Su Yunsheng

Planner, Shanghai Tongji Urban Planning & Design Institute

DREAM BIG. Make technology a key. Capture peoples’ imaginations with challenging dialogue. Those are the trademarks of professional planner Dr. Su Yunsheng of Shanghai.

Over the course of his career, he has supervised high-profile projects like the Beijing Tongzhou Canal city, the 2010 Shanghai Expo-village and Guangzhou Financial City. He is a co-founder of Urban China Magazine and favors the idea of using data to analyze planning projects.

Urban planners, notes Su, “start with no power on their own.” But with a “vision,” they can build a coalition of supporters. For example, bringing a developer on board is critical, he says — “to have money to do something.” The social side — popular participation — is important “if you want to realize your dream.” And then officials must be won over, because “it’s government that gives you power to realize your dream.”

Teaching a class last year in Darmstadt, Germany, with 22 students from 19 emerging countries, Su divided the participants into four imaginary groups — designers, developers, local residents and government. Then he instructed each group to defend its interests in an imagined real-world development deal.

Su Yunsheng has supervised planning of many of China’s most high-profile recent city building projects, including the Shanghai Expo-village, seen here under construction in 2008. (Xinhua/ Landov) 

“I told the developers to earn quick money — a return on their investments within five years. The government officials were told to find a way to raise the price of land to finance better infrastructure. Ordinary citizens — for example a single mother facing eviction with a baby to feed, or elderly people facing pressure to leave their longtime homes — were told to fight hard to protect themselves in the development process. And designers were told to see themselves as urban planners, to get all the players to agree.”

With many tradeoffs, Su reports, the process worked, producing common interests among the factions as the students negotiated. The developer, for example, got terms that would get his money back in just two years — although in the process, he had to provide a hospital (and tangible health benefits) for the community. The government and citizen sides were pleased by the creation of jobs, housing and education opportunities for children. Designers promised benefits in “green,” low-carbon development.

Su sees another bright opportunity in using modern technology to save workers long commutes to their offices. So much digital information flows so rapidly via the internet, he suggests, that the need for workers to drive two hours or more to reach their offices — with all the energy that costs — can be reduced dramatically.

“We can create more efficient operations — screens to handle data, show work information rapidly. We can have a vision of smarter operations, enabled by computer.” In its time, Su notes, “the car broke the time and space of the city.” But the benefits have diminished. Now, he explains, “if you live in the country and have two hours to drive to the office, you have less time with your children, and you suffer traffic jams. The new smart home can do so much better — by working from home, with video connections with your co-workers, there’s no need to drive to the office. You get your family back.”

Those are typical wins, Su suggests, unachievable in earlier times, that smart planning, merged with smart technology, can achieve in today’s world.  

—Neal Peirce

This story is part of a series of Citiscope profiles on urban innovators from Montréal to New Delhi who are improving lives, designs and fortunes in their cities. All are speaking at the New Cities Foundation’s 2014 New Cities Summit in Dallas from June 17-19, attended by urban leaders from around the world. Read the profiles here. And see Su Yunsheng’s presentation in the video below.


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