Magazine article Foreign Policy

Cities of the Future

Magazine article Foreign Policy

Cities of the Future

Article excerpt

FOR MUCH OF THE 20th century, the world looked to American cities for a glimpse of the future. Places like New York and Chicago had the tallest skyscrapers, the newest airports, the fastest highways, and the best electricity grids.

But now, just 12 years into the Asian Century, the city of the future has picked up and moved to China. No less than U.S. Vice President Joe Biden recognized this when he said not long ago, "If I blindfolded Americans and took them into some of the airports or ports in China and then took them to one in any one of your cities, in the middle of the night ... and then said, 'Which one is an American? Which one is in your city in America? And which one's in China?' most Americans would say, 'Well, that great one is in America.' It's not." The speech raised eyebrows among conservative commentators, but it points out the obvious to anyone who has spent time in Beijing, Hong Kong, or Shanghai (or even lesser-known cities like Shenzhen and Dalian, for that matter).

In these cities, visitors arrive at glittering, architecturally arresting airports before being whisked by electric taxis into city centers populated by modular green skyscrapers. In the not-so-distant future, they'll hop on traffic-straddling buses powered by safe, clean solar panels. With China now spending some $500 billion annually on infrastructure--9 percent of its GDP, well above the rates in the United States and Europe--and with the country's population undergoing the largest rural-to-urban migration in human history, the decisions it makes about its cities will affect the future of urban areas everywhere. Want to know where urban technology is going? Take the vice president's advice and head east.

Modular skyscrapers

If the speed of China's rise has been astonishing, it's about to get even faster. A Chinese construction firm has pioneered a modular construction technique that allows it to build energy-efficient skyscrapers in a matter of weeks, dramatically reducing construction costs and waste. This year, Broad Group will put that approach to the ultimate test when it builds a 220-story skyscraper--to be the world's tallest--in a mere 90 days in Changsha, in southeast China. (The world's current tallest building, the more than 160-story Burj Khalifa in Dubai, took six years to complete.)

Although the feat might sound farfetched, Broad has proved itself capable in a series of trial runs. This past December, it completed a 30-story hotel near its headquarters in Changsha in just 15 days. The approach utilizes prefabrication--93 percent of the work on the hotel took place in a factory--resulting in 1 percent of the waste of a normal building project. Also, by assembling large portions of the building beforehand, engineers can seamlessly integrate green features into the structure, such as thermal insulation and electricity-generating elevators. Already, Broad says it has franchised its methods to six Chinese companies and is in talks with two companies abroad.

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The Chinese bought 14.5 million cars in 2011---a figure that could increase to 50 million annually within a decade--leading to massive congestion on China's roads. (A recent jam outside Beijing lasted 11 days.) Given these traffic woes, it's a wonder someone didn't think of the 3D Express Coach sooner. The premise is simple. If you can't go through gridlock, why not slide over it?

Known as the "straddling bus," the arch-shaped vehicle operates like a game of croquet, but one in which the wickets move over the balls. Developed by Shenzhen Huashi Future Parking Equipment, the bus can carry up to 1,200 passengers in a carriage straddling a two-lane street, allowing traffic below to flow freely (or not, if it's rush hour). The company claims the vehicle will reduce traffic jams by up to 30 percent, and because it doesn't require a tunnel or elevated track, it's 90 percent cheaper to build than a subway or monorail. …

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