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Photo by Adam Mayer

This article by Harry den Hartog originally appeared at Sixth Tone.

As early as 2002, the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas noted how architectural spaces facilitated the urge to consume: “Shopping is arguably the last remaining form of public activity. Shopping has infiltrated, colonized, and even replaced almost every aspect of urban life. Town centers, suburbs, streets, and now airports, train stations, museums, hospitals, schools, and the internet are shaped by the mechanisms and spaces of shopping.”

In addition, malls consume a lot of energy. In a modern society, we require smarter structures to ensure that outside street life is protected. Otherwise, China will face — and is already facing — a situation similar to many towns in the U.S. where cars dominate and sidewalk life has disappeared.

More than ever, people are choosing to live in cocoons such as cars and malls, eschewing social interaction — something that Belgian philosopher Lieven de Cauter has called the “capsular society.” In Europe, while most malls are small in scale, they have still managed to tear through the historical urban fabric of our cities. During the last decade, the number of cars and malls more than doubled in China, and the trend is continuing.

As we trace the development of malls through the 20th century in the Western world, we see a remarkable shift from targeted shopping to recreational shopping. Since the 1950s, the interior environments of malls worldwide have been gradually domesticated, with the aim of prolonging our time inside and stimulating consumption. These developments have been followed by an urban renaissance since the late 1980s, with more and more malls relocating to old city centers, often as open-air arcades such as Westfield Horton Plaza in San Diego.

Walking through China’s rising cities, one might think that the country’s new middle class is still partial to air-conditioned indoor spaces bedecked in gleaming marble floors and playing host to expensive luxury brands. However, the popularity of such malls is in fact quite difficult to gauge. Most malls make minimal profits and lack customers; only the food courts see crowds. In 2016, several malls closed down in Shanghai, including the recently renovated Jinjiang Shopping Mall. Meanwhile, new malls are still under construction despite little to justify their existence. Already in 2004, former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao warned of “mall mania,” or the tendency to build projects out of pure speculation rather than in response to consumer demand.

Contemporary Chinese shopping malls can also be seen as an interpretation of the theme park concept. They offer an escape into a different world that is completely controlled and free of dangers or unwelcome surprises. They are sophisticated hives of seductive amusements designed to increase consumption. To distinguish themselves, many malls go all-in on a thematic approach, such as the neoclassic design of Shanghai’s Global Harbor Mall, or K11, a shopping center-cum-art gallery.

In the denser urban context of Chinese cities, however, we find a number of more unique features of shopping malls. In contrast to the West, where malls are usually located in suburbs and only accessible by car, Chinese malls are often situated downtown and near a metro station, with high-density residential complexes only walking distance away. The challenges to traditional urbanity, however, remain the same. In China, too, existing physical and social structures are destroyed, and a form of financial limitation is imposed on large groups by the exclusivity and high prices of products in the malls.


On my Twitter feed I recently came across a post about a new urban development concept called “SuperDensity” crafted by the international design practice HASSELL. Introduced by HASSELL Principal David Tickle at the 2016 Council for Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat International Conference in China this past October, SuperDensity is described as a “three-dimensional systems of open space, transport and resource utilization, inspired by the systems of the existing city”.

Having not attended the CTBUH talk and only seen a few provocative renderings of lush towers rising out of the Hong Kong skyline, I wanted to learn more about this proposal. David was a nice enough to answer a few questions for us and elaborate on the ideas that led to SuperDensity:

Adam Mayer (AM): What is Superdensity? Is it an existing condition of cities or a new design methodology? 

David Tickle (DT): SuperDensity is a completely new urban concept.

With growing urban populations around the world, increasing density is something urban designers spend a lot of time thinking about. The idea for SuperDensity stemmed from our consideration of the potential for a city that is already dense – like Hong Kong – to become even more dense, without compromising social or environmental outcomes.

We looked at the physical, social and environmental dimensions that constrain a city’s future growth, and the different ways of measuring density and we concluded (along with input from engineering firm WSP) that the solution could be ‘vertical streets’ – an innovative vertical system of public spaces, transport and infrastructure that would provide all the amenity usually found on the horizontal plane .

Our proposal starts with a continuous ramp – a public, accessible, flexible pathway that is 10 kilometers long and winds its way 500 meters into the sky. We then augment this slow path with a faster option – a rapid transport mode that stops every 80-100 meters.  At each stop, we propose new jungle parks and public slabs containing hospitals, libraries, schools, markets – the social infrastructure required for living and working populations. And along the ramp, clusters of economic activity, retail, workplace and enterprise centers – like a vertical version of street-facing shopfronts.

We have now essentially created the idea of the vertical main street, with fast and slow movement, open spaces, and social, economic and ecological infrastructure.  This “street” is then the catalyst for the renewal of the surrounding neighborhood, with new residential and commercial towers plugging into the SuperDensity tower.


Image courtesy of HASSELL

AM: What are the advantages/disadvantages of SuperDensity?

DT: Before we started, we had already recognized that the traditional approach of engineering taller, thinner, building structures and reducing the area available for public space and public infrastructure doesn’t deliver the ‘social license’ for density. Yes, we make more buildings and more dwellings, but we do not necessarily provide the homes people want.

Our starting point was that the ‘people factor’ is key to achieving greater density in cities.

So SuperDensity is all about what some people talk about as “density done well”. We weren’t interested in designing disadvantage.

AM: Are there any examples of SuperDensity today? In what capacity is HASSELL currently applying strategies of SuperDensity to cities? 

DT: We developed the SuperDensity concept as part of our constant efforts at HASSELL to try to be ahead of the curve. As urban populations continue to grow, we need to be smart about how we accommodate them, and to be prepared to challenge traditional thinking.

No, there are no examples of SuperDensity right now, but in the face of growing urban populations, it’s conceivable that it’s a solution that we might look to in the not-too-distant future.

superdensity_hassell_02_reducedImage courtesy of HASSELL

AM: Are there certain geographic markets (e.g. developing cities in Asia) that are more receptive to the idea of SuperDensity? What about the United States where, aside from some high profile cities, is primarily made up of low-density sprawl?

DT: SuperDensity is a concept that could help better accommodate growing urban populations in cities around the world. It’s certainly not just a Hong Kong or Asian solution, although these cities are generally more open to innovative systems of movement, connectivity and space. And we also believe it is a scale-able idea: that the thinking behind it could apply to both lower and higher density contexts, and therefore, a whole range of different cities.

AM: On a more technical level, how do SuperDense structures plug into the existing infrastructure of cities? Do they create their own infrastructure?

DT: The answer is either or. SuperDensity can work when it has its own infrastructure, its own self-contained systems of transport, connectivity, sustainability, and, ultimately, we envisage it as creating self-sustaining neighborhoods that exploit the verticality of the city. But some connectivity is critical and SuperDensity can also be ‘retro-fitted’ to existing infrastructure, particularly underground transport systems.

Many thanks to David Tickle and HASSELL for taking the time to answer our questions. If you have any additional questions about SuperDensity, please feel free to leave a comment to this post and we will have David get back to you.

  • Hayden White - My concern, having seen this idea proliferate around the center for tall buildings and urban habitats and toy with it personally is that it might become too inclusive and not be resilient to failure. When we look at the steven holl linked hybrid in Beijing, where I now work as an urban design researcher, we can see (often) armed security surrounding the area that was designed to be ‘public space’. I also think back to corbusier’s unite dehabitation and how it did not take long for commercial activity to move out and shops became abandoned. In my own opinion this arose from a lack of commercial competition.

    I believe such towers could be very well designed but what is more challenging is the econometrics of how infrastructure and commerce would be sustained.

    Would the spaces be public? (for all!) or private. Any ambiguity would quickly be pounced upon by a developer.

    Would the ‘vertical street’ contain paid-for amenity or services (cinema/gym/shops?)? And how could these be sustained at reasonable cost. Of course, hoping here that the notion of Super Density is not restrained to the wealthy elite.

    My hunch is that this kind of tower could plug in to a vertical section like Kowloon Station in HK very well but would need paid-for amenities to remain near ground level to force competition and supplier resilience should a premises be vacated or close down.

    I also believe fast/slow elevators can act as somewhat public/private elevators. I wonder whether this would be something designed in. No room key to take an elevator to shops/public garden but would later need a room key to activate the elevator to individual residential floors?ReplyCancel

    • David Tickle - Hi Hayden,
      Thanks for taking the time to make these comments. You are absolutely right about public/private delineation … and it’s fundamental to our proposal. SuperDensity is primarily a public system, with the vertical “street” rising to the top of the structure and having complete public access – although there would be some commercial activity, like a typical city street. It definitely does not work if it is a privatised system.
      And yes, fast and slow lift options make sense. Our idea is that the main “tram” would be like a bus that moves vertically and only stops at certain points.
      Thanks again for the comments. We will be uploading the full report to our website ( in a few weeks so keep an eye out for it!

  • Warner Quinlan - This is a really big problem with Chinese cities, it’s sad to see China falling into this trap instead of following the much better East Asian urbanization style of South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan with small blocks and narrower streets. A lot of developments are totally out of human scale and to car-centric, it’s partly the reason those so-called ghost cities look so empty.
    This author articulates this really well, his articles are a must readReplyCancel


East Bund Waterfront Competition Proposal, Design by Agence Ter

This article by Harry den Hartog originally appeared at Sixth Tone.

Shanghai used to be a city crisscrossed by waterways, and dozens of street names still pay homage to the canals and creeks that run through its urban sprawl. Lying in the swampy Yangtze River Delta, this former fishing village witnessed an industrial boom following the establishment of its treaty port after the Opium Wars.

Though the city’s name literally translates as “on the sea,” these days the Yangtze’s immense forces of sedimentation have pushed the coastline well out of town. In addition, large-scale land reclamation projects since the 1950s have made great tracts of marshland suitable for human habitation, though with negative side effects for ecology and flood protection.

Until the middle of the last century, the spatial and economic development of the Yangtze Delta was propelled by an efficient network of waterways and canal towns. In “Farmers of Forty Centuries,” his tremendous 1911 travelogue across China, the Korean Peninsula, and Japan, F.H. King describes how more than 3,000 kilometers of waterways provided an ingenious transport system that simultaneously supported soil fertility and irrigation. This in turn prevented soil erosion and increased crop yields, turning the delta region into a veritable rice bowl.

King also predicted that China would become a world superpower, as “tilling the earth is the bottom condition of civilization.” To improve the fertility of the land, a great deal of mud was dredged from the canals and creeks and spread across farmers’ fields. At the same time, night soil from the cities was transported to the fields by boat to be used as natural fertilizer. To a large extent, these techniques contributed to the self-sufficiency of the region and of China as a whole.

Later, under Mao’s leadership, the Chinese government adopted policies that imposed human engineering on the surrounding landscape. In Mao’s bid to conquer nature, many natural waterways were transformed into canals, while others were dammed or filled in completely.

The eastward shift in the world’s economic center of gravity at the end of the last century has made highways, railroads, and airports the new currency of Shanghai’s development — a process accelerated by mass migration to the city from rural areas. Many remaining waterways and canal towns have been subsumed by the city’s rapid urbanization, and this has severed the long and fruitful relationship between the city and the water systems sustaining it.

Until recently, living by the waterside in Chinese cities was rarely an attractive option. Industrial development made many of them dirty and smelly, while others became repositories of household waste. As a result, aside from the few remaining traditional canal towns, there are very few high-quality riverside housing developments in Shanghai.

Fortunately, the 2010 World Expo played a key role in redefining Shanghai’s relationship with its waterfronts. Since then, authorities have made an effort to clean up the banks of the Huangpu, the main tributary of the Yangtze running through the city. Shanghai’s ports, wharves, and shipyards are being outsourced to new locations across the delta region, well away from the downtown area.

The redevelopment of Suzhou Creek, until recently one of the city’s most polluted water outlets, is indicative of a sea change in official attitudes. Luxurious new housing complexes have sprung up along its banks, overlooking the newly odor-free river. Meanwhile, ambitious projects seeking to rejuvenate the Huangpu’s riverbanks indicate that Shanghai is starting to embrace its position at the mouth of one of the country’s most iconic waterways. Planners have reimagined waterfronts as recreational spaces, with one initiative culminating in a recent design competition for 21-kilometer stretch of waterfront in Pudong, east of the river.

However, one still-unaddressed issue is the fact that most waterfront projects have so far taken the form of offices and high-end apartment buildings. While they sit in very attractive public spaces, they are the preserve of only a small proportion of citizens and are often relatively inaccessible, being far from metro and bus lines. The Cool Docks, a redeveloped area along the South Bund, is one example of an area where glitzy restaurants, hotels, and penthouses remain relatively unfilled by virtue of their remoteness from the beating heart of the city.

Additionally, the high water level means that, in many places, barriers prevent people from interacting directly with the water. While the dangers of swimming or fishing are clear, cities like London, New York, Rotterdam, and Hamburg have proved that a wide range of design solutions exist to bring people closer to the water safely, whether that be by introducing green slopes or providing riverbank walkways.

It is positive that Shanghai’s rivers are no longer an assault on the senses, but its new relationship with water still seems slightly platonic and superficial. However, with miles of canals still waiting to be developed, authorities will have many more opportunities to explore the city’s bond with its waterfront history. Hopefully, future projects will continue to see water as something to be protected, not neglected.

China Urban Development readers: I’m very pleased to share with you a recent TV news interview with our very own Ziyou Tian on the state of housing in Hong Kong. In this segment she offers a fresh take on how to tackle the housing shortage and addresses some of the underlying issues that cause income inequality in the city. Please take look below:

Photo by 发课 吴

Since the end of 2015, property values have been heating up throughout China. In over 15 cities, home prices increased over 20% since September 2015. Although home prices have been steadily climbing for over a decade, the past year recorded the largest jump since 2010.

Home prices in Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Dongguan recorded over a 40% (source in Chinese) increase in less than a year, which makes property value in China’s largest cities comparable to international hubs such as New York and London. However, home buyers do not get nearly the value for their money. Homeowners in China only enjoy the right to use the property on long lease terms. Most residential property contracts grant a 70-year right of use, and the policy for renewal terms has not yet been clarified. These lease terms not only determine the limited rights of owning a home, but also dictate the quality of construction.

The recent sharp rise in real estate prices was triggered by loosening measures introduced during Q1 of 2015. On the one hand, policymakers want to clear the excess inventory of surplus properties. According to various sources, there are an estimated 64 million to 1 billion vacant apartments across China, the vast majority of which are located in less economically-stimulating cities and towns. On the other hand, in large cities where there are more job opportunities, overcrowdedness and housing affordability are top concerns. Since March 2015, there were two rounds of interest rate cuts and loosening measures on down payment and property transaction regulations. Such loosening measures, meant for de-stocking vacant homes, evoked the fastest climb in property values throughout China, and mostly manifested in large cities.

A few reasons are often cited to justify that this blow-up is grounded in the real demands for housing in major cities – 1) Rapid urbanization continues to drive rural population to urban areas, 2) the nation’s GDP still grows at a steady pace, although less than before, and 3) the recently announced two-child policy creates higher demand for housing.

Beyond the real needs for housing, the investment value of real estate largely inflated the housing prices. Property investment has been a trusted way to get rich quick for many Chinese investors, and the profit chain has amplified any increase in housing price that is rooted in real housing demand.

People in China trust real estate investment because it has never failed in the past. There have been many times when people thought China’s property prices would finally come to a cooling period. However, the implementation of cooling measures to limit investment purchases never prevented  prices from growing for very long. Following the surge in 2013, policies limiting investment home purchases mildly pulled down prices since the end of 2013. However, in less than one year, home prices recovered to historical highs and kept growing at an unprecedented pace.

It is not only homeowners’ accumulated wealth from capital gains on their properties- there is also a chain of profitability from land sale, to developers, to the construction industries, to real estate agents, and many other middlemen in between. Today an average 2-bedroom apartment in Beijing or Shanghai is worth over 1 million USD. Although plenty houses remain unoccupied, housing prices have never dipped since the original commercialization of housing in 1978.

Since China’s housing stock faces conflicting concerns, over-supply in some locations, and overheated in others, targeted policies at the local level may help ease the gap. Just this month, a handful of cities published new cooling measures, including Beijing which now requires the highest down payment of 35% for first time home buyers and Guangzhou banning owning third properties.  

These local policies are not yet effective due to the lack of a consistent network for home ownership across the country. Specific measures could be controlled at the local level as investment is nonetheless bounded by locality. Yet because registration networks generally do not communicate across geographic boundaries, real estate investors can easily find their next deal somewhere else. A coherent and nationally connected network could really help both local and the central governments to effectively implement mitigating policies.