THE BLOG
06/02/2016 09:44 am ET | Updated Jun 02, 2016

How Inspired Architecture Can Connect Billions of People in Asia

Just a few weeks ago, I traveled to Hong Kong, a major hub of business connectivity in Asia, for the second time in two years. I had been invited to participate in the Hong Kong Trade and Development Commission's Belt and Road Summit, a meeting of business and thought leaders from around the world. The summit was named after an ambitious Chinese initiative, The Belt and Road, which aims to connect an astonishing 65 countries in Europe, Asia and Africa along five land and maritime trade routes.

That means connecting billions of people across uncompromising and wildly varied terrain -- desert, mountains, urban centers, rural villages, rivers, oceans, valleys. China intends to plow billions of dollars into the project, connecting them through the construction of new transport infrastructure, as well as through policy coordination, facilities connectivity, unimpeded trade, financial integration, and people-to-people bonds.

It's a massive bid to fire up Chinese growth and influence all across the East. The Chinese government intends to hire primarily Chinese workers to develop these projects and that likely means moving tens of thousands of people along these routes even before the new infrastructure has been built. Providing homes for the workers in their adopted cities along the route will be part of the plan.

After the summit, I got an opportunity to meet with AEDAS Chairman Keith Griffiths, an advisor on the Belt and Road Summit, and speak to him more about the initiative, the significance of these trade routes for China and Asia and the kind of architectural vision this program will require. Although many of the silk road routes have been defunct for a very long time, Griffiths said, large, thriving cities are already plugged into the routes, which should make reopening them natural and organic in some ways. Of course, these same cities will find enormous opportunities for growth once the initiative gets underway, and smart urban planning will be critical to their longer-term success. Keith Griffiths said his own firm grew organically in much the same way via the maritime routes.

Designing successful cities is not an easy feat. Just witness the hundreds of dazzling ghost cities that have sprung up in China over the past three decades, mini-empires of glass and metal and concrete that are nearly devoid of people. These cities were built by a government eager to bring its enormous rural population of 250 million people out of countryside villages and into the urban fortresses of the 21st century. Unfortunately, they forgot to ensure that the cities came with the jobs and commerce that would have supported people living there. China doesn't want to repeat this experiment.

And yet, it is daunting to contemplate the scale of the Belt and Road project and the disparate places that will be connected, we respect the historical aspect of this endeavor. The five routes are the following: (1) New Eurasia Land Bridge, linking China to Europe through Central Asia and Russia; (2) connecting China with the Middle East through Central Asia; and (3) bringing together China and Southeast Asia, South Asia and the Indian Ocean. The 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, meanwhile, focuses on using Chinese coastal ports to: (4) link China with Europe through the South China Sea and Indian Ocean; and (5) connect China with the South Pacific Ocean through the South China Sea.

AEDAS works on both infrastructure and residential architecture projects, and Griffiths proposed that the future of urban design -- along belt and road trade routes and beyond -- will need to allow for high rise, high-density hubs where people live and work, eliminating long commute times and wasted hours. But he also believes in the importance of architecture that addresses local culture, climate, materials and way of life, all of which are incredibly diverse throughout Asia and even within China. That means creating an architecture that can address both global and local themes.

Ultimately, planners and developers have to think not just about trade, but about people -- the people who will use the bridges, ports and roads to transport goods to other people and to travel from home to work and back again. The Belt and Road project means very little without those billions of people who will be making connections with one another, person-to-person. Keith Griffiths is one of those people who will bring his combined experience of high-rise and high-density to this project.

CONVERSATIONS