Urban Planning Challenges in Asian Cities

Architect Jeffrey Heller contrasts Chinese, Indian approaches to growth

Officials in Asia's growing cities must change from "a cars-dominating" to a "people-dominating philosophy," architect Jeffrey Heller told a Houston audience on Nov. 4. (Jeff Fantich Photography)

HOUSTON, November 4, 2010 - China is doing a better job of addressing issues brought on by rapid urbanization than its Asian neighbors, says San Francisco architect and city planner Jeffrey Heller. He singled out Shanghai and Guangzhou as cities moving aggressively to manage explosive growth, in contrast to Bangkok and Mumbai, which he described as drowning in a sea of cars.

Heller's illustrated talk, hosted by Asia Society Texas Center, drew in part on the city plan his firm, Heller Manus, is creating for Guangzhou. City officials there, having spent two decades emphasizing economic growth, now seem genuinely focused on quality of life issues, he said.

Heller Manus' plans for the city emphasize public transit, parks, and green spaces, as well as pedestrian-friendly streets. Heller was particularly scathing of the city's large concrete plazas that have gone unused by the residents and have only provided the city with "heat islands," or areas where heat has built-up due to large expanses of exposed surface that attract the sun.

"You've got to change your priority from a cars-dominating to a people-dominating philosophy," Heller said he told city officials when discussing this and other issues with their planning design.

"The wonderful thing about the Chinese is they say, yes, you're right, let's do it."

Before turning to China, Heller criticized the "incredibly haphazard way" Mumbai has dealt with growth. "You cannot get around in Mumbai," he said.

"You've got a place that's in dynamic transition. It's exciting to see but at the same time searing in that they're trying to fix the problems but are doing it in the wrong way."

Toll roads built out over the bay to detour around congested neighborhoods, massive water lines snaking above ground through the city, and pedestrian skybridges were three examples of what he called poor infrastructure choices.

Reported by Fritz Lanham