Modern cities have to respond to a number of challenges: rapid population growth and overcrowding, inefficient transport system and congestion, and above all pollution, climate change and related natural disasters. If you have ever been to Beijing, you know these problems inside out. The solution is the XNA – Xiong’an New Area (雄安新区), announced by President Xi Jingping in April 2017. The project is located in Hebei province, approximately 100 kilometres from Beijing, and its task will be to unburden the capital. The XNA aims to be a self-sufficient city with energy coming only from renewable sources. The success of the project will be a victory of human architectural vision and high-tech over unfavourable environmental conditions such as droughts. And there is already a touch of Europe in Xiong’an. The ‘Guallart Architects’ from Barcelona won the 2020 competition for the design of residential facilities in Xiong’an, taking into account tough lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic.
What is Xiong’an New Area?
In the last two decades, China has promoted and developed eco-friendly measures in cities and is increasingly adopting urban solutions to reduce carbon emission (Baeumler, Chen, Iuchi and Suzuki, 2012). The Xiong’an New Area perfectly corresponds to this Chinese and global trend to work towards more sustainable cities.
It was the strategic location that largely determined the creation of this project. Xiong’an is part of the so-called Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei (BTH) triangle. It is located 105 km from Beijing and Tianjin, 155 km from Shijiazhuang (the capital of Hebei province) and just 55 km from the Beijing Daxing International Airport (Veglianti, Magnaghi, De Marco and Li, 2021). The area currently consists of three predominantly rural counties: Xiongxian, Rongcheng and Anxin and is spread over around 100 km2, but the plans envisage a breath-taking extension up to 2,000 km2 with the population of up to 2 million people (Xiongan Government, 2021). It is home for the Baiyangdian Lake with its flora and fauna, which is the largest freshwater reservoir in northern China, and is of paramount importance not only for the preservation of the biodiversity but also for the protection of water resources in the region.
The emerging city will relieve urban pressure from Beijing and its residents and balance the development between the booming cities and the depopulating countryside in Hebei province. Some functions not directly related to the functioning of the national capital will be transferred from Beijing to Xiong’an. One of the examples is the education sector, the Guanghua School of Management of Peking University will launch a training centre in the XNA, and the Renmin University of China will open its medical college there (Ka-Ho Wong, 2019). The city is to become a mecca for skilled workers and businesses from the high-tech sector, such as Baidu, Alibaba Group and Tencent which all plan to open their branches in the area (Ka-Ho Wong, 2019).
Sustainable Urban Development in Xiong’an New Area
The reason why Xiong’an is so essential is because of its ambitious goal to be sustainable and self-sufficient. Green energy is a vital part of the project. The whole city is to operate on zero-emission, renewable energy. Its self-sufficiency is to further reduce the carbon footprint.
The government has already decided to close thousands of factories and companies that were responsible for air pollution in the Xiong’an area, and is searching for alternative energy sources such as geothermal. Transport within the city is supposed to be 100% electrified and potentially AI controlled. At the end of 2017, tests of self-driving cars manufactured by Baidu took place, which possibly represent the future of individual transportation in Xiong’an (Ka-Ho Wong, 2019). The city will be connected to other major urban centres by high-speed railway to further reduce traffic and emission. With the help of sustainable agriculture the city will produce its own food to meet the needs of the inhabitants and reduce exports and imports (Martinez Euklidiadas, 2020).
Challenges for Xiong’an New Area
The major obstacles to success for this project are twofold. Firstly, the region suffers from unfavourable climate with extreme weather conditions. In this case its location works against it. Xiong’an lies inland on a marshy lowland and must manage heavy rainfall, droughts, very high temperatures and intense fog (Wang, Song, Han, Liao, Xu, Zhai and Zhu, 2020) and will hence be forced to develop effective mechanisms to mitigate climate-related risks.
Secondly, the XNA is the flagship project of President Xi Jingping and the central government and therefore receives great attention. The top-down approach is typical of China, but for the city of the future it might disrupt the bottom-up dynamics (Zou and Zhao, 2018). When urban development is at stake, the participation of the civil society is crucial, as it determines to a large extent the liveability of a city and supports the integration between old and new settlers.
Europe in Xiong’an New Area
In August 2020, Spanish ‘Guallart Architects’ with their founder and chief architect – Vicente Guallart won the competition for a community design in Xiong’an. Mr Guallart said: “We cannot continue designing cities and buildings as if nothing had happened.” (Chandran, 2020), thus referring to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and related lockdowns around the world. The design includes, among other things, the possibility to grow food on roofs and 3D printers available in common areas for all residents. More importantly, the residential area is created to be very green and in addition, the flats have huge terraces to increase space. All this is intended to make the community self-sustainable, even in the event of confinement, and to improve the conditions for remote learning and working. The ideas of Spanish architects for the Chinese city of the future could become solutions used all over the world.
Construction of Xiong’an New Area continues. Many questions, including the most important one of whether the project will be successful, remain unanswered for now. The ultimate target is very ambitious – self-sufficiency and green energy for a city of 2,000 km2 and a population of 2 million which has to cope with extreme weather conditions. Is this even possible? The answer to exactly this question is sought by the engineers and architects involved in the project, who are to push the limits of our understanding of sustainable cities. Xiong’an New Area is an unique experiment – Chinese CityLab – the success of which will serve as a model not only for other cities in the inland part of China but also along the Belt and Road Initiative and perhaps beyond.
Anna Oliwia Wierzbicka comes from Poland. In 2020, she graduated with honours from the Beijing Language and Culture University with a Bachelor of Arts in Chinese Language. Currently she is pursuing Erasmus Mundus Joint Master Degree in Euroculture at University of Strasbourg (France) and University of Groningen (the Netherlands).
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The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.
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