Exclusive: How Shenzhen battles congestion and climate change

By Chia Jie Lin

Interview with Shan Liang, Vice-President, Urban Planning and Design Institute of Shenzhen.

Image: jo.sau /Flickr - CC BY 2.0

Shenzhen’s meteoric rise from a fishing village to the sprawling urban giant it is today, is a story that many have heard of. In 30 years, its GDP has multiplied by 30 times to a whopping US$ 338 million.

The city’s Qianhai district - where four million citizens are tightly packed in area of 15 square kilometres - has been steadily rising to prominence in recent years. Qianhai stands on reclaimed land. In 1980, it was only a potential backup development zone for Shenzhen’s then-budding economy.

“At the start, there was only an energy base,” says Shan Liang, Vice-President of the Urban Planning and Design Institute of Shenzhen. The district came into the limelight only in the past decade, when the local government poured massive investments into it and opened its doors to the private sector, in a bid to position it as the region’s new financial hub.

GovInsider caught up with Shan to learn how Shenzhen is planning the city with artificial intelligence (AI) and fighting climate change by cutting energy costs.

Urban planning, made smart

Despite its place as a rising star, development has not always been smooth-sailing for Qianhai. As it continues to grow rapidly, construction can often be haphazard as builders rush projects or cut corners to meet deadlines. In 2015, poor soil conditions caused the foundations of a construction site to collapse, reported the Hong Kong Free Press.

To ensure that development is safe and balanced, Shenzhen has come up with a guide that planners must follow. “Urban planners have to precisely lay out various units of their development plan and ensure that each unit can fulfill all the necessary requirements for growth,” he adds.

Following this guide, Qianhai’s urban planners have distributed housing and work facilities equally across its five zones. “Each zone contains a balance between work and living,” says Shan.

One advantage of this approach is curbing congestion. Cities often develop from their economic centers, leading to traffic congestions when citizens go to work in these financial districts. Conversely, Qianhai’s balanced urban plans have enabled vehicles to be evenly spread out over the district.

“Cities like Beijing develop from their central areas, so traffic is most congested in these areas. But Qianhai’s development is balanced across the district, preventing traffic jams,” Shan says. “The key to curbing traffic jams is not road planning, but good urban planning,” he adds.
“The key to curbing traffic jams is not road planning, but good urban planning.”
Qianhai is also using modelling software to generate virtual 3D constructions of potential building projects, known as building information modelling (BIM). This allows planners to map out urban construction projects for maximum efficiency.

3D modelling allows planners to identify risks, simulate many building projects simultaneously, and predict the social and environmental effects arising from these projects. This platform has helped develop underground pipe networks, roads and subway stations across Qianhai. “Our goal is to create a BIM regional platform for Qianhai,” says Shan. “All potential projects have to be evaluated and adjusted on it, before we roll out urban planning.”

In the coming years, he hopes to use AI to make public services more efficient. For instance, Qianhai will explore AI-powered traffic controls to improve the efficiency of its traffic systems, according to him. “With our existing traffic infrastructure, if you use smart traffic controls, then its efficiency can be increased by several times. This cannot be neglected.”

The city must focus on using technology like AI to improve urban planning, he adds. “When we planned cities in the past, we gave them a healthy ‘body’. But in the AI era, a healthy ‘body’ is no longer enough. We need a smart ‘brain’.”

Sponge City

As climate change intensifies, Shenzhen joins a growing list of cities that suffer from extreme weather conditions. Its sewers are sometimes overwhelmed by sudden rain storms, leading to flash floods, China Daily has reported.
“We want to turn Shenzhen into a liveable place as a sponge city.”
To combat flooding, Shenzhen has come up with ways to collect rainwater that can irrigate farms around the city and clean toilets. It has launched “sponge city” initiatives across 150 districts, named because of their ability to collect rainwater for later reuse. Qianhai is one of them. For instance, buildings are fit with gutter systems and large tanks to collect excess rainwater. Shenzhen also has rooftop gardens and permeable pavements that absorb rainwater, preventing flooding.

The gutter system collects up to 70% of rainwater for the city’s use, while the rest goes to irrigation for urban farms. Every year, 10,000 cubic meters of rainwater can be harvested - a boon to Shenzhen, where over 66% of its water is imported. By 2020, over 20% of urban Shenzhen will become sponge cities, and another 60% by 2030. “Water is essential to Shenzhen’s safety,” Shan says. “We want to turn Shenzhen into a liveable place as a sponge city.”

Cooling the city

Besides water management, the city is scaling up efforts to cut energy costs and reduce pollution.

For instance, it reduces energy wastage by centralising air-conditioning for buildings through “district cooling plants”. This saves on environmental costs compared to if buildings were to air-condition themselves separately. It increases energy efficiency by “25 to 50% from economies of scale, and by another 10% from reducing urban heat island effect”, reported the Asian Development Bank.

Shenzhen has a “goal of 100% green buildings” by deploying cooling systems in districts like Qianhai, Shan notes. Air pollution has plagued the city since its early industrial development. In 2016, 6,400 Shenzhen citizens died prematurely from pollution by particulate matter.

Another green effort looks to reduce pollution from public transport. Earlier this year, Shenzhen fully transitioned from normal buses to the world’s first 16,000-strong 100% electric bus fleet, reported CityLab. Unlike their diesel-powered counterparts, electric buses do not release air pollutants.

Yet its environmental efforts are still a work-in-progress. For one, it struggles with the large amounts of rubbish generated from development and the influx of new residents. “Our landfills are so full, it's hard to find new places to dump waste,” Shan admits.

Shenzhen’s urban planning institute is also adopting its sponge city and energy-saving initiatives for another rising city - Xiong’an - in real-time. Currently, Shan is on the team that is planning Xiong’an’s urban development.

As Shenzhen and its Qianhai district develop, the city will continue to face unprecedented urban challenges - be it congestion, or water and energy management. It's also certain that the city will keep pressing ahead.