COMMENTARY

Neighbourhood Concept Paves the Way for Future Smart Sustainable Cities

One Bangkok,Thailand; Image by One Bangkok

Neighbourhoods in architecture and planning theory are an ever-changing concept. While they are defined by a specific geography and a set of social networks, their forms vary widely. As does the success of their design and application. With now 55 per cent of the world’s population living in urban areas, how we imagine our neighbourhoods of the future is becoming a real thought. While science fiction thinkers have given us a far-reaching glimpse into how concrete, congestion and over-crowdedness may dominate, many of us wonder what our immediate future looks like.

The truth is the concept of a neighbourhood is influencing our cities in a real and progressive way. Pushed along by the wave of urbanisation, technological advancement and our expectations of how we wish to live, our cities are becoming more liveable as a result.

Bringing liveability to life
Our cities are developing at an electrifying pace, becoming more complex as they adapt to an ever-widening range of factors, from mass urbanisation to new opportunities afforded by emerging technologies. One aspect is a common denominator: Land within our cities is under high demand. How these land parcels are now developed to house, sustain and inspire our growing populations is our challenge.

From a development standpoint, we  have all heard about the benefits of smart city design; asset sharing, reduced traffic congestion, smart energy networks, predictive technologies, optimised mobility… the list goes on. What if we could apply these strategies on a smaller scale across our urban environments? We could bring these smart concepts to life on a spread and speed not yet seen before.

The concept of a neighbourhood is influencing our cities in a real and progressive way.

KIARA BAY, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Image by UEM Sunrise and Melati Ehsan Group

Introducing ‘Mini Cities’
The good news is we can, and we are. Aptly named ‘mini cities’, there is a new approach to neighbourhood-scale development that is placing the pioneering strategies from the smart city movement at its heart. This effort is allowing us to deliver the benefits of smart city design more swiftly across our urban environments than the large-scale, city-wide master plans that have been traditionally earmarked for this type of development.

This concept of ‘mini cities’ for Lead8 was born from collaboration and a new joint vision with our clients that we are now applying to inner-city developments seeking a ‘neighbourhood’ outlook. Essentially, these schemes are aiming to innovatively connect into their existing urban fabrics to create new hubs. Our future neighbourhood-scale developments are prioritising three-dimensional connectivity, digital and physical integration, multipurpose environments and a sense of community to create resilient, diverse and liveable ‘cities’ within themselves.

Commercial viability is an important part of the equation with these developments, while also positively contributing to the economies around them and creating new business opportunities for their communities.

Naturally, Asia has become a dynamic and exciting market for this type of development. Looking to the region’s most populous city, and importantly, the second largest in the world, Shanghai presents an ideal environment for future neighbourhood development, which is seeking to cope with the compounding pressures and opportunities of population, land scarcity and density.

Paris of the East
We all know Shanghai is much more than its well-worn nicknames. The reference to Paris in this instance is interesting as traditional city neighbourhoods may come no more famous than those of France’s capital. However, Shanghai is looking to innovate, as it does, and lead the way for city development. The vision is one being supported by the Chinese government with new urban planning guidelines that seek to improve liveability in its cities, which previously housed 20 per cent of the population 40 years ago, but now amazingly accommodate close to 60 per cent. That is roughly 840 million people.

One of the largest sites is currently under development in Shanghai’s city centre, which presents a case study into how the ‘mini cities’ design approach is being turned into reality. Located in the tree-lined district of Xujiahui, a well-known shopping and entertainment hotspot in the city, is the future Shanghai ITC destination. A mega integrated scheme, the development combines four plots of land to deliver 700,000 square metres of grade A offices, premium retail, and luxury hospitality, all with direct access to a five-line metro station.

The concept of Shanghai ITC goes beyond the notion of mixed-use design to physically stitch the new development with the existing local surroundings to set a new precedent for the district. A series of connected elevated footbridges creates a new pedestrian network across the site, integrating the large-scale destination into the busy urban fabric of the area. The strategy will deliver a calm elevated plane purely for pedestrians to navigate the destination and surrounding commercial, cultural and public attractions. The design is also driven by the vision of enhancing the safety, health, convenience, connectivity and quality of the Shanghai ITC community. Moving beyond mixed-use or Transit Oriented Design, this form of developing draws on the latest state-of-the-art planning and innovation to create smart, self-thriving, neighbourhood-scale destinations.

This fulfils the neighbourhood outlook, which is about being connected on a larger scale, not just to local amenities or those within a particular development. It is a vision where access and transportation become more efficient, where you can walk to your new touchpoint in 10 minutes or less, and where possible, cars do not see people and people do not see cars—as you would have in a ‘smart city’.

Cities becoming more liveable
It is not only the world’s largest cities that are turning to the ‘mini cities’ approach. In Thailand’s capital, a highly anticipated future development is looking to set new standards. This particular scheme has already earned the first LEED-Neighbourhood Development Platinum title for the country.

The scheme is One Bangkok, Thailand’s largest integrated development that will comprise premium grade A office buildings, luxury and lifestyle hotels, luxury residential towers, interconnected retail precincts, art and cultural hubs, and public space. Expected to accommodate up to 200,000 people daily following its full completion in 2026, it is an innovative destination being delivered on a scale not yet seen in the city.

The development will feature 8 hectares of green and open spaces, with architecture and tropical planting seamlessly intertwined to establish a tranquil setting in a vertical environment. An urban green park, combined with a network of pedestrian streets and alleyways, sky parks and public plazas, will help to transform Bangkok’s city-centre and become a new global and ‘people-centric’ destination.

In Malaysia, an eco-living master plan within Kuala Lumpur is looking to bring all the amenities of a city into a 73-acre multi-generational development—transforming one of Kuala Lumpur’s earliest townships. Kiara Bay will be a first-of-its-kind living offer in the city, located next to the popular Kepong Metropolitan Park, which covers 235 acres and guided in its design by the EIU Global Liveability Index, Mercer Quality of Living Factors and UN Sustainable Development Goals.

ITC Shanghai, China

The fundamental principle of any smart city is to make it more liveable. What these designs are showing is how smart ‘mini cities’ are being developed within urban metropolises that may not have had the opportunities yet to transform on a wider scale. They also serve as examples of how liveability can be improved in existing ‘mini cities’ by adapting or designing for missing community hearts, by introducing leisure, public realms, gathering spaces and commercial offerings within the existing fabric.

Circle of influence
Different sectors are also following suit. Like the effects of urbanisation, the aviation industry is evolving to keep pace with the increasing movement of people. Last year, airlines flew nearly 4.5 billion passengers on 45 million flights worldwide according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA). The figure is predicted to almost double to 7.8 billion by 2036. Not only that, but airport communities at large airports such as Changi in Singapore or Hong Kong International Airport can be as large as 100,000 people, the size of a town, with 24/7 operational needs. With those numbers, it is easy to see why airport developments must too transform themselves, and quickly.

Here we are seeing the ‘mini cities’ approach come to life in the new generation of international large-scale airport cities, which are already starting to come online. This year, in particular, saw two high-profile additions in Jewel at Singapore’s Changi Airport and the Beijing Daxing International Airport. These developments are showcasing the shift towards realising the full potential of the entire airport site; a trend seeking to capture the interest of the millions of people who pass through and work within these developments each year.

Our teams have been at the forefront of this movement, from the design and development of the upcoming SKYCITY at Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA) to the Commercial Landside Terminal at the new Beijing Daxing International Airport. These properties will not only serve passengers, but also their expanding airport communities. With the introduction of SKYCITY, for example, Hong Kong International Airport will nearly double its community size and that is before you count the 130,000 daily passengers and visitors.

Being delivered by some of the world’s leading airport owners, operators and developers, these schemes are prime examples of how our future airports will not only cater to our travel needs but also our social, retail, dining, experiential and commercial ones. They will become smart ‘mini cities’ in themselves that foster their own neighbourhood ecosystems.

The future is Green
While it is not uncommon to picture our collective future with the thoughts of overdeveloped cities that offer little reprieve from congestion, consumerism and crowds, we can assure this is far from the truth. Together with developers, the design industry is taking bold leaps into conceiving and realising smarter, healthier, Greener and more connected urban realms for our cities.

One great upside of this movement has been the opportunity for resilient design; one which considers the environmental, social and economic impacts on a place and community. The development trends we have shared here not only use land more efficiently, the innovations in environmentally-friendly building materials and energy-saving technologies are now becoming an integral part of the brief under the smart development movement.

There is a new approach to neighbourhood-scale development that is placing the pioneering strategies from the smart city movement at its heart.

The Ring – Yorkville, Chongqing, China

These developments are also seeking to invest in creating their own living and breathing ecologies. Bringing nature into our developments, making our environmental assets easily accessible to wide audiences and user groups is another growing demand. Jewel at Changi Airport has been a wonderful example of this, as has the future Yorkville – The Ring retail destination by Hongkong Land, which will see one of China’s largest indoor botanic gardens housed within.

As our cities become more urbanised, it is the principle of creating dynamic and forward-thinking neighbourhoods that is driving a smarter, more sustainable and exciting future for us all.


Simon Chua
Co-Founder and Executive Director of Lead8
Working predominately in Asia, mainland China and Hong Kong, Chua has over 20 years of international experience in award-winning design and construction projects. Chua’s expertise is best showcased in his portfolio of transport and entertainment-led, mixed-use developments. A hands-on designer, he heads Lead8’s architectural teams in Hong Kong and is currently the lead director of two major, large-scale developments for Sun Hung Kai Properties in Shanghai. He is passionate about thought leadership and has an active voice in the industry, participating in design discussions and contributing as a keynote speaker at MIPIM Asia, RECON Asia Pacific, Transit-Oriented Development Asia and Retail Asia.

Meeta Patel
Co-Founder and Executive Director of Lead8
With over 30 years of international experience on projects of various scales, combined with her cross-sector experience from master planning to small interior projects, Patel brings unique insight to every project she is involved in. Her portfolio includes a number of award-winning and iconic projects across Asia including ION Orchard, Plaza Singapura, Westgate, Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA) Terminal 1 renovations, Changi Airport Terminal 4 and Jewel in Singapore. Patel currently heads the Lead8 Singapore and Kuala Lumpur studios, directing the design offer and a dynamic team on various mixed-use projects in Southeast Asia.

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