Tencent is building a Monaco-sized ‘city of the future’ in Shenzhen

Written by Oscar Holland, CNN

Technology giant Tencent has unveiled plans for an almost entirely car-free “city of the future,” equivalent in size to Monaco, in the Chinese metropolis of Shenzhen.

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

Although primarily for Tencent's use, many of the spaces and facilities will be accessible to the public.

Although primarily for Tencent’s use, many of the spaces and facilities will be accessible to the public. Credit: NBBJ

The ambitious city-within-a-city is set to occupy a stretch of reclaimed land jutting out into the Pearl River estuary. Designed to accommodate a population of some 80,000 people, the site will primarily serve Tencent, the conglomerate behind WeChat and China’s popular QQ messaging service.

But as well as providing company residences and offices, the neighborhood is expected to host shops, schools and other public amenities, and will be connected to the rest of Shenzhen via road bridges, ferries and the city’s subway system. The American firm behind the master plan, NBBJ, hopes that the new district’s entertainment venues, parks and waterside promenade will attract visitors from elsewhere in the city.

The site will be constructed on a stretch of reclaimed land.

The site will be constructed on a stretch of reclaimed land. Credit: NBBJ

As such, the plan differs from the enclosed campuses pioneered by big tech companies in recent years, according to Jonathan Ward, a design partner at NBBJ.

“It’s definitely a destination (and has) a civic component,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s not meant to be an isolated, secure island — it’s a vibrant city. People will walk through it, they’ll connect … and it will be a vital hub for Shenzhen.”

Eliminating the car

With an unusually large vacant plot to work with, NBBJ — which won an international competition to design the site — was able to rethink the car’s role in urban planning, Ward said.

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

“Going ‘car-free’ is still a little bit challenging in our world, so we spent a lot of time designing the city to be as low-impact as possible, removing (cars from) where they don’t need to be and focusing on people.”

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

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

Although regular cars will be able to access some parts of the neighborhood, the plan centers around a “green corridor” designed for buses, bikes and autonomous vehicles. The layout eliminates what Ward called “unnecessary” traffic.

“You don’t need one block surrounded by roads — you can maybe have eight blocks surrounded by a road, and take away all the ones in between,” he said. “We’ve been ‘subtracting’ roads in places where we think it’s perfectly fine for people to walk two minutes longer from a subway or a (taxi) drop-off.

“And, in those two minutes, you might see something inspiring, connect to nature or meet a colleague you haven’t seen for a while — all those things you can see happening in a workplace environment can happen in the city.”

Interconnected planning

As well as integrating with Shenzhen’s wider urban fabric, NBBJ’s master plan is designed to offer what it calls an “interconnected, human-focused organic ecosystem.” For Tencent employees, this may mean eroding the distinction between their work and private lives — an idea that has become all the more relevant in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, Ward said.

“Traditional cities are very much siloed, even in the densest cities where there’s more interaction and intermixing,” he added. “But what can happen now is you can start to blur those lines (between work and play), and bring more interaction between different parts of life.

“You’re seeing more blurring of those lines, for better or for worse. But I think we can make it for the better as we tune this model going forward,” he added.

Elsewhere, the master plan considers environmental sustainability with rooftop solar panels and elaborate systems for capturing and reusing wastewater. Planners also looked at projections for future sea level rises to ensure that buildings are better protected against climate change.

Transport systems will connect the "city-within-a-city" to the rest of Shenzhen.

Transport systems will connect the “city-within-a-city” to the rest of Shenzhen. Credit: NBBJ

Tencent isn’t the only private company looking to create its own miniature city. Earlier this year, carmaker Toyota unveiled plans for the 175-acre “Woven City” in the foothills of Mount Fuji, where it will test autonomous vehicles, smart technology and robot-assisted living. In Toronto, Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary Google’s parent company Alphabet, was planning to transform a stretch waterfront into a futuristic new neighborhood, before it canceled the project citing “economic uncertainty” caused by Covid-19.
There are also a number of other large-scale developments being planned in Shenzhen, a city that has exploded in size since 1980, when the Chinese government named it a “Special Economic Zone.” The first phase of a new business district called Shenzhen Bay Headquarters City, also being built on reclaimed land, is expected to complete by 2022.

Tencent’s Net City will take around seven years to complete, with construction expected to commence later this year. The dozens of individual buildings, which will range from one to 30 floors in height, will be designed by variety of different architecture firms.

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