Project Management Institute

Rethinking cities

With the global challenge of a booming urban population comes the opportunity to create more advanced cities.



The world's cities are feeling the squeeze.

Today, just over half of the world's 7.2 billion people live in urban areas. By 2050, that's projected to soar to two-thirds of 9.6 billion people, according to the United Nations.

To prepare for that tremendous urban growth, project leaders in both the public and private sectors are taking action—from rebuilding existing cities to constructing entirely new ones. These cities of the future will accommodate unprecedented populations with projects that extend far beyond new buildings.

The initiatives also run the full gamut of infrastructure that the millions of new residents will need, such as power grids, water management, waste removal, public transit and educational facilities. To support long-term growth, these city projects, often comprising public-private partnerships, also must entail state-of-the-art sustainability and connectivity.

“We are going to have to think very differently about how we build cities, particularly in the developing countries that are urbanizing so fast, so these cities give us an example,” says Joan Fitzgerald, PhD, professor of urban and public policy at Northeastern University, Boston, Massachusetts, USA. “They point us in the right direction in terms of how we can totally rethink how cities look and are built.”

Almost 90 percent of urban growth will be concentrated in Africa and Asia, while just three countries—China, India and Nigeria—will account for 37 percent of the projected city surge by 2050.

While the cities themselves may be new, the idea behind them isn't, says Eran Ben-Joseph, PhD, professor and head of the department of urban studies and planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. Whereas most cities develop organically over time, the practice of building new ones from scratch became common after World War II in countries like China, England, Japan and Russia, where they were primarily government initiatives.

“What sets these new and future cities apart, however, is that sustainability and ecological technology are being incorporated into them, and while they often have government involvement, they tend to come from the private sector,” Dr. Ben-Joseph says.

Before this bold new future can get built, the cities’ project sponsors first must make the same decision facing any construction project: location. A city set slightly apart from, yet still close to, other urban hubs has proved to be the ideal.

The US$35 billion new city of Songdo International Business District (IBD), South Korea is within the metropolis of Incheon and near Seoul. Masdar City in the United Arab Emirates, a US$18 billion project, is just 11 miles (17 kilometers) outside the capital of Abu Dhabi. In India, the city of Lavasa aims to take advantage of its proximity to Pune, a booming software hub 40 miles (64 kilometers) away. Konza Techno City, Kenya, a US$14.5 billion development, will be 37 miles (60 kilometers) from the capital of Nairobi.


“What sets these new and future cities apart is that sustainability and ecological technology are being incorporated into them, and while they often have government involvement, they tend to come from the private sector.”

—Eran Ben-Joseph, PhD, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA


“[New] Chinese cities were built mainly as speculative housing projects, not necessarily corresponding to where people want to live.”

—Eran Ben-Joseph

China has offered a counterpoint lesson. As many cities have sprung up in remote areas, the country has seen an epidemic of ghost towns—newly constructed urban centers that did not attract businesses and residents and now sit largely empty. “These Chinese cities were built mainly as speculative housing projects, not necessarily corresponding to where people want to live,” Dr. Ben-Joseph says.

It may seem counterintuitive to build a new city near another, more established one, but such urban clusters carry distinct advantages. “You can benefit from and complement the social and economic dynamics of the metropolis. This makes the new city much more attractive for companies and the types of tenants they envision hosting,” says Luis Carvalho, PhD, senior researcher, European Institute for Comparative Urban Research, Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

To help future residents and businesses appreciate the allure of their city over others, project sponsors must coordinate with nearby cities to make sure they're complementing others’ appeal, not duplicating it. “Many new cities are designed to provide heavy incentives to lure companies, but those are often insufficient to match the social advantages of other places, let alone the fact that they can hardly be kept over time,” Dr. Carvalho says. “This would call for the integration and coordination between the new city and other nearby locations, to avoid negative-sum competition for companies and tenants.”


Project managers tasked with taking these cities from grand vision to on-the-ground reality must be able to adapt to change.

Location is crucial, but it isn't enough. To attract and retain more and more people and businesses, tomorrow's cities must be better than yesterday's—more advanced with regards to sustainability and technology. In the cities of Gujarat, India and Songdo, that means an underground network of vacuum-powered tubes that shuttle garbage from homes to a central processing facility. In Masdar City, it means designing a city layout that creates cooling breezes.

These cities also will sustain burgeoning populations with reliable public transportation that replaces the need—and desire—for private transport. “You have to put your money in good public transit,” says Carolina Barco, senior adviser, Emerging and Sustainable Cities Initiative, Inter-American Development Bank, Washington, D.C., USA. “You want to make taking public transit attractive because you want people to want to take it and not be forced to take it. Otherwise, they'll start looking for alternatives, like cars and motorcycles.”


Project sponsors can't agree to every sustainable initiative that promises to ease the problems of overcrowding, however. In Masdar City, original plans called for small, two-person vehicles that operated on a system separate from mass transit. After research into the development and implementation of the vehicles revealed they would be far pricier than anticipated, the plans were dropped.

“Planners and city officials have to be open to learning during the process and be willing to shift course,” Dr. Fitzgerald says.


Like project sponsors, the project managers tasked with taking these cities from grand vision to on-the-ground reality must be able to adapt to change.

Views of Songdo, South Korea, above, and Masdar City in the United Arab Emirates


Such long-range initiatives demand flexible plans. Cutting-edge technology is standard in these new cities, but what's forward-thinking today won't be down the road. Project managers need to determine how the technologies they're implementing now can be updated when the time comes.

“That's one of the elements that can be quite problematic—when you build a whole new town out of scratch and you just build it for a particular era or time, it doesn't necessarily modify itself very well to changing circumstances,” Dr. Ben-Joseph says. “You might have a place that looks great now, but the question is how will it look 10 years down the line. And as technology and elements that deal with sustainability and infrastructure change, how will you adapt?” That means creating flexible, adaptable systems that allow for disruptive innovation, he adds.

Project plans also must consider the city's future growth—and determine how to direct it. “City areas have a tendency to spread geographically faster than their population increases,” says Stellan Fryxell, architect and partner at architecture firm Tengbom, Stockholm, Sweden. “Urban sprawl results in substantially higher energy and resource use, and makes it more difficult to organize services compared with more compact cities.”

“We are going to have to think very differently about how we build cities, particularly in the developing countries that are urbanizing so fast.”

—Joan Fitzgerald, PhD, Northeastern University, Boston, Massachusetts, USA


The right plans can help control that sprawling tendency, Ms. Barco says. “Plan your major roadways, parks and green spaces first. Those public spaces define a city and give it quality. Then you'll find that the city will fill in a more organic way.” In Songdo, 40 percent of the city will be devoted to green space—one of the highest percentages in the world.

Because these long-term megaprojects often encounter budgetary changes, project plans also must include contingencies for funding shortages. That can help projects avoid the “painful process of scaling down visions,” Dr. Carvalho says. Many projects, particularly in China, saw funding erode during the recent global financial crisis.

Change during these years-long initiatives can impact—and even drain—the social and political support driving them. “If debts start to mount or the job creation that's been touted hasn't materialized yet, conflicts can arise and important stakeholders might withdraw,” Dr. Carvalho says. “It's happened before, and new financial deals had to be negotiated between developers and city authorities. From a project management perspective, preventing this erosion is a critical challenge.” Case in point: After questions arose about possible human rights violations at the construction site in Lavasa—one of India's two dozen planned smart cities—several educational stakeholders, including Oxford University, pulled out of the US$30 billion project.

Sustainable and technological features not only help create a more effective city as the end goal, they also help project managers overcome the challenge of wavering support—especially if those features are well communicated. “Evidence shows that capital and support drains out before the development starts to prove itself,” Dr. Carvalho says. “In this sense, it can be important to specialize in a few features in which the new city can definitely excel vis-a-vis similar developments elsewhere.” As an example, the multinational corporation Cisco will install its video-chatting technology into Songdo's new residential buildings and hotels.

To help secure ongoing support, project leaders must work to ensure that both sides of these cities’ public-private partnerships are partners in more than name alone. “You need a government setting standards, but then giving the private sector leeway into figuring out how to meet those standards,” Dr. Fitzgerald says. “If the private sector is acting alone, they'll make cost-based decisions. If it's all public sector, there's a tendency to be much more conservative and limit the experimentation that's necessary for these projects.”

When public stakeholders don't clearly communicate what they want from their private partners, the latter understandably will try to do what's in their own best interest, Ms. Barco says. “If the private sector doesn't have rules to work with, they work on projects that aren't clearly oriented toward responding to the city, because that isn't their job,” she says.

Project managers not only have to get myriad stakeholders to work together, they also must do so as stakeholders change over the course of projects that typically last many years. “These kinds of projects involve governments and public authorities, companies and real estate developers, universities, but also other actors from the civil society at large,” Dr. Carvalho says. “And they can also last for years and years. So the development and management of new cities always have to consider this complex patchwork of interests, that can—and very likely will—change during the long planning and development process.”


“These developments can become important test beds for new ways of living.”

—Luis Carvalho, PhD, European Institute for Comparative Urban Research, Rotterdam, the Netherlands

The Songdo project team learned those lessons firsthand. “Due to the dynamic nature of a large city-scale development spanning a long time horizon, we have had to withstand and ride through many market and financial cycles,” says Scott Summers, senior vice president of the city development firm Gale International Korea, Songdo, Korea. “Sidelining or minimizing stakeholders in the planning and development process does not foster strong partnerships and relationships that are needed in a development with a long time horizon.”

When successful, these new cities can have an impact that spreads far beyond their own borders. “These developments can become important test beds for new ways of living,” Dr. Carvalho says, “helping to visualize what we consider now as unrealistic solutions and create momentum for the formation of new stakeholder coalitions and technology development.”


CASE STUDY / City on the Horizon

Gujarat International Finance Tec-City, Gujarat, India

A city in India boasts the lofty ambition of becoming the world's newest hub for financial services and information technology. Strategically located near the Ahmedabad airport in the state of Gujarat—whose economy has seen rapid growth over the past decade—the Gujarat International Finance Tec-City (GIFT) intends to answer India's increasing need for professionals in the financial services and IT sectors by providing hundreds of thousands of new jobs.


“The global financial meltdown led to investors abandoning the project, leading to delay in the implementation.”

—Nitin Kumar, Fairwood Group, Noida, India

The Noida, India-based Fairwood Group, which is designing and planning the infrastructure and buildings for the megaproject, has taken cues from other central business districts—such as Shinjuku in Tokyo, Japan; Lujiazui in Shanghai, China; La Défense in Paris, France; and London, England's Docklands. “The study of these world-famous central business districts was used to prepare a framework of aspects of GIFT's central business district functioning and its relationship with the city,” says Nitin Kumar, CEO, Fairwood Group, Noida, India.

“We designed a city where people will love to take the public transport system.”

—Nitin Kumar


When complete, GIFT will be more than a business district, however; it will be a self-sustaining city. “We designed a city where people will love to take the public transport system,” Mr. Kumar says. The city will feature “free-flowing, extensive and usable green spaces, the ability to walk to work because all cars will travel underground, and skies that are completely free of wires, which will be underground.”

While job creation and commercial enterprises will be at the project's core, comprising 67 percent of GIFT's 62 million square feet (5.8 million square meters), residential and social buildings will take up 22 percent and 11 percent of total space, respectively. The city also will benefit from hightech infrastructure, including district cooling and automated solid waste management.

The INR780 billion project, a 50/50 joint venture between the public Gujarat Urban Development Company Ltd. and the private Infrastructure Leasing & Financial Services Ltd., has benefited from strong government support—fortunately, given the early funding challenges it faced.

When planning began in 2007, the project team had a 10-year timeline, and the design process was completed “in record time compared to the design time for similar projects,” Mr. Kumar says. Real estate developers quickly signed memoranda of understanding. Soon afterward, however, the global recession hit, and promised investments did not materialize, he says. “The global financial meltdown led to investors abandoning the project, leading to delay in the implementation,” Mr. Kumar says. The project team had to push back the completion date to 2022.

The government sponsor overcame the setback by proving itself a worthy partner for private investors. In 2012, a two-year U.K. review of India's infrastructure sector lauded Gujarat's performance in implementing public-private partnerships.

“Now,” Mr. Kumar says, “things have started moving again.”

CASE STUDY / City on the Horizon

Karamay and Guangzhou, China

Entirely new cities in China have not met the best of fates: Many have failed to attract businesses or residents. So more recent projects in the country have focused on rebuilding existing cities—among them, Karamay and Guangzhou.

Once a small town, Karamay experienced a population boom after the discovery of oil there in the 1950s. In 2010, the city opened a competition to design a master plan that would accommodate the expected population surge from 250,000 to 1 million by 2050. NBBJ, an architecture firm, won with a plan focused on sustainable design and conservation, including solar and wind power, storm-water management and a central business district surrounded by pedestrian-centered neighborhoods.



“Our planning was directed by city officials who did not yet have a clear understanding of the future academic programs for this new university.”

—Kim Norman Way, NBBJ, Columbus, Ohio, USA

Two views of the Karamay city plan


Launched in 2011, the project is on target for a 2017 completion of all planned buildings—yet it is not without challenges. “Karamay is in a very remote area of China,” says Kim Norman Way, principal, urban design and planning, NBBJ, Columbus, Ohio, USA. For the international team, that remote location meant three separate flights each time it needed to reach Karamay, which was “very taxing and wearing on the planning and design team,” Mr. Way says.

A lack of strong, clear communication with local clients and stakeholders has also proven problematic at times. The most challenging phase of work, Mr. Way says, involved planning the city's university campus. “Our planning was directed by city officials who did not yet have a clear understanding of the future academic programs for this new university due to the unpredictability of the region's growth,” he says. To get past that challenge, the project team used the city's desired enrollment numbers along with its own experience designing universities.


Similar problems arose when planning the city's hospital. “The city's vision for this new, contemporary, state-of-the-art hospital was greater than the existing hospital staff could provide input on,” Mr. Way says. Again, the team had to combine the client's general goal with its own expertise as well as its research on other new Chinese hospitals. In the end, the team successfully planned and designed a modern, 2,000-bed facility.


The government of Guangzhou, the third biggest city in China, has undertaken a US$7.5 billion effort to revitalize large swaths of the city, dubbed the north axis and south axis.

“Our objective was to create a sustainable and livable area for about 500,000 people in Guangzhou, without creating a negative impact on the surroundings,” says David Masenten, senior associate, Heller Manus Architects, the San Francisco, California, USA-based firm that won the redesign bids.

In 2009, the team began the first phase: the north axis. “This comprehensive urban core master plan of 2.4 square miles [6.2 square kilometers] redesigned the central business district,” Mr. Masenten says. The project comprises commercial and residential buildings, a sports facility, a railway and bus transportation hub and extensive open spaces. With a completion date of 2025, the south axis has fewer original features than its counterpart but more space: 15.5 square miles (40.1 square kilometers) of the southern city center.


“Our objective was to create a sustainable and livable area for about 500,000 people in Guangzhou, without creating a negative impact on the surroundings.”

—David Masenten, Heller Manus Architects, San Francisco, California, USA

Dealing with existing city structures presented both opportunities and challenges. “By choosing not to demolish buildings of sufficient quality, we were taking a very sustainable approach of saving the energy that would be lost in demolishing and recycling materials,” Mr. Masenten says. “However, most of the existing buildings on site were not built to any larger master plan, thus creating a conflict with planning goals and design.”

A rendering of Guangzhou's north axis



He credits precise planning for the mitigation of potential risks. “We carefully phased the plan to leave some existing buildings for the short term, while slating them for eventual removal,” Mr. Masenten says. “This gives the city time to re-evaluate the structure and the location in the future when the quality and needs of the building may change.”

While typical Chinese grid systems cater to cars, not to pedestrians, Mr. Masenten says, this project had sustainable mobility as one of its core objectives—so Heller Manus had to convince local stakeholders to think differently. “By using examples of walkable cities, we were able to convince local planners to adopt a much smaller block network—200 to 300 meters [656 to 984 feet] as opposed to 400 to 600 meters [1,312 to 1,969 feet] in block length—which greatly enhances walkability,” he says.



Two artist renderings of Konza Techno City


CASE STUDY / City on the Horizon

Konza Techno City, Kenya

Kenya is pursuing what it hopes will be its answer to U.S. tech hub Silicon Valley: Konza Techno City, or what's being called Silicon Savanna. Near Nairobi, the city will rise from 7.7 square miles (20 square kilometers) of African grasslands over the next 20 years—and aims to attract about 200,000 IT jobs.

The US$14.5 billion project is a flagship initiative in Vision 2030, the government program to make Kenya a globally competitive country by 2030.

In October, the project team began constructing the preliminary access roads and Kenya Power started laying power lines. By building 35,000 homes as well as schools, hotels and hospitals, the development authority intends to entice IT-related businesses and jobs. While the government-backed authority is overseeing the project, infrastructure components—including power, water, waste, public transit and communications such as fiber-optic cable—will be accomplished through public-private partnerships.

The city is being implemented in phases, allowing time to address challenges like funding, timelines and investors. In addition, a master plan for the entire city helps keep the project's goal clear.

Still, the team has met some obstacles—and others likely lie ahead. As project sponsors recognize, the city will result in the loss of natural habitat and the displacement and disturbance of wildlife. To minimize that negative impact—and offset potential objections from public stakeholders—the team will create a 2.4-square-mile (6.2-square-kilometer) wildlife corridor.

In addition, an in-progress water and sanitation project had to be redesigned to accommodate Konza's estimated water needs of 100 million liters (26.4 million gallons) each day. To ensure those needs will be met, the team must create boreholes to provide around 2 million liters (528,000 gallons) per day. PM

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