REGULATORY RANT: A tale of two cities – Shenzhen and San Francisco
Michael de Lint / RESCON
I was recently in Shenzhen, China, representing RESCON at the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat’s (CTBUH) 2019 Tall + Urban Innovation Conference. Immediately after that, I attended the American Planning Association’s NPC19 (National Planning Conference) in San Francisco with RCCAO executive director Andy Manahan. This juxtaposition of building and planning conferences held in major urban centres of two global powers was most interesting.
A view of the City of Shenzhen, China.
Located about 30 km from Hong Kong, Shenzhen was selected as the first of China’s five special economic zones by former Chinese paramount leader, the late Deng Xiaoping. According to Wikipedia, the Chinese government views the city as an “experimental ground for the practice of market capitalism within a community guided by the ideals of socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Shenzhen’s proximity to Hong Kong no doubt had an impact on its selection for this ambitious role.
SHENZHEN’S SUPER-FAST POPULATION GROWTH
Since 1980, Shenzhen’s population has increased at a phenomenal rate from 30,000 to more than 13 million today. One of the fastest-growing cities in the world in the 1990s and 2000s, Shenzhen is now ranked second by travel guidebook publisher Lonely Planet as a top city to visit and a global technology hub that may be the next Silicon Valley. Shenzhen’s very rapid population growth makes it very difficult to argue that the GTA’s annual population growth of about 110,000 per year creates for Toronto unique and overwhelming planning, infrastructure and housing challenges.
SHENZHEN ONE: FASTER IMPLEMENTATION, FASTER INNOVATION
A centralized and more coordinated approach to managing development approvals supporting its fast growth has allowed Shenzhen to implement new urban development ideas quickly. This means that Shenzhen can quickly refine and improve housing and urban development forms through learning by doing.
A courtyard fish pool in the Shenzhen One mixed-use, high-rise community.
We toured one of the new nicely designed high-rise mixed-use development projects called Shenzhen One, which maximizes walkability and bike travel through interconnected green spaces, walkways and dedicated bike lanes. In this development, parking structures and virtually all roof surfaces, feature trees, grass and fish ponds to maximize eco-friendliness, utility and attractiveness.
Faster implementation can lead to both bigger and faster mistakes as well as bigger and faster successes – when the good ideas substantially outnumber the bad ones, there can be rapid progress.
While the context is different, the GTA can learn something from the benefits of implementation via continuous, thoughtful and rapid improvement. By Ontario standards, Shenzhen has a democracy deficit, but our approach can also be improved and made more democratic (more on that below!).
A bicycle path in Shenzhen One.
CHINA NOW HAS MOST OF WORLD’S TALLEST BUILDINGS
For 32 years, Toronto’s 553.3-metre CN tower was the world’s tallest free-standing structure. In 2007, it was surpassed by the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. Currently, five of the world’s 10 tallest buildings are in China, including the 599.1-metre high Ping An Finance Centre in Shenzhen.
2019 TALL + URBAN INNOVATION CONFERENCE
On Day 3 of the conference, I chaired a panel on “What Makes for Innovative Tall Building Construction?” focusing largely on the role of contractors in the tall building process. A meeting the day before with my highly experienced and expert co-panellists helped to define key issues for discussion including: when to engage the contractor in the process; challenges with the evolving design brief; how to manage risk in iconic versus non-iconic projects; using prefabricated building components; infill development on tight sites; global material sourcing for mega-projects; design and construction coordination; and the use of 3D BIM (Building Information Modelling) for clash analysis (identifying conflicts among design elements such as mechanical, envelope, structural systems) before and after construction. A major theme was risk management under uncertain and fluid circumstances.
The panel was comprised of (from left): Michael de Lint; Murali Guruvappan, director of structures, WME Consultants (based in Dubai); Ardo Kardous, regional president, Middle East, Hill International (Dubai); and Peter Ramstedt, vice -president, project director, Turner International LLC (Malaysia).
FORTY-FOUR STOREY PREFABRICATED BUILDING WINS INNOVATIVE CONSTRUCTION AWARD
I also participated on a jury panel tasked with selecting a winner for the most innovative construction award. The panel was unanimous in selecting Atria La Trobe Street in Melbourne. This 44-storey student residence building relied heavily on prefabrication for fast and efficient construction. The prefabricated units shipped by flat-bed truck to this infill site were composed of a concrete prefabricated floor slab, a complete exterior wall assembly, plus bathroom module, allowing for fast, quiet, evening construction around the building core.
SAN FRANCISCO’S AMERICAN PLANNING ASSOCIATION (APA) CONFERENCE
After Shenzhen, I attended in a jet-lagged stupor, the APA Conference in San Francisco. It so happens that San Francisco’s rather blandly named Salesforce Tower was selected by the Shenzhen CTBUH as the best tall building worldwide.
TOD, CALIFORNIA SENATE BILL 50 HOT TOPICS AT THE APA
Road congestion, sprawling downtown parking lots, low-density zoning, housing shortages and high house prices are big problems in places like San Francisco, Calif., which has an estimated 3.5-million homes deficit. There was much discussion about transit-oriented development (TOD) and land value capture (LVC), including Sen. Scott Wiener’s controversial California Senate Bill 50 – an effort to “expand the housing market to allow for faster, bigger, and denser residential construction.” The bill, which calls for “up-zoning” near major transit hubs and job clusters, over-rides local single-family zoning bylaws. In addition, the bill requires developers to ensure that 15-25% of units, depending on project size, are rented at below-market rates, or are provided in separate nearby affordable projects. According to media reports, SB 50s opponents living in MTSAs (Mass Transit Station Areas) see the bill as an act of war on homeowners; however, 61% of Californians support the bill, with some polls showing even higher levels of support.
THE PERFECT IS THE ENEMY OF THE GOOD
An APA planner told me that for a given investment, 10 times as much subsidized housing could be provided in areas serviced by buses outside of prime MTSAs. It would be more prudent and cost-effective to direct subsidized housing to areas with transit but not prime areas, such as MTSAs.
San Francisco's iconic Golden Gate Bridge.
LAND VALUE CAPTURE AND TRANSIT
Another hot topic was LVC but proposed approaches involved collecting funds for various purposes beyond recovering the cost of the transit that created the land value increment. I asked APA panelists if there should be a nexus between total LVC revenues and transit costs. It was agreed that collecting LVC charges beyond transit construction costs may be open to legal challenges. RESCON’s submission to the province as part of the Housing Supply Action Plan consultation included a piece on LVC in which we proposed that air rights should be used to cover transit construction costs – similar to initiatives in Melbourne, Hong Kong and elsewhere.
DEMOCRACY IN PLANNING: THREADING THE EYE OF THE NEEDLE
In this tale of two cities, we see some convergence in approach between Shenzhen and San Francisco.
While urban development in Shenzhen and other Chinese cities are expected to have a very substantial “top-down” component, some U.S. states are also moving in a similar direction with state legislation for TODs that over-ride local planning and zoning.
Ontario’s Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, developed through extensive public consultation, prescribes minimum density targets of 200 residents and jobs per hectare near subways. However, under the current planning regime, municipalities have eight years to update their zoning (and probably longer since the province does not enforce timelines).
RESCON’s report to the province strikes, we think, a reasonable balance among many considerations: speedy implementation informed by public consultation at regional and local levels. We recommended that for major transit stations (MTSAs), the province requires municipalities to align zoning with the Growth Plan within one year and if that does not happen, the province itself should step in to up-zone using existing authority under the Planning Act.
ONTARIO'S HOUSING SUPPLY ACTION PLAN
Local consultation within the one-year timeframe should focus on how to implement the provincial plan using 3D GIS (Geographic Information System), BIM-based models to demonstrate how the proposed TOD fits with local circumstances.
This approach would combine democracy and efficiency by not allowing narrow NIMBY voices that often don’t represent prevailing neighbourhood views, from thwarting the will of the majority seeking liveable mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented communities with a mix of housing options. Ontario should be able to achieve most of Shenzhen’s efficiency and rapid innovation within a reformulated democratic framework – a new charter or Magna Carta for urban planning consultation. I’ll write more on this in future articles in this space.
Ontario’s new plan for housing supply, More Homes, More Choice – Ontario’s Housing Supply Action Plan, is an excellent first step that includes, among other initiatives, a focus on increased housing supply in MTSAs; faster development approvals; and more predictable community benefits charges. RESCON is currently reviewing the enabling legislation, Bill 108, in more detail, and we will provide further comments at rescon.com/blog in the near future.
Michael de Lint is RESCON’s director of building regulatory reform and technical standards. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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