Architectural practice SOM's 17.6-sq km (6.8-sq mile) master plan for Beijing Bohai Innovation City has won an international design competition for the redevelopment of the region. The design is focused on a redevelopment corridor along the high-speed rail connection between Beijing, and the port of Tianjin. Though incorporating existing infrastructure, the scheme constitutes an ambitious planned city, and one which, if fully realized, may set a new standard for environmentally-conscious urban planning.
Half of the allocated site will be green in the literal sense - devoted to natural and other open areas. But perhaps the plan's greatest claim to environmental soundness is its commitment to greener modes of transport - high speed rail for getting in and out of the city, but with a focus on foot traffic within the urban center itself.
"Beijing Bohai Innovation City establishes a new model of transit-oriented development at an unprecedented scale," said SOM's project chief designer Thomas Hussey. "The new district will leverage the high-speed rail to bridge two major metropolitan areas and create a sustainable urban environment that concentrates walkable, compact densities around transit stations, while still preserving existing agriculture and green space." If the vision of Bohai Innovation City as a walking city is one day realized, it will be thanks mainly to the high density development that puts as much of the city within walking distance of the rail hub as possible.
But the plan by no means relies on pedestrians. A rapid transit bus system and electric car fleet are envisaged. Streets are designed to be cycling-friendly, and SOM hopes that combined, the bus system, walking and cycling will account for 80% of private inner city journeys.
SOM (short for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP) additionally claims that its scheme sets "aggressive goals for water, energy, waste, renewable energy and building design efficiency", incorporates a wetland park habitat, and incorporates a storm water filtration and cleaning system to return uncontaminated water to the region's rivers (which alas sounds like the sort of feature that typically gets value-engineered out of projects prior to their physical manifestation).
Human considerations are a sometimes-overlooked aspect of sustainable planning, but SOM has taken steps to see that the development is as pleasant as it is green. The development is described as encouraging a "a human and family-oriented mixed-use urban community". That may be easier said than done, but the alignment of streets to create lines of sight with stand-out features demonstrates that human-scale thought is being put into the scheme as a living environment.
The competition was entitled "Beijing Bohai Rim Advanced Business Park", held by Beijing Tongzhou District Taihu High End Headquarters Construction Management Committee and Beijing Xinghu Investment and Development Co. Ltd. In winning it, SOM have further cemented their reputation as leaders in the field of Chinese development, having carried out numerous projects in Tianjin, and submitting an award-winning master plan for the the expansion of Beijing's central business district.
How diluted the scheme will be if and when it comes to fruition remains to be seen. It isn't cynical to acknowledge that grand designs can emerge somewhat humbled having had the twin lenses of practicality and economy focused upon them. Perhaps all the more reason, then, to think big from the outset - as SOM appears to have done with its Bohai master plan.