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LYALL'S FILES: China shows GTHA builders the spoils of intensification
November 23rd, 2016 4:41 pm     A+ | a-

Richard Lyall / RESCON

I looked out over the Pearl River Delta and swallowed hard. Rows of skyscrapers stretched out across the horizon as I looked north from Hong Kong towards southern China.

This is the largest urban area on Earth, according to the World Bank, with a population of 42 million people (and growing). That’s six million more than all of Canada (and triple Ontario’s population), even though Canada’s area is 254 times larger.

The cities of the Pearl River Delta are world leaders for residential intensification.

The Pearl River flows into the South China Sea, connecting three thriving major cities along the way. Forecasts say this region will grow to 120 million by 2050, according to the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTUBH).

It felt like we were on another planet: builders in the region have availed themselves of the most advanced global architectural and engineering services available (including Canadian). Their development firms are some of the most sophisticated in the world. And, boy, do they make things happen. Whereas it has taken decades in the GTHA to get the Spadina subway line extension approved and for construction to begin, China and Hong Kong drop in whole subway lines in two years. 

This was the ideal place to hold the CTUBH conference called “From Cities to Mega Cities: Shaping Dense Vertical Urbanism,” and an amazing destination for a group of RESCON staff and directors who recently travelled there to learn about what the future of residential construction in the GTHA might hold. Through the provincial growth plan, Places to Grow, the Ontario government continues to encourage the intensification of housing in downtown and urban areas, and we intend to deliver what our government and consumers are asking for.

The most famous of the Pearl River Delta’s major cities is Hong Kong – a vertical city of about seven million residents. To our amazement, we learned that 70 per cent of Hong Kong’s hilly territory is green space: that’s truly amazing. While preserving green space, they facilitate intensification rather than leaving it to chance. The other two municipalities in the so-called Chinese “mega-city” are Guangzhou and Shenzhen.

These are glittering, burgeoning cities: there, they create intensified housing that meets transit and jobs simultaneously. Their skylines are dotted with skyscrapers that meet or exceed the LEED platinum standard (the world’s top rating for energy efficiency in buildings) with beautiful urban design and complemented by cutting-edge public transit. At the top end of the country’s regional transit is a bullet train station scheduled to connect Hong Kong to Beijing in 2018. It will whisk travellers 2,240 km in a scant eight hours.

In contrast with Toronto, Hong Kong is currently ranked at 15th in the world at efficiently dealing with construction permits, according to the World Bank (we are around 180th; China is two spots ahead of us). Unlike our systems, these cities are being built completely with the most modern design software, called Building Information Modelling (BIM). The Hong Kong Housing Authority, which currently has more than two million residents, is fully BIM-enabled and runs full simulations on any new housing developments. The priority for these plans is the comfort level of the occupants. They simulate wind, shadowing, energy, pedestrian walkways and other factors. 

It’s incredible (yet practical) to realize that a region with this many people is focusing on the individual. The population of Shenzhen has grown from 35,000 before 1980 to a metropolis of almost 11 million with a fully integrated public transit system.

Now let’s not pretend China is utopia. As a dynamic centre of industry and manufacturing, it faces considerable challenges, and its track record on human rights speaks for itself. However, as home builders looking for new ideas to bring to our customers in the GTHA, we’d be remiss to ignore the Pearl River Delta (PRD) for building urban habitat and infrastructure.

And any region that effectively links housing, transit and jobs in its residential construction developments – one of our mantras, without a doubt – is a region we must pay attention to. We should take note and find ways to streamline our tortured processes.

If there was one big lesson to learn from this mission, it was this: to fulfill its potential as a world class city and region, Toronto and the GTHA need to up their game. We need to think big like Hong Kong and the PRD. Why remake the wheel?

Richard Lyall, president of RESCON, has represented the building industry in Ontario since 1991. He is also a frequent speaker and writer on issues related to the construction industry. Contact him @RESCONprez or at

Ernie Rinomato
November 24th, 2016 10:47 am
Great article Richard!
We need to expand our vision to understand how Toronto can and will be a mega city to address our need for Housing in a responsible and well though out plan.
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