Ask any CEO or Mayor what their company’s or city’s greatest asset is and “people” is the word that most will offer first. When people are skilled and engaged, they fuel continued growth, innovation, and wealth—and leaders recognize that keeping the best talent can mean the difference between slipping into irrelevance and leading at the cutting edge. The globalized economy has given rise to more fluid flows of people, and today the world’s most influential companies and hubs of industry compete for largely the same pools of workers and residents. And it’s not just the Silicon Valleys, New Yorks, Londons, and Shanghais of the world enmeshed in that fierce competition—a crop of emerging innovative cities are outpacing the rate of growth of these more established centers. One such talent-magnet is Wuhan, among China’s largest cities and a fast-growing hotbed for tech, education, and innovation.
In a 2015 report published by real estate think tank Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL), Wuhan is named the eighth most dynamic city in the world, behind London, San Jose, Beijing, Shenzhen, Shanghai, Ho Chi Minh City, and Boston. Wuhan is the largest city in central China and although the city is not yet a house-hold name in the United States, it will likely become one in the coming years due to its rapid pace of development. Its dynamism stems not just from sheer GDP growth, but also from the speed of innovation. Startups and global conglomerates alike have recognized Wuhan as a burgeoning nucleus of the global innovation economy and are investing heavily in the area.
Before its more recent focus on technology, Wuhan’s industrial economy relied on iron and steel. In 2011, Wuhan committed to an “industry multiplication” plan to expand into new economic sectors. By 2010, Wuhan’s auto industry surpassed steel and became a 100-billion RMB industry for the first time. And since 2010, Wuhan has added on average one new 100-billion RMB industry per year. In fact, as of 2016, five 100-billion RMB industries had taken root, spanning automobiles and parts; electronic information; equipment manufacturing; food and tobacco; and energy and environmental protection. By 2016, the Optics Valley, also called Wuhan East Lake High-tech Zone, had reached 1,147 billion RMB ($166 billion US) in total revenue.
This extreme regional growth is fueled by Wuhan’s powerhouse educational institutions. “Wuhan lays a claim to having one of the world's largest populations of students—with nearly one million students enrolled in higher education. This is nearly as many as [in] Greater New York and Greater Los Angeles (1.3 million and 1.1 million respectively)—two of the world's leading education clusters,” the 2015 JLL whitepaper reports. “Wuhan University is one of the world's top 500 universities, as is the Huazhong University of Science and Technology (HUST). According to the UBI lndex 2014, HUST Science Park ranked as the world's l4th best incubator globally.”
The academic and research environment is an asset that companies the world over recognize as a driver of new ideas and innovation. It’s no coincidence that Cambridge, Massachusetts’ biotech hub in Kendall Square is co-located with some of the most robust academic networks in the world. In kind, a city like Wuhan is primed to develop into a research and industry innovation mecca with nearly 80 universities on-hand to fuel companies seeking R&D partners. But the impulse to quickly accelerate research cluster development is tempered by a savvy recognition that the urban fabric must also be thoughtfully crafted to ensure a lively ecosystem flourishes alongside the new businesses and partnerships cropping up.
In 2012, the tech-giant Lenovo decided to locate its R&D center of mobile internet work to Wuhan, investing 16 billion RMB in the effort. They invested not only in infrastructure, but also in a plan to cultivate a flexible plan to evolve its land assets alongside the growing needs of the company, the research district, and the city. Last year Lenovo hosted a competition to identify how best to cultivate their two-square-kilometer site, which sits on the west edge of the Optics Valley. The site is surrounded by seven universities, and research campuses belonging to global tech giants, including General Motors, Alibaba, Tencent, Baidu, and Lenovo’s other branch Raycom. Developed by Sasaki, the master plan for Lenovo’s new lakefront campus focuses on cultivating flexibility, ecological health, and diverse urban experiences that resonate with the city’s vision for the larger context.
For Lenovo, flexibility was a major consideration in creating a master plan that would serve it for years to come, given the fast pace of change in the tech industry. To ensure flexibility, the Sasaki team recommended that the site be organized in a modularized urban fabric that could be combined and rearranged as spatial needs change without compromising the integrity of the overall framework.
The ecologically-focused open space network not only helps ensure a human-centered experience but also addresses increasingly severe issues such as flooding and lake ecosystem degradation due to urban encroachment. Throughout the site are “urban nodes and social hubs” strategically placed to draw people in and orient them to the waterfront via uninterrupted open space and view corridors. With a major existing road dividing the campus, a 200-meter buffer mediates noise and views of the traffic, and serves as a natural respite full of trails for professionals seeking recreation and restoration.
The Lenovo campus is situated between the 28-square-kilometer Tangxun Lake to the south and 2-square-kilometer Yezhi Lake to the north. Water, therefore, is one of the major assets for the site and played a key role in the urban design framework. Known as the “City of 1,000 Lakes,” Wuhan’s regional landscape typology is celebrated in the landscape strategy of the campus, with lakefront parks reserved for both public use and ecological benefit, demonstrating both Lenovo’s and the city of Wuhan’s commitment to environmental and social stewardship.
This commitment to cultivating healthy ecological and social open space does not end at the edge of Lenovo’s future campus. Sasaki is also currently engaged in a master plan for the Yangchun Lake in downtown Wuhan, and is about to embark on an ambitious vision plan for the downtown public realm of the Yangtze River’s west bank. The Yangtze River has figured prominently in Wuhan’s past. Similar to Chicago, the river cuts through the city’s center and was the main thoroughfare for transport of goods, fueling the city’s economy for centuries. Today, the river can become a different kind of economic engine, connecting people along its shores in a healthy, open, social environment. All three projects are positioning Wuhan as a world-class city with a dedication to establishing a cohesive system of public landscapes and diverse waterfronts that celebrate the city’s industrial heritage while advocating for ecology.
Wuhan certainly has a plethora of natural assets, but to unlock them and allow this central Chinese city to compete with the likes of Beijing and Shanghai for top talent and commercial activity, the city must capture an identity. Today, Wuhan lacks a recognizable skyline, and its ground-level experience remains relatively undistinguished. “The city doesn’t really have a there, there yet,” explains Sasaki principal and landscape architect, Michael Grove, ASLA. “Like many contemporary Chinese cities, much of Wuhan’s historic fabric of smaller-scaled streets and parks have been lost to fast-paced development. The urban public realm, if considered at all, was often an afterthought. We are seeking to infuse Wuhan with a series of new landscapes that will contribute to the city’s growth for the next generation.”
Overarchingly, the new innovation hubs scattered throughout Wuhan need a mix of integrated uses that respond to the natural assets of the city and support a vibrant core of talent living and working in the area. There must be urban recreation spaces embedded in tech residences; plenty of walking meeting space for busy executives on the move; comfortable and private decision-making spaces for angel investors to meet with startups; co-working spaces for peers to mingle; and, of course, a mix of retail and dining options for visitors and the local community. "For Wuhan specifically, maintaining the shorelines of its many lakes as public amenities while balancing market demand for new residential and commercial development will be crucial to preserving people-oriented cityscapes that entice communities to circulate on the pedestrian level and convene in bustling communal open spaces," says Sasaki principal and landscape architect and ecologist, Tao Zhang, PLA, LEED AP ND, SITES AP.
No Silicon Valley Carbon Copy
Wuhan does not need to copy the Silicon Valley approach to capture similar successes. To the contrary, its urbanity and efficient connections to multiple urban centers throughout China via high-speed rail provides definite advantages over Silicon Valley’s suburban, car-reliant, isolated experience. One outspoken critic of the Valley’s sprawl, in a recent New York Times Op-ed, posed the critical question: “with so many studies touting the benefits of walkable, bike-able and transit-accessible environments, why are we designing in such a way that makes long, painful commutes inevitable?”
On the other side of the world, Wuhan has a rare opportunity to begin anew based on its foundational bones, building a more livable and lively innovation center. Wuhan can certainly borrow from all the great tech and innovation hubs around the world to create a culturally relevant, distinctly urban, and site-specific plan for its development, but does not need to copy and paste to thrive. And with ecological dimensions carefully considered at the city-wide level, Wuhan will be able to protect its natural assets for the health of all kinds of species, humans included.
The true test will come when Wuhan begins to implement elements of their plans. In academic circles, the difference between the definition of invention and innovation is that innovation is invention adopted. With the strong implementation of any number of inventive urban planning strategies recommended for the city, Wuhan will no doubt embrace its identity as a globally significant innovation city.