On May 2013, Kunming municipal government moved its headquarters from downtown Kunming to brand new facilities in Chenggong, a new city in the making at about 20 kilometers south of the old city. Chenggong is expected to become the administrative and employment center of the Greater Kunming region, a vast territory of more than 20,000 km2 with about 6.5 million residents. The new town was planned for a population of 1.5 million and construction started in 2003.
Chenggong: the new Kunming municipal government center
Since 2010, however, Chenggong new town has been making headlines on the news and internet blogs, which have described it as “one of the largest ghost towns in Asia”. Meanwhile, in 2010, Kunming officials decided to revise the city’s master plan in order to incorporate sustainable urban design principles on further development. The new master plan departed from the original layout of large ‘superblocks’ surrounded by multi-lane arteries, in an attempt to break down the superblocks into smaller blocks and narrower human-scale streets, with a hierarchy of densities and mixed-uses related to the ease of access to the public transportation system. By controlling urban form Chinese authorities expect to achieve a more sustainable, low-carbon urban environment in Chenggong.
Chenggong master plan (partial view)
Approaching Chenggong on the Kunming-Chenggong expressway
A visit to Chenggong in early June 2013 allowed for a brief assessment of the progress made so far in the new city. At the time of the visit the urban structure, as seen on the master plan, was still not obvious on the ground. Chenggong’s vast territory was still, apparently, a piecemeal development of separate urban hubs in diverse stages of completion, interconnected by highways, with no visible street hierarchy, and a grid of wide roads and large blocks.
Chenggong: one of the new urban hubs, as seen from the site of the new YunnanUniversity campus
The subway/light rail system which is supposed to link all the hubs, however, was under fast construction and the first section of the line, connecting downtown Kunming to the first station in Chenggong, had just opened.
A recently built light-rail line connects downtown Kunming to Chenggong
Whereas the “ghostly” character of the place was still quite evident, mostly on very recent urban areas, or on the many new parts still in construction, some other areas showed already encouraging signs of human presence (traffic and movement of people), as well as some incipient commerce on a few crossroads. Most importantly, in several completed buildings, many residential units were visibly occupied.
Chenggong: typical streets and blocks
A larger influx of residents is expected soon due to a series of factors, such as the relocation of Kunming municipal government; the proximity of the new Yunnan University campus; the completion of the subway/light rail system; and last, but not least, lower apartment prices, as compared with central Kunming.
Chenggong: typical streets and blocks
Whilst most new urban areas are high-density blocks, with stand-alone high-rise apartment towers (up to 40 stories) there are also whole blocks of mid-rise buildings (5-6 stories), which may reflect a variation of land-use densities along a future transportation corridor. In all arteries, growing trees and greenery attempt to attenuate the considerable width of streets.
Chenggong: street and road landscaping is a visible concern everywhere
As for the city’s urban design, however, the major problems seem to remain unaltered: superblocks are still the norm in Chenggong; the hard infrastructure of multi-lane roadways is prevalent; and the almost complete absence of stores suggests that most shopping must necessarily be done at the shopping mall, in another part of town. The wide streets and superblocks of Chenggong continue conveying the image of a car-oriented urban environment waiting to be populated by cars.
Chenggong: another urban hub near completion
It is still too early to evaluate the success of the new master plan, but Chenggong’s future, in terms of low-carbon sustainable urban form, will definitely depend on the capacity to find the right fit between urban design, density, land use and transportation decisions both at the local, neighborhood scale and at the regional scale of greater Kunming.
Chenggong: one definitely needs a car to move around
Ph.D. Urban Planning and Public Policy (Rutgers University, New Jersey); M.Sc. Urban Affairs (Boston University); Architect (Technical University of Lisbon). Urban and regional planning consultant. Research fellow at Instituto de Ciencias Sociais – Universidade de Lisboa.