Is branding cities the next hot trend in China?
City developers are taking a page out of Shanghai’s Xintiandi playbook.
Once a run-down area nestled in the French Concession, the area was revitalized by billionaire developer Vincent Lo through the creation to what is now known as Xintiandi.
Consider by some to be an “urban theme park” filled with fancy shops and outdoor cafes, the success of Xintiandi has spawned many clones with many lower-tier areas buying, building and marketing model towns.
Malls and office complexes, such as Shanghai luxury mall Plaza 66, and neighborhoods, such as Xintiandi—a Shanghai version of Manhattan’s SoHo—are being replicated across the mainland.
Lo is busy building sequels in the second-tier cities of Hangzhou (“Xihu Tiandi”), Wuhan (“Wuhan Tiandi”), and Chongqing (“Chongqing Tiandi”), among others.
The copycats are not necessarily worried about creating unique versions for their own cities: each Plaza 66, for example, is about the same in size, cost, and complexity. While it cuts down on individuality, this kind of replication speeds time to market and reduces risk for architects.
“They [Chinese officials] are relying on these brands. They don’t have time, they don’t have expertise, and the risks of failure of the new and unproven outweigh a uniqueness you may enjoy,” said James von Klemperer, Plaza 66 architect.
American designer, Stan Gale of Gale International, is taking the developmental strategy to the next level and proposing building what he refers to as “city in a box.” And the answer to overcrowded Chinese cities seeking fast expansion.
Gale’s experimental prototypes offer 100 million square feet of preplanned cityspace, including state-of-the-art energy-saving technology, amenities such as lakes and Central Park- inspired green space, and luxurious retail facilities. Although Gale’s prototype does not necessarily offer a unique design, it does offer a proven one– and a quick one. As China’s urban population grows in staggering quantities, timeliness is what Chinese governors are looking for.
Between 1990 and 2005, China saw an urban population increase equal to the entire population of the United States, and it doesn’t stop there. Over the same period, China added 600 million to its emerging middle class — nearly all of them in cities.By 2025, China expects to add another 350 million urban residents, especially in small cities.
The model for Gale’s “city in a box” is South Korea’s Songdo Business District, built on a man-made island off the coast of South Korea. The $35 billion city is projected to be completed by 2015. When complete, the city will be about the same size as downtown Boston, and will host a population of 65,000.
Redoing the same designs unquestionably allows for faster delivery. Gale’s local partners, with designs from the firm Kohn Pederson Fox, will build the first Chinese box city, Meixi Lake, in second-tier city Changsha. And while the master planning process took two and a half years for Songdo, Songdo’s chief marketing officer Tom Murcott says that the plans for Meixi took only six months.
“We know it can be done, and we know it’s replicable,” Murcott said.