July 18, 2009

Peeling Back Pavement to Expose Watery Havens

From NY times:

Peeling Back Pavement to Expose Watery Havens

Talking about downtown or CBD, what naturally comes to our mind is the daily hustle and bustle. Yet in Seoul, South Korea, a clean stream named Cheonggyecheon goes through the center of the city. It is an amazing scenery. How awesome it feels to find a place so close to nature in a busy business area. I visited Seoul in the February of 2006, and I was naturally drawn to the bank of this little stream and played water with my friends. As described, "picnickers cool their bare feet in its filtered water, and carp swim in its tranquil pools."

All this came at a cost. This stream, officially opened in 2005, was liberated from its dank sheath and burbles between reedy banks after after a $384 million recovery project. But I believe most Seoul citizens love this idea. As reported, "Some 90,000 pedestrians visit the stream banks on an average day."

Now US planners begin to talk a lot about walkability, bicycle-friendliness, and transit-friendliness, after seeing the social problems in US cities in late 20th century. And to increase workability, in addition to building more pedestrian sidewalks or bicycle lanes, it is also of great importance to build lively neighborhoods with pleasant amenities which attract people to come, rest, and play.

It is time for civil engineers and urban planners to think and act in community terms.

May 8, 2009

The death-spiral in the US housing market

From wikiinvest:

The death-spiral in the U.S. housing market is nearing a bottom

The topic sentence is that "The National Association of Realtors said today (Wednesday) that sales of existing homes fell to their lowest level in almost 12 years, as prices also fell and are now near their six-year lows."

Besides the gloomy economic status for many real estate developers, another side-effect is the trend of demolishing old houses rocked by foreclosures and vacant buildings. See the report from StarTribuene:

Twin Cities urban renewal, bulldozer-style

In Twin Cities, MN, many residents living in the neighborhoods where houses are falling vacant already started to complain. Concerns about security, aestheticity, and livability in such neighborhoods have risen up.

If such concerns are representative among local residents, my hypothesis is that people are even less willing to buy houses in those old neighborhoods or more people may tend to move out, when the concerns about livability are incorporated into their utility model in mind. But the impact on good/rich neighborhoods might be marginal. In fact, one of my friends working in real estate told me that house prices in good neighborhoods such as Eagan or Woodbury have not changed much.

It would be of interest to study: would today's economic recession impact urban sprawl and urban patterns in the US? If yes, what kind of change will happen and how is it effected?

April 28, 2009

China's Plans for Eco-cities lie abandoned

From Yale environment 360

China's eye-catching project of building “the world’s first eco-city” in Dongshan near Shanghai has seemed to be abandoned. The first phase of construction was planned to be finished by Shanghai 2010 World Expo; nevertheless, almost nothing has been built so far.

This article provided a detailed report on the reasons of its failure. Here are some of the key points.

- Financing. There have been disputes all along the planning of the project on who are financing the project and how to divide the benefits.

- The highly politicized nature of the project. The fact that the main backer of the project, Chen Liangyu, former Shanghai Communist Party chief, was sentenced 18 years in prison for bribery and abuse of power contributed to the halt of the project. The strong involvement of political forces has been a remarkable feature of almost all projects fully or partially financed by Chinese government.

- A lack of understanding of local needs. The planning process of the project did not do a good job in engaging the public, and therefore, although shining with catchy words like "green" and "ecology-friendly", the project did not really consider local people's de facto daily needs.

Another criticism about the project is its strong reliance on international big-name consulting firms like Mckinsey & Company and McDonough, who might not have sufficient understanding upon China's situations.

Yes, regarding China's urban planning and city construction, there is a lot of room for improvement. And the overseas engineering practice, like it or not, cannot directly be applied to China. Of course, there is a lot we can learn from developed countries. I believe that a combination of international engineering practice and proper understanding about China's status quo will be of enormous value.