Expert designer says ‘localism’ is critical to China’s switch to smaller cities / by Broadway Malyan

China’s leaders reaffirmed their intention to turn urbanisation into a powerful engine to drive growth and remake the economy, through an announcement in December that they would encourage rural residents to move to smaller cities, rather than megacities.

This followed the launch of a new five-year plan by the Chinese Communist Party in November, which is set to result in a significant shift in demand for growth and urbanisation away from the four first-tier cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Guangzhou and second-tier cities – mainly provincial capitals such as Hangzhou and Nanjing.

Melvin Davis, Shanghai-based Director at global architecture, urbanism and design practice Broadway Malyan, who is leading projects in smaller cities such as Heifei, Wuhan, Qingdao, Fuqing, Xuzhou, as well as cities within the greater Shanghai area including Suzhou, Ningbo and Nanjing, said:

“As the government focuses on expanding the domestic consumer market and growing the Chinese middle class by half a billion people by 2030, the 12th five-year plan aims to maintain the pace of urbanisation and the growth of middle class consumers – but in a smarter and more sustainable way.

“Therefore, it aims to shift the emphasis towards the growth of smaller, third and fourth-tier cities, and to boost the development of regional hubs in the northeast and southwest – including Shenyang, Harbin, Chengdu, Xian, Wuhan and Chongqing – where many local mayors are keen to grow their cities.

“Given the switch in focus it is critical that developers and designers in China understand that, like almost anywhere else in the world, what works in the big cities won’t always translate to other, smaller places with their own distinct, local cultures and identities.

“For new cities to establish themselves sustainably and attract Chinese consumers they will need to provide homes, employment – and especially leisure and retail opportunities – that are sympathetic to local conditions and cater to middle market demands – that is where the high-value and growth opportunities lie, of the kind that will support and encourage an expanding consumer class.

“As always in China, the challenge is to make something unique within a centrally-planned economy, but smart developers and designers are beginning to more fully appreciate the need for a middle-market, locally-focused approach.

“At Broadway Malyan, we’re committed to working with our clients and project partners to create developments that have a real sense of place, reflect local conditions and cater for local markets, to help establish successful and sustainable communities in growing cities.”

In December, the practice secured planning approval for the landmark Hefei ID Mall, a 170,000 sq m retail-led mixed use development featuring a 150 m office tower, in Hefei, eastern China – described in the same month by the BBC as ‘one of the world’s fastest growing cities’ (

Melvin Davis said: “Our expert team has worked in partnership with high-profile client CITIC Capital Holdings Limited, a leading alternative investment management and advisory company – part of CITIC, a state-owned investment company of the People’s Republic of China – to realise its vision for a special and inspirational retail and workplace environment that draws on the local culture and site particulars.

“Inspired by the story of the site, our design philosophy acknowledges the historical building pattern, with the roof garden and restaurants in the new scheme orientated in the same way as the old geometry of this part of the city.

“By mixing the past and present we will create exciting forms and spaces throughout the scheme, with the overall form a series of flowing lines reminiscent of flowing water, invoking the area’s name, ‘Bin Hu’ or ‘Lakeside’.

“As with all schemes in China with a retail element, a key issue in the success of the development is the appropriateness of the offer. Gone are the days when every mall needs to have a Gucci store, because while customers will always aspire to own luxury goods, their cost on the mainland is high.

“What the new middle class wants is accessible but aspirational products within their budget and the environments in which those retail offers are sold need to offer a richer experience.

“In short, a group of Chinese tourists shopping for luxury goods in Europe isn’t representative of the core local market, which schemes such as the Hefei ID Mall need to serve.”

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