Open Collections

Vancouver Institute Lectures

From the ground up: designing and building a new city in China Thom, Bing 1997-02-22

Your browser doesn't seem to have a PDF viewer, please download the PDF to view this item.

Notice for Google Chrome users:
If you are having trouble viewing or searching the PDF with Google Chrome, please download it here instead.

Item Metadata


12708-Thom_B_VIL_Video_2008.mp3 [ 87.56MB ]
12708-Thom_B_VIL_Transcription_2008.pdf [ 707.11kB ]
JSON: 12708-1.0102999.json
JSON-LD: 12708-1.0102999-ld.json
RDF/XML (Pretty): 12708-1.0102999-rdf.xml
RDF/JSON: 12708-1.0102999-rdf.json
Turtle: 12708-1.0102999-turtle.txt
N-Triples: 12708-1.0102999-rdf-ntriples.txt
Original Record: 12708-1.0102999-source.json
Full Text

Full Text

288289Bing ThomFROM THE GROUND UP:DESIGNING AND BUILDING A NEW CITY IN CHINAMr. Bing ThomBing Thom ArchitectsVancouverFebruary 22, 1997Biographical Note: One of Canada’s most outstanding architects, Bing Thom hasjust been chosen by the Chinese government to design Dalian New Town, aninstant port city to be built on the coast of the Yellow Sea. This extraordinaryproject will take over 30 years to finish, house 1 million people and cost ultimatelyover $700 billion.I’m going to start with a short video clip that the CBC recently madewith me in China.  They came this fall with Joyce Resin and PattyMoore from the program called Alive.  Alive, as you know, is a tel-evision program that runs every week and basically deals with health,and they thought it would be interesting to talk about healthy cities.In the north of China, a dream of a city — a healthycity — is coming true for well known Canadian ar-chitect, Bing Thom. He is in China with a team ofdevelopers, engineers and planners and with somewell established credentials. Bing Thom has receivedthe Order of Canada for his architectural designsaround the world and he has a vision for this land. Asfar as healthy cities are concerned, China has notbeen very successful to date. In fact some of theworld’s worst examples of  problem cities are foundthere. But this area is different. This beautiful coast-line, only 300 kilometres east of Beijing, in the areaknown in ancient times as Manchuria, is on the out-skirts of a city known as Dalian. The existing city ofabout 3 million people is cosmopolitan, dynamic, and290bursting at the seams. This thoroughly modern me-tropolis prides itself on being beautiful, stylish, andworldly.  The spark plug is the forward thinking “cando” mayor, Bo Xi Lai, (he’s described as a youngJack Kennedy). This city is specially favoured byBeijing to be a “world class” example of China’s faceto the future. Growth here has been exceptional, evenby fast paced Asian standards. Dalian is attractingbillions of dollars in capital investment from aroundthe world. And those investments are attracting mil-lions of new citizens, Chinese and foreign. They allneed somewhere to live. And that’s not a simple task.And the mayor wants a city that’s not just the biggest,but the best.  “Of course, Dalian is a Chinese city.We still keep some Chinese traditions, but at the sametime, I invite European designers to come here to cre-ate something special.” So the mayor set up a designcompetition to build a New Dalian.  Architects fromaround the world competed. Bing Thom’s team wonthe competition. In September, mayor Bo Xi Lai gavea green light to his dream for Dalian. And with thatapproval, construction work has begun on the world’snewest “healthy” city. Bing Thom is confident thatpeople will be living in New Dalian by the end of thiscentury. From dream to reality in just three years fromnow.In designing new Dalian, we’ve paid a lot of attention to history andculture and this was very surprising to the local planning officials.For example, my colleague Mr. Liu Dongyang found in UBC’s AsianStudies Library a map of the Dalian area dating back to 1566. [Fig-ure 1]  After we made it available to the city – and the mayor espe-cially — it appeared in the local newspaper the very next day.  Priorto that, when we asked questions about Dalian and its history, theythought the city was 100 years old because it was built by the Rus-sians and the Japanese.  They were very quick to pick up the infor-mation that we found.  The farmers and fishermen all knew about the291Bing ThomFIGURE 1: Dalian Region, Ming Dynasty, 1566292mythology of Big Black Mountain, one of the important local natu-ral features, but the planning officials who were all from Shanghaiand Beijing had never visited the site nor knew that there were tem-ples up the mountain. This is despite the fact that some of them hadlived in the area for seven years.  So they began to think of planninga little differently through the experience of working together withus.Figure 2 presents a map of the region, including Small KilnBay, Big Kiln Bay and the local topographical features.  Existing onthe site were a series of salt farms, [Figure 3] and we were supposedto create the new city by filling up these farms.  They had also builtFIGURE 2293Bing Thoma major highway through the salt farms, [Figure 4] planned by somehighway engineers out of Beijing.  The widest roadway we have inVancouver is about 40 metres, property line to property line.  Thishighway was about 120 metres wide, so obviously they were think-ing of it for grand parades and whatever.  It is also potentially one ofthe major coastal highways linking all the way to Korea. [Figure 5]You could drive from this area to the border of North Korea prob-ably in half a day.  One reason why Dalian was purposely not devel-oped until recently is because it’s on a very long peninsula and thecentral government was very worried that Dalian could be totally cutoff from the mainland by just a series of bombing raids.  That con-FIGURE 3294cern was clearly left over from the Korean War.  So it wasn’t untilthe late 1970s and ’80s that Dalian became a vital port for China.It’s the best deep water port for all of Manchuria with a regionalpopulation of 100 million — i.e. virtually half of the United Statespopulation serviced by one port.  That’s why it’s so important.There are two major rivers, let’s call them streams, that draininto Small Kiln Bay.  The dotted line in Figure 6 shows the low andhigh tide lines.  This is very much like Spanish Banks.  It’s probablytwice the walk from shallow water to deep water, so the tide recedesfor a long way, and that’s why it was so successful as salt farms.  Butit became a major problem — how do you design a sea front cityFIGURE 4295Bing ThomFIGURE 5296when you have tidal conditions like that?  In Big Kiln Bay, theydidn’t have this problem; but in Small Kiln Bay, you have the tidalflats.Figure 7 shows the record of 72 typhoons that came throughDalian. When we first got into the job, we had a sense this might bea typhoon area so we made a long distance phone call to the chiefplanner in Dalian and said, “You know, we are really worried thatmaybe you’ve got this new site right in the middle of a typhoon path.”And the chief planner said, “No, we don’t have any typhoon prob-lems.”  One week later, after the phone call, we made a site visit toDalian and the typhoon hit and destroyed a new dike that had justbeen built.  We spoke to one of the local farmers and he said “Well,FIGURE 6297Bing Thomof course, because the planners are living in old Dalian.”  Old Dalianis very ingeniously sited because it had a mountain range to protectit from the typhoons, but this new site is right smack in the middle ofthe typhoon path, and he said “Well, these guys never come to thissite.  Of course they don’t know about this problem.”There are fishing villages currently located in Small Kiln Bay.Because of the tidal flats the fishermen have invented ingenious waysof taking their small boats up onto the shore by a type of cable car.The villagers built beautiful little houses up in the hills.  They havethis tremendous love of a blue colour that we saw everywhere, andthe villagers were always very sensitive to the local environment —they never built on top of the hill, they always left the top quite pureand then built terracing down from the hill.So we then said, how do you go about designing a new city?The best way is to start from history and look at what other peopleFIGURE 7298have done.  [Figure 8] There are defensive cities — very compact,working with nature and leaving large areas of farmland and notallowing the city to sprawl.  There are imperial cities.  And there aremodern capital cities like Brasilia and Canberra.  Brasilia is a failedcapital, but Canberra is very interesting.   It is laid out in a series ofgeometric, star-like patterns, and uses the mountains and the lakesfor axes and vistas.  But obviously for architects, if you get too hungup on geometry, it has its own way of stifling growth and creatingpatterns that are hard to deal with through time and change of values.Then you have mercantile cities.  New York is very similar to Van-couver where the immediate pattern of the streets was dictated bythe wharves and then the grid breaks down.  Amsterdam, in contrast,starts from the sea front and grows in concentric rings.So we had to study all of these kind of patterns because, ulti-mately, we had to lay out some kind of grid.  After the Second WorldWar, fresh ideas developed about urban design including new linearcities that can grow infinitely in any direction; that is, they have grownin arms or a hook.  These linear city concepts had a very strong influ-ence in China. In their original 1993 Comprehensive Master Plan,the planners wanted a linear downtown for Dalian that stretched some4-6 km in length which would have resulted in a long sprawl.We also had to look at sea front cities such as Venice andsome other villages in Italy.  The concept of sea front property as avaluable asset and the whole idea of taxation was something new tothe Chinese. We had to explain to them that when you lay out a city,you have to think of income that you derive from this land and howto deal with property tax.  Of course, China itself has a tradition ofcanal cities like Suzhou, the Venice of China.  The reason we lookedat these cities is that the salt farms have canals.  We had the idea thatmaybe we should save the footprints of these canals as the beginningof a canal-like city for the new Dalian.  We considered the wholeidea of developing bays and waterways and looking at increases inproperty values that can result from proximity to the water’s edge.And then we started to look at grains of cities — city blocks— including Venice of course with its canal, and Savannah, Geor-gia, which has a very interesting style based on a repeated pattern of299Bing Thomsquares and blocks as the city grew.  To this day, Savannah, Geor-gia, is one of the most interesting small American cities to visit be-cause they kept this pattern going as the city grew.  There is also thewhole question of sprawl and how to deal with the automobile.  Wehave to be very conscious of this in trying to find the right grain forthe new city. Then we thought about Chinese cities, and one of theinteresting things about traditional Chinese cities or even older citiesin Asia is the idea of mixed use.  Zoning is something new in China,so they were all keen to copy North American or British zoning withseparate industrial, commercial and residential areas.   And we saidFIGURE 8 - (1) Tokyo, (2) Barcelona, (3) Brasilia, (4) San Francisco, (5)Amsterdam, (6) Proposed New Dalian, (7) Florence, (8) Portland1 2 34 5 67 8300“No, we’re changing all that.  We now believe in mixed use.”  It tooka long time to make them understand that the theories of the 1950’sare no longer what we apply today in North America. Then we said to them, “Well, in terms of the program, howbig should this new city be?”  And the chief planner said, “Well, themayor says ‘about 1 million.’”  Then we said, “Well, how sure areyou of that?” and they said, “Well, we’re not sure.  Maybe you shoulddesign it so it could be one million, or three million, or five million,just so we can hedge our bets!”  So we came back and said, “We’dbetter look at this more seriously.”  We did some more research onother cities — Vancouver, Hong Kong, San Francisco, and Frank-furt — and some are one million and some are six million. [Figure 9]Interestingly enough, there is a scale and an order, because city cen-tres in terms of face-to-face interaction are about a 15-20 minutewalk across — that’s about what people can take.  You can look atthe city of Vancouver today — the downtown is not going to shift, itwill just become more dense.  If you look at Hong Kong, the samething has happened since the 1950’s.  So, you may have downtownsthat jump, because they pass beyond a certain scale for walking dis-tance. They tend not to work any more and require a new centre to bedeveloped uptown. Houston is an example of what not to do. They’revery proud that there’s no zoning in Houston; you can build any-thing, anywhere as long as you have the guts.Figure 4 showed the location of the big highway that they’vebuilt. Unfortunately that highway runs in the opposite direction ofthe drainage patterns.  Because of the salt farms, the tidal differ-ences, and the rain that all comes in one month of the year, the free-way became a dyke.  On our third visit right after the rain, a largearea above the highway was flooded because the roadway was builthigh enough so that it was above high tide; but tidal change was, likeVancouver, about 16 feet.  So this bloody highway was up 20 feetfrom where the ground was at low tide.  We had to really think howwe were going to deal with this.  It was built, it was there, it was amajor arterial.We knew that they filled the highway, and they wanted to fillthe rest of the land to that high level similar to the way we filled301Bing ThomFalse Creek here.  It’s an easy way to create real estate.  They werejust bull-dozing down the local hills to create fill, and we said, “Stop!We have to think about cut and fill.  We’re not going to fill every-thing.”  We did some diagrams to show them how you could balancecut and fill to create more water.  And they said, “We don’t wantmore water, we already have enough water.  We want more land.”We said, “If you create more water’s edge, the land will becomemore valuable and, therefore, your tax base would be better thanallowing the city to sprawl.”Figure 10 shows a number of proposed city orientations andwe thought that maybe we could create a lagoon — or inner basin —FIGURE 9 - Vancouver (upper right), Hong Kong (upper left), San Fran-cisco (lower left), Frankfurt (lower right)302and take care of the typhoons with a built form to shelter the windsas they come through.  But the trouble with our first design was thatit was a great, interesting city, but it didn’t feel like a waterfront city.We then had this idea of turning it 90 degrees so you present a smallfrontage to the typhoon, then we created inner bays. [Figure 11] Theinspiration came from Vancouver’s English Bay and Kitsilano look-ing down and across to the downtown.  Then we thought of creatingsome smaller bays like False Creek, thereby allowing the water todrain to the ocean and deal with the flooding.Our preliminary plan developed a series of what we call “char-acter areas” which had been created in Vancouver, actually, for con-FIGURE 10303Bing Thomtrolling the downtown.  Each of these character areas are devoted tomixed uses. [Figure 12]  We decided to save the local trees and usethem as a major pedestrian green spine in the core.  There’s also anexisting village, and the villagers always walked from the village tothe sea.  So why not save the village, rather than bulldoze it andallow the villagers to grow the market vegetables for this future city.And instead of moving out all the fishermen, develop a fishing mar-ket so that they can come in and, like Granville Island Market, selltheir catch.   Vancouverites all love our fireworks in English Bay, sowe had the idea of a really large water body or inner basin that actsas an amphitheatre for large celebrations. The outer tip would beFIGURE 11304used mostly for government buildings, cruise ship terminals, andocean viewing towers on the water’s edge.We considered the design of the spine and thought that wecould take it right through the city, but in a less formal way.  Thespine then becomes, if you like, a version of the Spanish Ramblas,but maybe like Stanley Park, except stretched out so form is morenatural.  One bay would be ringed with cultural buildings such asmuseums, galleries, and planetariums. The idea is a totally publicpark with no private buildings taking over the water’s edge.  Andthen, most important of all, working with John Readshaw at SandwellEngineering, we addressed the problem of how to flush the innerbays with tidal water.  [Figure 13]  We have to give John the creditfor this, because he said, “Let’s work with nature.  If we narrow thechannel, we can then build the tidal walls at an 8 foot height insteadFIGURE 12305Bing Thomof 16 feet.  They can be half the height because like a bottle with anarrow neck, if you turn the bottle upside-down, it takes a certainamount of time for the bottle to empty; but if halfway through, youcan turn the bottle back up, you can fill it again. So you’re not get-ting a 16-foot tidal change.”  The idea is to flush the inner bay andyet still save a lot of money on the seawall.  The fishermen can thenFIGURE 13306take their boats in as well.   So really, we won the competition in partbecause we saved a lot of money on the building of seawalls.  If theywere to build the linear city as originally planned, there would bemiles and miles of 16-foot high seawall.Then, instead of having a sandwich with typical strip-plan-ning with industry and housing, we created a series of concentricrings and used the bay as a way of forcing the city to grow in themiddle rather than sprawling. We also wanted to ensure that the build-ing heights were lower than the surrounding hills.  One of the greatthings about Vancouver is that you go across Granville Street Bridgeand you discover downtown; or when you’re coming from the Uni-versity and you come down Spanish Banks there’s the city; so wealso wanted to use the idea of  a surprise unfolding of views.In our plan, [Figure 12] the parkway runs through the centre,some of the canals are kept on the salt farms, a train station links to aseries of ferry terminals, and there are a lot of roadways on axis withthe hills so that when you’re on the hills you can always look throughthe city and see the ocean. We also had to site most of the buildingsaway from the prevailing winds because this port is going to be fourtimes larger than the port of Vancouver.  It’s going to have bulkexports of wheat and all kinds of other commodities.  We have to becareful that the wind does not drive the pollutants to the city.Then we compared the grains of the various cities that we’vetalked about with the grain of the city that we are trying to design,because we wanted to make sure that it was not out of scale.  Weactually picked a typical Vancouver block.  Vancouver is one of thefew cities in North America with lanes, and these lanes take a lot ofthe service traffic off the main streets.  We also thought that thelanes later on, if required, could be converted to bicycle ways orpedestrian ways, so it gave us an extra module to work on in terms ofscale.  With Paul Bunt, traffic engineer in Vancouver, we used aseries of computer simulations to see what bottlenecks might de-velop with the grid-networks we had planned.  Then we started tolay out some of the streets.  We came back to pretty well a Vancou-ver scale of street widths, and then we asked, “OK, what if we’rewrong?  What can you do with these streets?”  We produced a series307Bing Thomof diagrams assuming that we’re going to accept this typical width.You can see from Figure 14 showing various roads, that if you didn’thave tramways in the middle of the street, one would then have bicy-cle ways and could then have three lanes of traffic with greenery inthe middle and wider sidewalks.  Alternatively, you could have lightor heavy rapid transit and then have your boulevards wider in thecentre, with wider sidewalks and two lanes of traffic.  In addition tothat, we also said to them, “If you leave the road and not fill themmore than you have to, you can just build concrete culverts beforeyou fill, and you could do all your servicing under the street withoutdigging the street up every time like we do in Vancouver.”  Theyhave this tremendous asset that they didn’t see before; they saw thefilling as a necessity.  And finally, we talked about district coolingand heating, segmenting the heating into different zones, and thewhole idea of breaking down sewage treatment into smaller pack-ages.In conclusion, Figures 15 and 16 show renderings of the cityand some of the vistas.  We won the competition because we alwaystook them to Vancouver.  We said, “See how beautiful it is?  Youcould have a city just like Vancouver.”FIGURE 14308FIGURE 15Sea Front Circle PromenadeWo Long Bay Residential DistrictWo Long BayBlue Ocean BaySports ComplexInternational Business CentrePeace Lagoon309Bing ThomFIGURE 16


Citation Scheme:


Citations by CSL (citeproc-js)

Usage Statistics



Customize your widget with the following options, then copy and paste the code below into the HTML of your page to embed this item in your website.
                            <div id="ubcOpenCollectionsWidgetDisplay">
                            <script id="ubcOpenCollectionsWidget"
                            async >
IIIF logo Our image viewer uses the IIIF 2.0 standard. To load this item in other compatible viewers, use this url:


Related Items