nations in Europe and Asia are going there too, and much faster than anybody anticipated. Continue reading “30 Years Later — James Hansen Was Right”

Singapore Knocked As A “Police State.” In This Era It’s A Virtue

A city of 5.5 million at night. Safe. Prosperous. Beautiful. If that’s the current definition of a police state, I’ll take it. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

SINGAPORE — Michael Fay was a 19-year-old American student in May 1994 when Singapore authorities delivered four strikes to his bare bottom with a rattan cane. Arrested nearly a year before for stealing road signs and vandalizing vehicles, Fay’s caning prompted an international debate about the fairness of Singapore’s justice system and an outcry about its “police state” tactics.

I knew two facts about Singapore before I arrived here. First was the debate about Michael Fay and Singapore’s strict rules of personal behavior and its global knock as a “police state.” Second is that Singapore has one of the world’s best freshwater supply systems, based on recycling, rainwater collection, and desalination.

Those two elements of life here are tied together by the island nation’s insistence on achieving order, providing a secure way of life, and demanding that residents play their part. In return government here has delivered a magnificent city, full of architectural gems, rising from a garden of flowers, shrubs and trees, remarkably safe, packed with public transit, and where the water is plentiful and clean. If this is the contemporary version of a “police state” America and much of the rest of the world should take notice.

City in a garden. Singapore’s clean, orderly streets. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

How Singapore achieved its prominence as one of the world’s greenest, cleanest, safest, and most prosperous cities is a story of consistently able leadership, clear goals, and cultural persistence.

The city was occupied by the Japanese during World War Two, a period of extreme violence and hardship, especially for Singapore’s Chinese residents. When the Japanese occupation ended the island endured various long sieges of violence and joblessness as a Malaysian state. In 1965, following wicked disagreements with Malaysia, Singapore became an independent nation that could finally focus on a national plan. The city’s development strategy, like almost every other nation’s, was designed to employ its people, end poverty, and improve the quality of life. Singapore just did it better and stuck to its goals.

The $5.5 billion (USD) Marina Bay Sands hotel and casino, opened in 2010 and is one of the city’s premier entertainment destinations. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

Water security was one feature of the plan. Environmental sustainability was another. A good portion of the island is protected forest that safeguards surface water reservoirs. High-tech manufacturing, excellent transit, housing, and education are priorities. Singapore’s streets are shaded in a beautiful urban forest. From a troubled backwater at the tip of the Malay peninsula, Singapore has become a jewel of Asia, not much talked about in the West, but highly regarded from Seoul to Tokyo to Sydney. Continue reading “Singapore Knocked As A “Police State.” In This Era It’s A Virtue”