About Time and Space, Responding to Urban Regeneration Propositions with Actionable Foresight Practices
Wei Li has nearly 20 years of experience in master planning and urban design. She has led a team that has won numerous awards from the American Institute of Architects and the Chinese Institute of Architects, and is widely recognized. In her practice, she advocates the exploration of the unique potential of each project in a site-specific manner, creating a sense of diversity and place in public space from the perspective of human needs. She is good at integrating resources from multiple perspectives, focusing on the organic combination of design foresight and practicality, demonstrating a pioneering pattern and sense of conviction.
R: In terms of urban regeneration works, how do you develop an operational design practice in the face of the complex issues that need to be addressed, while responding to future development propositions?
W: Urban regeneration is an intricate and systematic dynamic process. In the planning of the overall vision, we need to anticipate the future and reserve enough flexibility for the city’s development with forward thinking. In the formulation of the development framework, we advocate to tailor the development to the local context. A clear, orderly and imaginative development framework will lead the city to sustainable development. In formulating a phased implementation plan, we need to be more sensitive to make each phase of the phasing strategy actionable and continuously energize the city.
In the case of the 2014 Caohejing Headquarters urban regeneration project in Shanghai, for example, we wanted to combine a forward-looking vision with an actionable implementation plan. The urban development framework should not only address the issues facing the city today, but also look to the future and create aspirations. Unlike past government-led urban regeneration projects, this project explores a new model of government-led corporate operation. The biggest challenge facing this type of model is the constraint of land ownership.
Among the developable land in Caohejing, there are many other land rights holders besides the client Shanghai Caohejing Hi-Tech Park Development Co Ltd, which poses a great challenge to our regeneration work. At the beginning, we hoped to unblock the city’s connections through the combing of open spaces, and to enhance people’s sense of belonging with recognizable public spaces. Later, we found that the force of open space alone might not be strong enough. What CHJ needs is a comprehensive transformation, not only in terms of environmental quality, but also in terms of optimizing the functional structure and the strategic thinking of transforming the whole zone from a park to an urban area.
W: We reached a consensus with the client that in such an intricate environment, we need to look beyond the constraints of land ownership to a more macro and long-term layout with a future-oriented vision. Caohejing needs to reserve a cohesive public core of technology and business life in a strategic location, not only to provide a sense of belonging for science and innovation talents, but more importantly, to lead its sustainable development in the next 20 years.
Considering the difficulty of land ownership vesting at the real level, we arranged the construction of the heart to the third phase of the phasing plan, and when the time is suitable in the future, we will realize its future vision through the mode of overall buyback or cooperative development.
Urban regeneration is about the concept of time and space. The entire regeneration is planned to span 20 years and is very pragmatically divided into four phases to advance. In the first 5-year plan from 2016 to 2021, the brand image of CHJ is enhanced with recognizable public spaces. The landscape renovation of Yishan Road has been completed, and the landscape re-creation of Central Park is in progress. Phase II will continue to promote urban renewal through various catalysts and building linkages in the next five years. Phase III will lead through the heart and activate the whole district. In Phase IV, we hope that the city will be able to renew itself by relying on its own mechanisms that have already been repaired.
R: In your opinion, what is the impact of the epidemic on urban forms and lifestyles, and what does it tell us about future design development?
W: The ongoing epidemic has triggered and exacerbated some of the existing problems in society and economy. We are more concerned about the new needs of people’s working and living patterns in the aftermath of the epidemic. How should our communities adapt to the times?
First, in the post-epidemic era, large parks, plazas and outdoor public spaces will play a more active role in urban life. They satisfy people’s desire to be close to nature and provide a place to socialize “at a distance”.
Second, people’s work patterns are diversifying. The epidemic has led to an economic downturn and accelerated the elimination of the best and the worst. In this economic state, in addition to large and strong organizations, there is also a flexible group that we call “small, fast, and flexible” that can survive. These groups are temporary, flexible and diverse. They prefer small and medium-sized office space and want to share with the community. In the future, small workplaces in the community will be a development model. There will also be an increasing emphasis on mixed uses of communities. People want to have easy access to education, healthcare, restaurants, retail, offices, and other functions within walking distance. This proximity to a network of high-quality amenities allows for more balanced urban development, avoiding overcrowding caused by over-concentration and hedging potential risks.
Take the Wuxi Economic Development Zone International Community as an example. We propose to redefine people’s community lifestyle with the concept of open neighborhoods and park living rooms. Each neighborhood integrates living, amenities, and micro-offices into a three-dimensional mix. Around each community park, the convergence of public facilities is encouraged to meet people’s multiple outdoor activities and social needs. This diverse, flat and decentralized public network of amenities strengthens the resilience of the city and enhances the cohesiveness of the community.
R: The current design industry is also suffering from the impact of the economic downturn, can you give some advice and tips to young designers?
W: First of all, I would like to share a quote from my mentor who taught me when I first started my CRTKL: “Designers should have the belief to use their personal expertise and creativity to actively create a better urban life for people.” With this belief, we no longer accept challenges passively, but actively embrace change. This has served me well, and I now share these words with young designers. In the cold winter of the industry, having a belief will take us a long way.
I have always believed that the individual and the company are a whole entity. For individuals, nowadays the complexity and diversity of projects are increasing, young designers need to expand the breadth of professional knowledge horizontally and train the depth of thinking vertically, so as to become a trustworthy professional partner for clients. For company leaders, the more difficult it is, the more we have the responsibility to provide young designers with a sense of security and guard a sense of ideal and belief in the profession for them.