Cutting the Super Block Down to Size

Yuelai Eco-city / Calthorpe Associates

Urbanization in China is the single biggest human migration in history. To accomodate the millions coming in from the countryside each year, China’s cities are tearing down their old human-scale, socially-rich neighborhoods, with their meandering, bicycle-friendly streets, and putting in highways and incredibly isolating towers set amid vacant-feeling “super blocks.” These are places only Le Corbusier could have loved. Or at least that’s the image some see in the West. At the World Urban Forum in Medellin, Colombia, a group of innovative Chinese urban planners explain how some of the latest “eco-cities” as well as design interventions in existing cities may help some Chinese mayors see the wisdom of sustainable urban development and taking those super-blocks down to size.

Dongquan He, with the Energy Foundation, said China now has more than 660 cities, with 20,000 more towns under construction. Over the next 25 years, 400 million more Chinese will move into cities. And by 2050, China will be 75 percent urban.

As China grows at incredible rates, its cities have created very wide streets that connect super blocks. “These have just a single function, moving from A to B. You really have to use a car to get around.” These planning decisions have also resulted in signficant environmental damage. The air in so many Chinese cities is basically unbreathable because cars have been let loose. He said: “China’s development problem is the super block.”

The Energy Foundation has come up with a whole set of criteria to explain urban sustainability to China’s mayors. The principles are well considered: places should be walkable; bicycling should be prioritized; networks of streets should be dense; public transit should be high-quality; developments should be mixed-use; and parking should be regulated.

To test these idea, He and his team became involved in a new thousand-hectare eco-city in Yuelai, Chongquing, one of the country’s mega-cities (see image above). He’s group worked with Calthorpe Asssociates and the eco-city developers to preserve the existing landscape. “We didn’t violate the natural systems.” They then created a plan that reduced the size of the average Chinese super block, allocating density near transit, creating small town-centers with public space every 500 meters, and also smaller grid spaces that fit high-rise, mid-rise. and low-rise buildings together in a dense, walkable street network. Parks and greenways connect people to the harbor, and a custom-designed streetcar system will also improve mobility. But He admitted that with this kind of huge development, “it’s hard to created the small spaces people like.” Indeed, in these images, the blocks still look a bit super.

Yuelai Eco-city / Calthorpe Associates

Yang Liu with the China Sustainable Transportation Center outlined his organization’s work with the Chenggong New Town, in Kunming, which is in China’s southwest. He and his team are tackling “super blocks that didn’t feel safe crossing.” They helped increase the road network density by narrowing the streets and sidewalks considerably to improve the human fabric. Development is also now clustered around transit stations.

For EMBARQ China’s director, Haitao Zhang, the aim is to transform Qingdao, a major city in the northeast, through his Qingdao Low-carbon Sustainable Transportation study. Zhang has worked on reconnecting land use and transportation planning, putting stations where there is demand, and breaking the siloed approach to the problems of sprawl in the local government. EMBARQ is also planning a slew of “small-scale urban interventions” to improve the streetscape, turning super blocks into outdoor cafes and pedestrian-friendly plazas.

To learn more about the state of China’s cities, see a new report presented by Shi Na, with UN Habitat and the Urban Planning Society in China.

One thought on “Cutting the Super Block Down to Size

  1. George R. Frantz, AICP 04/18/2014 / 9:47 am

    This article reflects the usual misunderstanding of the form or function of large city blocks in China. For starters, the very large city blocks as a means of organizing cities has its origins in Chinese city planning practice 3,000 years ago. Today, this urban form based on large city blocks continues to provide residents of very dense cities a much higher quality living environment than found in the grid street systems of comparable American cities.

    Indeed, these blocks function as urban enclaves, residential environments buffered from heavy street traffic, and environments where the bicycle and the pedestrian, not the automobile, dominate the transportation system. They provide for a level of neighborhood cohesion not possible in an urban grid sliced and diced by heavy automobile traffic.

    Urban planners in Shanghai briefly experimented with the western street grid concept in the 1930s. They quickly reversed themselves, however, and, in the 1940s, returned to the use of large city blocks as the basic form of their city, (in the process incorporating the design philosophy of the Garden Cities movement into new residential developments in the 1940s, 50s, and to today.)

    Those cute little New Urbanist street grids work wonderfully in the low-traffic suburban environments of Kentlands, Celebration, Orenco Station and Seaside. One only needs to spend a few minutes, however, in most residential areas of Manhattan to realize what a disaster the grid has been for the livability of very large cities. With a visit to Stuyvesant Town, Peter Cooper Village, and Battery Park City, also in Manhattan, you can understand the benefits of the superblock in enhancing the livability of large, densely-populated cities.

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