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

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”

From Malaysia, Expressions of Concern For A Roiled U.S.

The mosque dominates central Kuantan on Malaysia’s east coast. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

KUANTAN, Malaysia — Has there ever been a more disturbing time to be an American? Not in my life. And most certainly not in the 10 years that I’ve reported from outside the United States.

On the way by train and auto from Penang on the west coast to this industrial city on Malaysia’s east coast, I had a number of conversations with Malaysians about conditions in the U.S. Malay people are a guarded lot. Polite. Friendly. Helpful. But not open and inviting like people in the West can often be.

Let me tell you. Donald Trump is as much a focus of interest in this peninsula nation as he is in much of America. The view here is a mix of bafflement, scorn, and pity. Sam Heung, a gold jewelry merchant from Penang who engaged me in a long conversation about American politics described how “Donald Trump is turning the United States into a laughing stock.”

A university student I met by the name of Dinesh remarked at how spiteful and small-minded American democracy has become. “How did so many Americans choose this man?” he asked. “He makes no sense.”

On the day we spent touring Penang, our driver expressed concern. “Your country seems like it is in trouble,” he said.

China’s influence in Penang, a west coast island, is strong, as it is in all of Malaysia. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

A teacher from Penang, her name is Eeli, who earned a doctorate from Cambridge University and thought she’d apply for a post doctoral position in the United States, told me she’s thinking differently now. “I’m afraid,” she said, explaining that her black hijab, which covered her head and framed her round face, made her a target. “I have a friend who had a bad experience in New York,” said Eeli. “She was attacked because she stood out.”

That Malaysians pay close attention to events in Washington and the United States is no surprise. This small country of 32 million residents, set at the very end of the Southeast Asia peninsula, and a neighbor to Singapore and Indonesia, has episodically fallen under the influence of the world’s bigger and richer countries. Continue reading “From Malaysia, Expressions of Concern For A Roiled U.S.”

Cities Are Stronghold of Performance in Maelstrom of American Disarray

Ohio's capital city adopted a reconstruction plan for encouraging development 14 years ago that emphasized three unexpected ingredients: more grass, less water and targeted taxpayer spending. Photo/Keith Schneider
Ohio’s capital city adopted a reconstruction plan for encouraging development 14 years ago that emphasized three unexpected ingredients: more grass, less water and targeted taxpayer spending. Photo/Keith Schneider

COLUMBUS, OH — In the year of Trump it’s plain that the United States is entering a new and reckless age. Our federal lawmakers neglect their constitutional duties to legislate in the public interest. Ideology and inflexibility, the gravest threats to a democracy, are elevated as virtues on the political right and political left. Random massacres occur with weekly frequency. Fear and distrust and racism and hate have been unleashed as mainstream attitudes.

Where are the places that inspire order? Where are the places that effectively manage their affairs with a goal of adding to civility and the common good?

Perhaps it is surprising, but a good number of American cities answer those questions. As readers of ModeShift know, some of my time each year is taken up with reporting real estate articles for The New York Times. Generally the narrative that emerges from details about construction costs and square feet amounts to a profile of the cities that I visit.

What I find, from New York to Boston to San Francisco, Grand Rapids to Louisville, Buffalo to Cleveland to Toledo to Cincinnati, is that many of America’s big cities, and a good number of its mid-size cities, are thriving. Largely without the help of the federal government and state Legislatures, elected leaders are collaborating with business executives and civic organizations to invest in ways that respond intelligently to the market conditions of this century.

In each city the formula for progress differs in the specifics. Buffalo reorganized itself around a university medical center and a transit line. Toledo turned to Chinese investors. Cleveland spent $800 million on entertainment and transit infrastructure – two stadiums, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a bus rapid transit route, and moving a commuter rail station — to invite $5 billion in mostly private downtown redevelopment. Sacramento tore down a moribund downtown shopping mall and built a new arena for the NBA Sacramento Kings.

Taken collectively, though, the various development strategies pursued by American cities have some common traits. Excellent elected leadership and pragmatic business collaboration are essential to developing and executing redevelopment ideas that take at least a decade, and often a generation, to complete. Redevelopment plans incorporate one or more of the following ingredients — competent municipal agencies, park construction, improved transit, strengthened schools, public safety, adequate amounts of reasonably priced housing, recruiting innovators and entrepreneurial businesses.

Over the next month or so I’ll be reporting on cities in the South and Midwest – Columbus, Cleveland, and Chattanooga –all of which are doing well. They are following effective redevelopment strategies that are much bolder, and more effective, than anything pursued by most states and certainly by America’s imprudent Congress. The latest report from a city making strong progress in adding value to the lives of its citizens is from Columbus, which I visited early in May. Continue reading “Cities Are Stronghold of Performance in Maelstrom of American Disarray”

Donghao Chung, Guangzhou’s Daylighted Refuge

China's mastery of public space design and water architecture is evident in Donghao Chung, once an ancient moat, then a sewer, and now an urban oasis. Photo: Keith Schneider
China’s mastery of public space design and water architecture is evident in Donghao Chung, once an ancient moat, then a sewer, and now an urban oasis. Photo: Keith Schneider

GUANGZHOU, China — Can a polluted stormwater drain newly constructed as an urban park speak for a city? Can a place of refuge, where clear water slips past slick rocks and families gather near the sound and mist of fountains, be an extension of a nation?

There’s always risk in heaping such rhapsody on a single example. Still, in the characteristically handsome Chinese design, and in the cooling embrace of its flowing water, the Donghao Chung greenway here defines something very new about this city and this nation: Ecological principles are steadily rising nearer to the top of China’s economic priorities.

Last year China’s President, Xi Jinping, visited Donghao Chung and said as much. “China wants to be known as a beautiful country. We want sustainable development. Donghao Chung is a small detail, a small part. By doing well with small parts China can paint a brilliant picture.”

Six years ago I made my first visit to China, which was still caught up in the storm of infrastructure construction, energy production, and urban development that made it the world’s second largest economy, and among the most polluted places on Earth. Though China was simultaneously building dozens of energy-efficient underground metro systems, a 10,000-kilometer high-speed rail network, and the globe’s largest wind, solar, and hydropower production sectors, top government officials did not express genuine interest in the ecological condition of their country.

A Nation Evolving
Perhaps in a triumph of rational recognition over economic ideology, or maybe it is economic rationale recognizing the painful consequences of rampant pollution, China is a changed nation in 2015. A year ago China reached a pact with the United States to reduce its climate changing emissions. A month ago, China announced it would establish a national carbon emissions trading market by 2017, a move to achieve the emissions reductions. Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Harbin, and other big cities regularly announce new policies and practices to clear the air of dreadfully high levels of particulates, and build new treatment plants to make the nation’s rivers and lakes safe.

The 4.5-kilometer park along Donghao Chung runs for a time beneath an elevated freeway, and at other moments pools in a plaza open to the light and the sound of fountains. Photo: Keith Schneider
The 4.5-kilometer park along Donghao Chung, runs for a time beneath an elevated freeway, and at other moments pools in a plaza open to the light and the sound of fountains. Photo: Keith Schneider

A good deal of the justification for taking these actions, and for spending the $US billions that it costs every year, resides in this provincial capital of 16 million to 18 million residents (nobody is quite sure), China’s third largest city. For several years, as the rest of the world now knows, Guangzhou’s economy has been slowing and shifting, from heavy reliance on manufacturing to new layers of professional, finance, travel, real estate, banking, and service enterprises. Continue reading “Donghao Chung, Guangzhou’s Daylighted Refuge”