Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.
Paris, San Francisco, and Guangzhou have very different approaches to realizing big plans.
In times of tightened budgets and limited resources, the idea of doing a huge urban regeneration project is almost beyond reason. And yet, in many ways, tough economic times are exactly when cities could benefit from large-scale projects.
Urban regeneration, as a concept, is based on taking underperforming or problematic spaces and reshaping them into better performing uses – for a city's economy, its people, its environment, its culture, or some combination thereof.
While the prospect of large-scale projects may be daunting, three current projects presented at this week's American Planning Association's national conference in Los Angeles show that big things can happen even in a recession, and that there are multiple avenues to bring about these large projects.
One such project currently underway in Paris is particularly instructive. In 2011, the French government approved the $30 billion Le Grand Paris project, which will build more than 100 miles of subway lines in the city's rapidly growing periphery. Launched in 2007, the project aims to "overhaul the urban, social and economic geography of the Paris Basin and beyond."
Pushed by French President Nicholas Sarkozy in what some call a quest for a likable legacy, the project is mainly a reaction to the barely controlled growth of communities outside of Paris. Hundreds of thousands of square feet of new offices and homes have been built every year on the outskirts, transforming the city "faster than the Paris master plan could control," says Nicolas Buchoud, principal at Renaissance Urbaine Consultants.
Buchoud says there are about 650 big projects for the city and greater metropolis either planned or underway. And though this effort has support from the president, Buchoud says it largely came about as a response to the development, largely unplanned, that had been occurring outside the city. What's resulted is a large-scale effort to rethink metropolitan development in greater Paris. It's big planning led by real estate development, not the other way around.
In San Francisco, the city is embarking on a number of large-scale projects, including the redevelopment of Bay View Hunters Point and Treasure Island, two mixed-use developments that together will bring thousands of new units of housing to the city. And though the city and its planning department have been leading the effort, both projects are reliant on forces outside the government to move forward.
"The planning process has to be a public-private venture," says John Rahaim, the city's planning director. The private side has the funding and incentive to build projects, and the city has the mechanisms to fund the very high upfront costs of infrastructure, which Rahaim notes is the limiting factor in many large-scale projects. Both Hunter's Point and Treasure Island are projects that will eventually consist of thousands of housing units – a scale that requires a lot of hard infrastructure. But, Rahaim says, by clustering development and implementing cost-saving green infrastructure, costs can drop significantly.
On almost the complete opposite end of the spectrum is China, where many large-scale projects are occurring, often with disregard for the types of market forces that might limit similar projects in other places. One project in Guangzhou, currently in the advanced planning stages, will add a new 1,600-acre mixed-use development to largely undeveloped land outside the city center. The product of a competition won by the architecture and planning firm AECOM, this development will add a high level of density to what's now mainly underused agricultural land. Much of the site will be retained as green space, creating what AECOM's Edward Tsui calls "lungs" for the city.
"It’s a raw piece of land waiting to be discovered," Tsui says.
The project was designed in just three months, a fact that elicited surprise from the U.S.-based members on the APA panel. Tsui acknowledged the fast pace, but noted that after winning the competition for the project, he and his team were given an additional six months to refine their proposal.
China's top-down approach to planning enables this type of project to quickly go from competition to construction. In San Francisco, Rahaim notes that the city's large projects have been in the planning stages for seven years.
Top image: In this 2009 file photo, a visitor looks at "Le Grand Paris" the Architecture museum in Paris, which preceded French President Nicolas Sarkozy's unveiling of 10 architectural projects aimed at creating a Greater Paris. (REUTERS/Charles Platiau)