Live Review from AWIC 2016: Day 2 (Cont.) & Day 3 – Beneath the Surface: Smart City Insights, by Chris Isles

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  • Live Review from AWIC 2016: Day 2 (Cont.) & Day 3 – Beneath the Surface: Smart City Insights, by Chris Isles

Day 2 – Planes, Trains and Automobiles (Part 2)

For those that know me well, you would perhaps know that I am a lover of classic comedy – one of my all-time favourites being this articles namesake and 80’s classic, starting Steve Martin and John Goodman, where the two comedians fumble their way across America via every form of transport imaginable.

Today, was my attempt at a similar journey, making my way across China en route to Austrade’s Smart Cities Forum in Suzhou for AWIC 2016, by plane, fast train… and one of the wildest taxi rides of my life. Thankfully, I made it and I am better off for having seen some of the best transport systems in action, despite being one of very few non-Chinese doing so.

Hence, lesson number one for today is that the importance of airports as a gateway, symbol and functional transport hub for a city can never be under estimated.

Having spent time today, in both Shenzhen and then Shanghai (Pudong) airports, you can only leave with awe and marvel as to the architectural and almost ‘monument-esque’ nature of these two places. Yet, they exude absolute ruthless efficiency and functionality in moving people en masse.

Airports are the first and last impression for people as they come and go from a city – particularly tourists – and more often than not, they will be on multi-stop trips. So the ability to compare experiences and draw conclusions about a city based on their airport experience is easy, and inevitable.

Having been in three of the worlds biggest airports in the same number of days, we certainly need to recognise the inherent economic development function and latent value that investment in our airports will have upon our economies and experience of all users. Certainly in Australia, with airports being largely (or perhaps now entirely privately owned, with a direct link to the State or Local Government, we need to ensure the city wide stimulus is not lost in that private/public gap, and self-interest.

Enter phase two of our cross country trip: The taxi ride from Pudong airport took us to central train station in the middle of Shanghai, providing our first glimpses of this large city which boasts a population the size of Australia residing within an area equivalent to the size of the City of Sydney!

Whilst today saw us simply move through Shanghai, we do plan to return for a proper visit in a few days. None-the-less, it was an awe and fear inspiring hour taxi ride across the city. I had heard that Shanghai CBD (how you define that… who knows?) is one of the best places in the world to visit, and maybe it will be upon a longer stay.

However on this short trip traversing the balance of the city, we did witness the unabated density, yet with an uber efficient road system that was essentially congestion free the whole trip, due to the unique ‘layering’ of roads. At one point, we were on an elevated roadway, which ran over another elevated roadway built over local roads – six storeys in the air.

When arriving at the central train station, you get an insight into why the road system works so well. Because everyone was here. This place was crazy. A mass of people surging in and off buses, jumping off the back of scooters mid-transit as their mate continues to ride along.

A bit of research courtesy of China’s Wikipedia suggests that the station is 1.5ha in area, and one of two fastest train stations in Shanghai, linking the city with nearby, ‘small’ cities – each of which is comprised of five to ten million people. Thankfully, we have a Place Design Group team member from our local Shanghai office on hand to help with the transit process, including everything from purchasing our ticket, through to assisting with the navigation of this incredibly frenetic station to find our train. And what a train… Two eight carriage trains were effectively joined together, giving us 16, fast train carriages in a row, stretching for approximately 300m. Who has a train platform that is 300m long?

After the chaos on the platform, we found our carriage, completely expecting to be jumping aboard to equal chaos and the expectation of scenes similar to the Bombay Express. However, order prevailed thanks to the blessing of assigned seating. And so we were off, slowly at first, but then quickly whipping up speed to a blinding 300km/hr.

It is staggering when you know how many of these fast trains exist in China and at the speed with which the network is being expanded. Back in Australia, in the time we took to develop the EIS and acquire funding approval for the new Moreton Bay Rail Line in South East Queensland, here in China, they have literally managed to build thousands of kilometres of fast train services (and they are completely up and running). Having experienced such, I am now a convert, and advocate Australia’s need to explore what such fast trains to link places like Brisbane and the Gold Coast, Sydney (…and even beyond) could mean for our future.

Sadly, our 300km/hr didn’t last long, as we covered the distance to Suzhou (our next stop) in no time at all. As soon as we started, we began slowing down ready for us to depart. Joined by clients Springfield Land Corporation, we commenced the formal trade mission section of our trip, which will including my presentation Wednesday to delegates at the Austrade Smart Cities forum for AWIC 2016.

Having traversed such a distance, and across the surface of an almost constant urbanity (which seemed to be largely quite poor based on initial face value), it became hard for me to rationalise how any of my, and other ‘Smart City’ ideas could ever permeate down into these parts. However, it is here that perhaps the thinking and ideas need to start, rather than starting with those parts of the city that are already so much more advance and resolved in its planning and operations.

Day 3 – Smart and Simple: Suzhou and the AWIC 2016 Austrade Smart Cities Forum

For me, waking up in a hotel anywhere around the world, and peering out the window to see both the physical city, and the life and activity of a typical early morning, is one of my favourite ways to see into a city as an outsider.

First glimpses of Suzhou in at least 180 degrees from my hotel room anyway, revealed a city (probably like so many in China) undergoing rapid growth, and much of this is occurring in the city by the redevelopment of existing development. I am not refereeing to the redevelopment of single detached housing, replaced by apartments. I am referring to something bigger – the large scale demolition of row-upon-row of four to six storey apartments, to make way for new 20-30 storey, mixed use projects.

Suzhou is certainly a city in transition. Perhaps it is unfair to form a definitive view as to how the place will look in the next few years, but it certainly is a city which I would be keen to return to see. Because one of the most interesting, and unique aspects of Suzhou, is that they are introducing light rail trams across the city, particularly through their new greenfield technology precinct of SND. Here, Suzhou is one of very few cities in China establishing linked networks of high speed rail to Shanghai, Metro, bus and light rail.

Cue the morning’s tour, which took us to the city’s light rail project and its operators, which was of particular interest to me given the current discussions in Brisbane about a new ‘tram style’, above-ground metro, coupled with the ongoing success and expansion of the Gold Coast’s light rail project.

I know it is hard to attempt to benchmark infrastructure projects in China against Australia’s, but it is also hard not too, given how impressive the sheer ability and desire to actually build this projects seems to translate on the ground. The SND tram took just four short years from being an idea to actually becoming operational for its first 18km length.

What was impressive, was the simplistic and minimalist nature of its design and the way in which it blended into the city, its streets and the parks.

It’s seamless connectivity was equally as remarkable. Stations were built next to metro stops, in the roadway, next to major buildings, and never did it feel like it had been thrown into the urban scene, but grown as a critical part of it. A stark contrast to the Gold Coast Light Rail, which probably due to our ‘Nanny State fears’ from a health and safety perspective, has a distinct inability to blend and disappear into its environment.

To me, if we want to our new Brisbane Metro and future expansion of the Gold Coast system to become part of the cities within which they are being dropped, then we really need to work through how these simple aesthetic and functionality aspects are developed and executed.

So that was the morning. And with much anticipation, we moved on to the much anticipated Austrade Smart Cities Forum as part of Australia Week in China 2016, where I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to present alongside three Australians and three Government representatives and Academics from the local Suzhou area.

So whilst I hope I was able to enlighten and inform the audience of the many and varied ‘Smart City’ trends and occurrences from Australia, and the opportunities which Australia and Place Design Group has to contribute to international thinking (primarily the importance of not forgetting the people of our cities in our rush to be smart), I was also here to learn, just as much as I was to share.

And almost certainly, I gained great insights from the Suzhou Government today, who was recognised as one of a select few Smart Cities within China.

One of the clear take away learnings? The power of having, holding and aggregating the data about the city and understanding how your city moves, breathes and grows.

Suzhou’s Chief Planner explained how useful it was for them to have the ability to access, then analyse the movement patterns of the city – particularly by the use of mobile phones as tracking beacons. This served as concrete reinforcement for me, given that this point is exactly what I have been advocating in Australia for the past few years – and here, we can see a city who is doing it well, proving this type of data and analysis is a true, ‘Smart City’ tool that works.

Again, perhaps the ability for the Chinese to be smarter in their current approach comes easier, due to their ability to ‘acquire’ data from the phone companies. This points to some of the benefits of the communist regime here in China. But the lesson for Australia? It is clearly that Open Data and access to multiple data sources – whether public or private, is a key to having and creating a truly ‘Smart City’.”

NB. Chris Isles, is in China from 11-15 April representing the best of Australian Planning and Urban Design at Austrade’s International Smart Cities Forum for Australia Week In China (AWIC 2016).

More updates to follow as the AWIC 2016 business mission progresses.