Net City: Tencent is building a monastic ‘city of the future’ in Shenzhen

He wrote Oscar Holland, CNN

Technical giant Tencent has revealed plans for an almost completely car-free “city of the future”, the size of Monaco, in the Chinese metropolis of Shenzhen.

Named “Net City,” the 2 million-square-foot (22 million-square-foot) urban development will give priority to pedestrians, green spaces, and self-driving vehicles, according to its designers.

Although primarily intended for Tencent, many spaces and facilities will be available to the public. Credit: NBBJ

An ambitious city within the city should occupy the part of the restored land that emerges at the mouth of the Pearl River. Designed to accommodate about 80,000 residents, the place will primarily serve Tencent, the conglomerate behind WeChat and the popular Chinese QQ messaging service.

But in addition to providing company residences and offices, the neighborhood is expected to host shops, schools and other public facilities, and will be connected to the rest of Shenzhen via road bridges, ferries and the city’s underground system. The American company behind the master plan, the NBBJ, hopes the new entertainment venues, parks and coastal promenade will attract visitors from other parts of the city.

The site will be built on part of the land restitution.

The site will be built on part of the land restitution. Credit: NBBJ

As such, the plan differs from the closed campuses to which large technology companies have been introduced in recent years, says Jonathan Ward, a design partner at the NBBJ.

“It’s definitely a destination (and it has) a civic component,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s not meant to be an isolated, safe island – it’s a picturesque city. People will pass through it, they will connect … and it will be a vital center for Shenzhen.”

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Eliminating cars

With an unusually large blank collaboration plan, the NBBJ – which won an international site design competition – was able to reconsider the car’s role in urban planning, Ward said.

“Our main goal was to provide a place where innovation can truly flourish,” he explained. “To do that, we tried to minimize the impact of the car.

“Driving ‘without a car’ is still a bit challenging in our world, so we spent a lot of time designing the city as little as possible, removing (cars from) where they shouldn’t be and focusing on people.”

The master plan favors pedestrians, with limited access to conventional vehicles.

The master plan favors pedestrians, with limited access to conventional vehicles. Credit: NBBJ

Although regular cars will be able to access some parts of the neighborhood, the plan focuses on a “green corridor” designed for buses, bicycles and autonomous vehicles. Appearance removes what Ward called “unnecessary” traffic.

“You don’t need a single block surrounded by roads – you might have eight blocks surrounded by a road and take away all those in between,” he said. “We have already ‘taken away’ the roads in places that we think are perfectly fine for people to walk two minutes longer than the subway or take a taxi.

“And in those two minutes you might see some inspiration, connect with nature, or meet a colleague you haven’t seen in a while – all those things you see happening in a work environment can happen in the city.”

Interconnected planning

In addition to integrating with Shenzhen’s broad urban structure, the NBBJ Master Plan is designed to offer what it calls “an interconnected, human-oriented organic ecosystem.” For Tencent employees, this could mean disrupting the distinction between their work and private life – an idea that has become increasingly relevant in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, Ward said.

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“Traditional cities are mostly surrounded, even in the densest cities where there is more interaction and mixing,” he added. “But what can happen now is that you start blurring those lines (between work and play) and realize more interactions between different parts of life.

“You will see more blurring of these lines, for better or for worse. But I think we can do better by adapting this model forward,” he added.

Otherwise, the master plan considers environmental sustainability with solar panels on the roof and elaborate systems for capturing and reusing wastewater. Planners also looked at projections of future sea level rise to ensure buildings are better protected from climate change.

Transportation systems will connect the “city within a city” with the rest of Shenzhen.

Transportation systems will connect the “city within a city” with the rest of Shenzhen. Credit: NBBJ

Tencent is not the only private company looking to create its own miniature city. Earlier this year, carmaker Toyota unveiled plans for a 175-acre “Woven City” at the foot of Mount Fuji, where it will test autonomous vehicles, smart technology and robot-assisted life. In Toronto, Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Google’s parent company Alphabet, planned to transform the stretch of waterfront into a futuristic new neighborhood, before canceling the project citing “economic insecurity” caused by Covid-19.
A number of other large-scale plans are also planned in Shenzhen, a city that has exploded in size since 1980, when the Chinese government called it a “special economic zone.” The first phase of a new business district called City Headquarters City, which is also being built on recovered land, is expected to be completed by 2022.

Tencent’s Net City will need about seven years to complete, and construction should begin later this year. Dozens of individual buildings, ranging in height from one to 30 floors, will be designed by various architectural firms.

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