An uber-modern, state of the art new city and business district is being built where there were only farms before in Changsha.
I can not go as far as to say that I was looking upon a pristine, natural scene, but I can say that I was far outside of any city, in an area of lakes, rivers, farms, foothills, and wide open spaces. But in a flash this rural landscape of green, brown, and blue will be flipped upside down into a massive city of black, white, and grey. They are calling it the Meixi Lake Eco-City.
Positioned just outside of Changsha, the capital of Hunan province, a 40 hectare, 4 kilometer lake was created to be the central prop of a new city that will include a world class business district and residential capacity for 180,000 people. Apparently, Changsha felt they needed a new city too. These uber-modern, utopia-posing, built-from-scratch new urban districts have become incredibly popular throughout China, and it seems as if just about every larger sized city in this country is in the process of getting one for themselves.
These new cities essentially act as newer, better looking mirrors of the pre-existing cities whose banner they are built under, and they create an interesting phenomenon where each big city in this country is being doubled down and divided in two.
James von Klemperer, the design principle of the Meixi development, put it as follows:
Over the last 10 years, China’s cities have grown in two ways: by increasing density within the historical cores, and by adding new cities adjacent to the old. The latter phenomenon has resulted in a twin city paradigm. Thus, we have Shanghai’s Puxi and Pudong, Beijing’s old center and new CBD. Nanjing, Suzhou, Hangzhou, and many other cities have sprouted new towns.
China’s new cities are pretty much being built for the rich and middle classes, and are thus dividing China along class lines. As masses of working class and poor people move from the countryside into the old cities, those wealthy enough are moving out to the new ones. This is China’s take on “white flight,” but rather than migrating out to suburbs, those who are able are going out to massive, super-urbanized, brand new downtown districts.
Though these new cities are meant to provide for the Chinese what the suburbs promised for Americans in the 1950s: more personal space, cleaner living, roads made for a lot of automobiles, more green space, and neighborhoods deficient of poverty, overcrowding, traffic jams, and the social problems that plague the pre-existing cities. Though the urban designs look different, it’s the same idea: think of China’s new cities as suburbs with skyscrapers.
The Meixi Lake development is meant to be Changsha’s new Central Business District (CBD), and will contain the city’s first supertall structures. The 180,000 prospective residents will be divided up into 10,000 person residential sub-units, aptly called “villages.” The city is arranged in a horseshoe around the lake, and will have canals criss-crossing and separating the various parts into well-defined sections.
“These radial canals extend into the heart of the distinct residential communities that surround the mixed‐use CBD. At the end of each of these radial canals is a vibrant town center which is meant to provide identity and services to the community.”
This development is a fairly recent conception. The plan for the CBD was just accepted in December, so I could find very little information about it’s exact location. In fact, this project is so new that I could not even find a map that had the name of the lake printed on it. But after scouring Google Maps I detected a body of water that looked very much like the one shown in the renders of the city. I took a shot and walked for an hour and a half out from the center of Changsha through the sprawl and into the countryside, and chuckled in a self-satisfied way when I saw a sign with the characters 梅溪湖 right where I thought it should have been.
I was in what would become Meixi Lake Eco-City.
The words “eco” and “city” combined together in any fashion sounds like an oxymoron to me. It seems as if the agricultural fields, small villages, rivers, streams, and foothills here were doing ecologically well enough before some developers and officials decided to plop an entirely new city down on top of them. But this could be my own backcountry American prejudice. Such contradictions mean little to the Chinese, and this is the new building buzz throughout the country: rather than just building an ordinary new city, want not make it an “eco-city?”
Before I get too tongue in cheek over this, I will first say that one of the unique advantages of building an entirely new city on a singular model all at once is that it can be engineered to include many macro-elements of green urban design that would be far more difficult, or even impossible, to implement in more organically evolved cities. In this way, China is taking advantage of the fact that they are able to build hundreds of new cities and is cooking up some wild engineering concoctions that have never been tried on a large scale before. In point, these new cities are being provisioned with the latest green gadgetry, layouts, designs, and eco-urban initiatives that are the stuff of engineering fantasies.
China is not only making new cities, but new models for urban development.
Likewise, China’s new cities are playgrounds for the world’s architects and engineers. Unbound by stringent architectural traditions and the confines of pre-existing urban plans, they are able to attempt new feats of engineering that could scarcely be imagined elsewhere. “Meixi is an experiment in future city planning and building . . . It’s a kind of live test case,” one of the city’s chief designers stated.
The master plan seeks to establish a paradigm of man living in balance with nature. A densely concentrated urban plan, packed with a full variety of functions and building types, is integrated with mountains, lakes, parks and canals, resulting in an environment that promotes both health and prosperity. As a new center within the larger metropolitan area of Changsha, Meixi proposes to offer a new model for the future of the Chinese city. Advanced environmental engineering, pedestrian planning, cluster zoning, and garden integration are all made part of a holistic strategy of design in this healthy city.
The radial geometry of the city plan allows for a highly efficient transport system, reducing potential pollution and energy use. Other environmental strategies include collective gray and black water systems, distributed energy plants, and urban agriculture. A river flood plane is turned into a linear park which includes recreational areas, micro farms, and residential rows.
I was standing on the bank of the massive man-made lake that was shaped to look like a swollen thumb. A residential district was being built on one side and there was pretty much nothing on the other. Nothing but farmland. It was hard to fathom that in a place where there had been nothing but peasants planting rice for hundreds, if not thousands, of years would soon be a city. I watched an old woman who was bent over in her small field, tending to her vegetables as if a tidal wave of urbanization wasn’t soon going crash over the mountains and wash the centuries away.
But the disbelief could not be suspended for very long — the racket of jackhammers, backhoes, and cranes demolished my illusions fast. This city was already in the active process of being built. There would soon be skyscrapers, strange looking “eco” neighborhoods, shopping malls, and an ultra-futuristic cultural and entertainment center.
Though I have to admit that I struggled to see it. This place just seemed too meek, too remote, too Podunk, too deserted to even imagine anything that looked like the artistic renditions of what this city is supposed to be. I thought of Changsha’s now defunct Sky City One, which was proposed to be the world’s first sky city and the tallest building in the world, but just ended up being a media blitz that fizzled out fast. Changsha perhaps has a penchant for announcing huge engineering projects that transgress reality.
But , on the other hand, this is the type of rapid nothing-to-something transformation that China has become known for. They are building it.
I can hear the chorus of chatter from the international press already: “Ghost city, ghost city, failed development, empty city.” It seems as if every large scale new urban development that is built in China is put on the chopping block of international ridicule. There is a deeply embedded insecurity in the West that China could come out on top, that these insane plans could work, that our sense of possibility and probability may be askew, and we mock this upstart of a country because of it. Almost as soon as a new city is built here the jeers begin:
“Where are all the people?”
As though cities are populated in a day.
There is an insecurity in the United States that the Chinese may be able to do what we can’t, and we try to belittle and marginalize them for it. Our media plays into this insecurity, and crazy, “death by irresponsible China” stories are exaggerated while the sensible ones that show a country that knows what it is doing are ignored.
What isn’t understood is that this is a different model for urban design and development. These places are not being built to fill demand, but to create demand. This is a concept that makes no sense in economic paradigm of the West, this is not how we do capitalism. But in China things are done differently: create something first, cultivate a need for it later.
China has built hundreds of new cities with this formula. Applying Western models for development on this scenario spells only one thing: bust. This would be the case in the United States, but things are different here, economics are done differently. China cultivates their new cities by gradually creating a demand for them by artificially giving them a place in the grand scheme of the country. They move transportation hubs, government offices, the best schools, public facilities out to the new districts, and give big incentives for businesses to follow. They follow. The properties sell. Eventually, these places become relied upon, the demand for them has thus been manufactured as idiosyncratically as the seas of high-rises and fields of skyscrapers that are covering this country. These new cities are coming alive.
I’ve seen it happen.
I can hear the scoffs now, but I have to silence them: the Chinese model of development, as absolutely insane as it sounds, is showing signs of working. Shanghai’s Pudong district was deserted for years, now it’s one of the country’s financial capitals. Ordos Kangbashi, known as China’s most famous ghost city, came alive last year. Dantu, one of the oldest underpopulated new districts in the country, is now no less inhabited than any other new urban development, and Zhengzhou’s Zhengdong New District, shamelessly showcased as one of China’s largest developmental flops in the international media, is now on the verge of thriving. China is pulling off many of their colossal new city initiatives, as unbelievable as it sounds.
But there is something about Meixi that didn’t sit right with me. Changsha is not a boom town like Ordos, it lacks the kinetic atmosphere of Zhengzhou, and it just doesn’t possess the economic stimulus of Shanghai. I may someday have to eat my words, but as I looked out across the lake and tried to imagine it cradled with skyscrapers I could not stop myself from saying, “New South China Mall.”
The largest mall in the world is in Dongguan, in the south of China. It was meant to be the greatest shopping center the planet has even known but instead ended up being one of the greatest developmental busts in recent history. Eight years after it was completed it sits over 90% empty, a husk of a shrine to capitalism, China’s biggest white elephant. The ball was simply too big and heavy and misplaced to get rolling, and the demand it was meant to create just hasn’t yet materialize. In point, China’s “rise to the top or crash and burn trying” model for development does burst into flames on occasion.
As I looked out across Meixi Lake at the nothingness that will soon be a city, I had to wonder if this is the Chinese dream or a fantasy that has spun out of control? Whatever eventually happens here one thing is for sure: this city will be something the world has never seen before. It will be new.
Watch our video of the building of the Meixi Lake new city
About the Author: VBJ
I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. VBJ has written 3657 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.
VBJ is currently in: Astoria, New York
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