Liu Thai Ker and Ke Huanzhang: Urban planners are servants of the city

How do urban planners go about their work and what contributions do they make to the building of liveable cities? Ke Huanzhang, former head of the Beijing Academy of Urban Planning and Design, is all for the seamless melding of a good ecological environment, living facilities, jobs and public services in a city. Liu Thai Ker, the former chief architect and CEO of Singapore’s Housing Development Board, says a good planner needs to have the heart of a humanist, the brain of a scientist, and the eye of an artist. Tan Ying Zhen speaks to the veteran urban planners as part of a series of fireside chats put together to commemorate the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Singapore and China.
Ke Huanzhang (left) and Liu Thai Ker are veteran urban planners in China and Singapore. (SPH)
Ke Huanzhang (left) and Liu Thai Ker are veteran urban planners in China and Singapore. (SPH)

How does one define a liveable city? Liveable city rankings, a health report of sorts for major cities in the world, may offer some clues. Announced by western financial institutions and media each year, the rankings reflect cities’ political and economic strength, and are a representative index of residents’ happiness and a report card on cities’ sustainable development. The liveability of cities is also tied to their function and design, as well as their management and implementation.

For urban planners Liu Thai Ker from Singapore and Ke Huanzhang from China, a liveable city is one that is a three-dimensional panorama of life. Ke summarises liveability as a place to live and work well, that is, one that has a good ecological environment, comprehensive living facilities, sufficient jobs, and public services that keep up with the times. Liu says a good planner needs to have the heart of a humanist, brain of a scientist, and eye of an artist, in order to respect humanity, calculate functional efficiency, care for the natural environment, and cherish heritage and history.

Liu and Ke are both in their 80s and in fact of the same age. Both read architecture in university, but instead of building houses after graduation, they went into urban planning as the opportunity to develop and integrate the functions and cultural assets of cities beckoned. The two met 40 years ago when Liu was a planning adviser for Beijing and Ke was head of the Beijing Academy of Urban Planning and Design. Even after Liu stepped down, both continued to meet for meals and chats each time Liu made a trip to Beijing.

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Ke Huanzhang at his home, 2015. (Courtesy of Ke Huanzhang)

Insights on urban planning are linked to one’s background. Ke grew up in a country village in Ningbo, and went to Nanjing to further his studies as the village’s first university student. He then joined the Beijing Municipal Commission of Planning and Natural Resources and rose through the ranks, becoming deputy head in 1983.

From 1986 to 2001, Ke was the head of the Beijing Academy of Urban Planning and Design, and helmed Beijing’s overall planning including the building and planning of satellite towns, urban land use zoning plans and redevelopment plans for old cities. He continued offering his expertise in various capacities after retirement, and is currently an expert consultant for the Capital Planning and Construction Commission and the Committee for the Protection of the Famous Historical Cultural Metropolis of Beijing, and a member of the expert panel of the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development.

As for Liu, after graduating from high school, he went to Sydney, where he worked to see himself through university. He then got a scholarship to read city planning and transportation at Yale, after which he worked at I.M. Pei’s architecture design company in New York.

But much of Liu’s career was anchored by his 24-year stint in the Singapore civil service. He first served in the Housing and Development Board (HDB), overseeing the development of 23 new towns and over 500,000 residential units as HDB’s chief architect and CEO. He then became the chief planner and CEO of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), where he led the development of the 1991 Concept Plan.

In the 1980s, he started receiving invitations to plan China’s growing cities. Over the next 40 years, he participated in the urban planning projects of over 40 cities in China. By 1992, he had segued to the private sector as director of RSP Architects Planners and Engineers, and in 2017, he founded Morrow Architects and Planners. He was also the founding chairman of the advisory board of the Centre for Liveable Cities (CLC). (NB: The board has since stepped down in June 2020.)

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Liu Thai Ker (right) with his wife Gretchen Liu, 2011. (SPH)

If life is like a drama, cities set the stage and urban planning has an impact on how the backdrop of our life’s memories would look. According to Liu and Ke, the good urban planner would aspire to be a nameless hero, and think of him/herself as a servant of the city. What potential do cities hold as the stage of life? This in-depth dialogue with these two veterans throws up beautiful possibilities to look forward to.

Tan Ying Zhen (Tan): Both of you have played key roles in urban planning in China and Singapore. Among your many projects, which are the most memorable, or which are you the most proud of?

Ke Huanzhang (Ke): I worked in Beijing’s urban planning authority for over 40 years, where I led or participated in many projects. They have stuck with me, and it is hard to pick one that is most memorable. Take Beijing’s central business district (CBD) for instance. Beijing did not use to have a CBD, but in the early 1990s, when I led Beijing’s general city planning, I said Beijing should be like other capitals such as London, Paris, and Tokyo, and build a CBD with the same function and scale. This was included in the overall plan.

In 1993, China’s State Council approved the masterplan for Beijing, and there was a wave of urbanisation. But the CBD plan was not known or prioritised among Beijing city government and departments, or the investment and building authorities. Many commercial buildings, including offices, hotels, high-end apartments, and commercial facilities were scattered all over the city. Few projects were concentrated in the planned CBD.

In late 1996, our planners conducted studies and found that in Beijing, there were about 20 million sqm worth of commercial projects that were in progress, or approved and about to be built. Moving just a quarter of those projects to Beijing’s CBD would form the equivalent of Lujiazui in Pudong, Shanghai’s CBD. I got anxious, and in early 1997, I wrote a report to the municipal government on developing new economic growth points, and ramping up construction of Beijing’s CBD. The local government took it seriously and quickly called a meeting to discuss it, and immediately decided to kick-start the construction of the CBD.

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The Central Business District (CBD) in Beijing, China, November 2019. (Thomas Peter/REUTERS)

But soon after work began, the Asian financial crisis hit, and construction of commercial buildings in the CBD stalled. However, property development did not slow, and owners of CBD land that was planned for commercial development asked to let go of their land to be converted to residential buildings. If that happened, the CBD would become a residential area. We got anxious again.

The Asian financial crisis turned in late 1999, and in early 2000 we wrote another report to the municipal government urging the construction of the CBD. In June, the municipal government called a meeting and decided to restart the CBD construction. A committee and office was set up, and the mayor got me to be the main consultant. Right after the meeting, work began — we got international tenders for the planning and design, and brought in companies and funds. Infrastructure construction began, and so did construction on some projects. Buildings rose one by one, and by the time of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the CBD was a commercial centre of 8 million sqm. It not only stimulated Beijing’s economic development, but also became a new landmark in Beijing. So I’m happy about that.

As for why I’m proud of it — this is a classic example of how urban planning has the ability to bring forth urban construction and development.

Liu Thai Ker (Liu): I go into each project with passion; the completed projects are all my children. Which child does a parent like best? All of them. Having said that, some achievements are a bit more special.

From about 1969 to 1992, I spent about 24 years in Singapore’s civil service, making the vision of home ownership a reality, and raising Singapore’s planning and urban environment to well-acknowledged world-class standards. This is probably the urban planning contribution I have been given most recognition for in my life.

An area of Sanfangqixiang in Fuzhou, October 2020. (Xinhua)

From the 1980s, I started getting invited to participate in China’s urban planning. I was a consultant for Beijing’s city planning for about seven or eight years. That’s how I got to know Mr Ke. Over the decades after that, I did many urban planning projects for cities in China — I’d like to mention a few examples.

Take Fuzhou, for instance. Fuzhou is my mother’s hometown. As a child, I went to San Shan Primary School in Singapore — San Shan (三山, three hills) is a nickname for Fuzhou, which has three hills in its centre. The first thing I did in Fuzhou was to look for the three hills, but there were no roads leading to the hills, and it was difficult to visit. So in my planning, I added roads going up to the hills. About ten years later I went back to Fuzhou and said I wanted to see the three hills, and the local host said, no problem.

Fuzhou is a city of cultural history. In the old city, there is a very charming area called Sanfangqixiang (三坊七巷, three lanes, seven alleys). The buildings are run-down, but the architectural style is very unique. I really like it. The local planning authorities wanted to demolish them, but I said no, I insisted against it. In the end, they accepted my suggestion. In 2015, the area was rated as a 5A historical city, the highest rating. Through this project, I was fortunate enough to have met the then Fuzhou Party Secretary Xi Jinping, who thought well of my work.

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Liu Thai Ker (left) with Xi Jinping. (Courtesy of Liu Thai Ker)

The second more important project was planning Xiamen island, including preserving the old buildings there. The government at the time insisted on demolishing the qilou (骑楼, arcade buildings) and constructing new buildings. I repeatedly tried to dissuade them. In the end, I said, “You can demolish them if you want, but that would be like throwing the gold mine of tourism into the sea. Do you want that?” That line finally worked. Now, the first thing most people do when they go to Xiamen is to visit the old city area.

And since this is a conversation with Mr Ke, I also want to mention my involvement in the planning of Ningbo city. This was in the 1990s, when the Singapore government was invited by the China government to plan Ningbo. I was tasked to produce the plan. At that time, it took three and a half hours to get by car from Sanjiangkou in the city centre to Beilun port. Many years later, I went back to Ningbo for other business, and was pleasantly surprised that it took just 35 minutes to get to the port via the new expressway. That shows how much the cities in China have changed over the past few decades.

An aerial view of Fenghua River, with the urban and suburban landscape of Ningbo city, Zhejiang Province, China, 2015. (iStock)

Tan: The construction and development of liveable cities is a reflection of sustainable urban development. How would you define a liveable city? Is the liveability index of a city tied to its population size?

Ke: Let me define a liveable city. To put it simply, it is a city where people can happily live and work. One can say that a liveable city should have a good ecological environment where people own their homes and where there are comfortable living spaces and facilities, industries and job opportunities, convenient transport and communication facilities, public services such as culture, education, healthcare, commerce, and leisure, and a safe and harmonious social environment. Of course, over time, as the functions of modern cities and technology continue to develop, a city’s composition and goals will also grow and improve.

I think the liveability index of a city may not necessarily be directly linked to its population. Of course, a large city with a large population — especially large cities or megacities — are more complex and difficult, but the aims of liveability should be the same.

Third, you need to have the eye of an artist to romance the land. You should not just drop the machine for living on the land  — boom — just like that. You need to consider the natural environment and cultural relics or historical sites, and adjust that machine to fit in well with the land, and carefully and lovingly set it down. - Liu Thai Ker

A view of a settlement in Guilin. (Courtesy of Liu Thai Ker)

Liu: There are three main points to planning a liveable city. First, you need to have the heart of a humanist. Planning is done to make a city more liveable and its community more resilient, as well as to ensure that the land is functioning well and is ecologically sustainable. Second, you need to have the brain of a scientist, and plan the city so that it becomes a perfect machine for living. To design this machine well, we need to respect its demand for precision of all the machine parts in order for it to function well. In planning terms, we need to know the appropriate size of each land use type, how long each road needs to be, the correct spacing between roads — all this needs to be considered. Third, you need to have the eye of an artist to romance the land. You should not just drop the machine for living on the land  — boom — just like that. You need to consider the natural environment and cultural relics or historical sites, and adjust that machine to fit in well with the land, and carefully and lovingly set it down. I have often referred to my planning approach with these three principles as “intelligent planning” when introducing them to the leaders of Chinese cities. 

Population growth in cities is a big issue that is hard to control. China has the “hukou” (户口) system of household registration. If you leave the place where you are registered and go to live in a city, you may not enjoy the full benefits of the big city, but people still go because there are job opportunities with better pay. And so, even with the hukou system, China’s major cities are getting bigger. As urban economies are growing smoothly, more jobs will become available— there is a great need for people to fill up those jobs. The result is that no amount of government regulation can control the growth of urban populations.

Qinhuai River in Nanjing, 2020. (iStock)

If you insist on controlling the population, you have to steel yourself to slow down on economic development so that you can control growth in jobs and population. Right now, many megacities in China are thinking of “downsizing”, meaning population reduction. I am not optimistic about this. If the economy of a city is growing smoothly, then no amount of control can bring about population downsizing. A more useful way to manage large urban population growth is to find a reasonable, scientific, and elegant planning solution to deal with the growth and yet create a good living environment instead of controlling population growth.

Tan: In a 2016 interview with Zaobao, Mr Liu noted that in China’s urban planning, zoning is often employed, much like the way separate mounds of potatoes, vegetables and meat are placed on a plate in a Western meal. His approach is more like fried rice, where the ingredients are chopped up into small pieces, such that you have a Singapore that comprises a holistic functional environment. What does Mr Ke think about this analogy, and does Mr Liu still hold the same view?

Ke: In the first few decades of China’s reform and opening up, a lot of urban planning was spatial planning. Overall planning was about planning for zoning. It was as Mr Liu described — a Western meal.

With rapid economic growth following China’s reform and opening up, various zones were created and developed, including those marked for economic and technological development, industrial, science and technology, as well as higher education. Initially, we went along with the original thinking and approach to planning, and planned some industrial zones with specialised functions, but found that operational and growth needs were not being met in such zones, and we realised that it had to be a holistic package — zones with comprehensive, multiple functions, and they had to be an integral part of the city. As Mr Liu described, like fried rice. At the time, we consulted some foreign experts, including Mr Liu, who gave us many suggestions.

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Urban planning for Xi'an. (Courtesy of Liu Thai Ker)

In recent years, China’s system has been undergoing reform. The State Council has set up the Ministry of Natural Resources, and various agencies have made adjustments to bring together land planning and urban/rural planning. The scope and content of planning were expanded, especially in terms of awareness of land use and integrated planning, and an emphasis on having one blueprint to take care of all the different needs. The thinking and approach to planning changed.

Liu: Urban planning is not easy to understand. To use an analogy, many cities are planned like dishes of mixed vegetables — find a piece of land for whatever you want to build and throw in the projects randomly. Singapore used to be like that, so are many cities in China, generally just sticking a needle in wherever there’s room (见缝插针, meaning to seize every opportunity to get something done). As a reaction to this problem, many planning experts advise city leaders to think about land use zoning. As a result, in China when city officials explain to me their plans, I often hear them say: “North is the cultural zone, east is the commercial zone, west is the education zone.” Such zoning is not good for the city, because there has to be interaction between commerce, culture, and education. Such a highly segregated approach is like preparing a Western meal, with potatoes, vegetables, and meat in separate piles on a plate. In the interest of creating a good plan, I suggest turning this western dish into a bowl of fried rice. To cook fried rice, the first thing to do is to decide what ingredients you want — the proportion of different ingredients, how big they are to be cut, and finally, mix them together and fry it with skill.

After reform and opening up, the economy has grown rapidly and cities have expanded enormously. To some extent, urban planning is not keeping pace with growth and development needs. The buildings in some cities still look raw and unsatisfactory. Probably in the future, urban development will integrate lessons from experience, where we learn from overseas. Urban planning will be more rational, precise and practical, and city development will grow steadily and cities will be improved. - Ke Huanzhang

Tan: What qualities does an urban planner need in order to get this fried rice right? What hopes do you have for the outlook of urban planning? What would you like to say to the new generation of urban planners?

Ke: Urban planners need a strong work ethic and relevant knowledge, and also the right temperament. One needs to be grounded in reality while looking to the future and to think about the overall city layout and its reasonable operations, while also thinking about residents’ convenience, and plan everything with due diligence. Urban planners are different from architects, because they do not have their own landmarks — they are true unsung heroes.

Urban planning is both macro and micro. Things do not happen quickly or overnight. And urban planning is mostly a collective creation, so urban planners have to be good at people and project coordination and must be dedicated to their work.

Beijing Drum Tower at sunset, 2018. (iStock)

After nearly 70 years of development, China has come up with a system of urban planning with the requisite policies and regulations. Urban planning plays a major role in the development of a city. After reform and opening up, the economy has grown rapidly and cities have expanded enormously. To some extent, urban planning is not keeping pace with growth and development needs. The buildings in some cities still look raw and unsatisfactory. Probably in the future urban development will integrate lessons from experience, where we learn from overseas. Urban planning will be more rational, precise and practical, and city development will grow steadily and cities will be improved. This is what I would like to say to our young colleagues.

Liu: Allow me to repeat these lines. To be a good urban planner, you need to have the heart of a humanist, because the true aim of planning is to serve the people and the land. You also need the brain of a scientist, to plan the city as a machine for living. Then you need the eye of an artist, to romance the land while placing the machine on it, so that we can protect the natural environment as well as historical heritage and culture.

Also, when we go to Europe, we feel that their old city areas are beautiful, because they have an urban culture. In those days, there were no architects or planners for their old cities — what the old cities had were craftsmen. Now, architectural and urban planning education nurtures architects and planners to become creative people. They are taught to believe the more unconventional the better. So, a lot of architects and planners believe that it is their duty to show their creativity. But in my view, neither the architect nor the planner should position themselves as the master of the city. We should be the city’s servants. Our most important duty is to understand the basic needs of human living — then we will know what to put into the plan, and the living machinery can then be well designed. We need to have the mindset of a servant and plan our cities as a service to meet the needs of people and the land. We have to be humble in trying to understand and know the needs of the people and the land.

As planners, our plans are influenced by the policies of political leaders. Hopefully, they set their goals to get the urban environment right and improve the city’s economy. These visions are all very important. But I feel that the highest achievement of urban planning is when people from all over the world come to our city and feel impressed; that would help elevate our self-esteem and global regard. Also, good planning would make the city more efficient with fewer traffic jams, which would contribute to reducing global warming. These two wishes are the reasons why I am still active in planning at my age.

A general view of Weifang, a prefecture-level city in central Shandong province, China. (Courtesy of Liu Thai Ker)

Tan: How has the pandemic affected urban planning? What are your wishes for urban planning in China and Singapore?

Ke: This major pandemic would have some impact on cities and urban planning, and we have to take it positively. Beijing’s urban planning authorities responded quickly and came together promptly to get to work. Now, they are drawing up an urban pandemic plan to strengthen community management. Pandemic planning will now have to be included in urban planning, just like the way we include other forms of worst-case-scenario planning for disaster prevention.

Liu: Recently in the media, many experts expressed the view that the pandemic will lead to major changes in cities. I do not see that happening. First, cities have existed all this while everywhere in the world. They exist mainly to meet human needs of living and working, and it has been so for thousands of years. This will not change because of the coronavirus. I believe the medical sector will eventually find an effective way to treat the coronavirus.

However, when I was doing research and development with the Singapore government, I came to one important conclusion: a city is not an individual, but a family. A city has regions, towns, neighbourhoods, and precincts, just as a family has grandparents, parents, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. A megacity is like a clan, with great-grandparents above the grandparents. We can spread out urban functions and activities to the communities at different levels. The good thing about that is residents in the city don’t have to go to the CBD for everything, which reduces traffic congestion in the city centre. Singapore is built on this principle. The pandemic is sweeping the globe, but this idea of the city as a family or group will probably become more important to contain unnecessary human contact and thereby reduce the spread of diseases.

Gulangyu, a pedestrian-only island off the coast of Xiamen, Fujian Province in southeastern China, December 2019. (iStock)

Liu (to Ke): China has done a lot of urban planning in the past few decades. Are there any good experiences you’d like to share with people in Singapore or elsewhere?

Ke: China has indeed done a lot of planning in the past few decades. Let me make a few points based on my experience gained through firsthand practice and exploration.

First, urban planning has strengthened links with socioeconomic development planning and solved the problem of plans and construction being separate, with plans being just drawings to be hung on the wall and construction being difficult to realise. Especially in recent years, the Chinese government has been focusing on socioeconomic planning, with a long-term development strategy that includes a five-year construction development plan, and a yearly construction plan. Urban planning is happening concurrently or simultaneously, with planning at various stages and these are organically linked. Hence, urban planning no longer feels hollow; it is being taken increasingly seriously by municipal governments, and it is playing a greater role in the realisation and progress of city development.

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A narrow passage in a hutong in downtown Beijing, China, 2018. (iStock)

Second, urban planning emphasises and strengthens the conservation, use, and development of historical cities and culture. China has a long history and rich culture with a wealth of historical heritage buildings. But many of these buildings were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, while some others were demolished in the rapid growth of economic and urban construction over the past few decades. We learn from lessons, and urban planning has gradually put emphasis on and strengthened the need for conservation of historical cities and culture. From the national to local level, a regulatory system and requirements are being built up over the years for historical cities and cultural preservation, including well-known historical towns and villages, and more modern buildings. All these are now key parts of urban planning, and are better implemented.

One more point is what I mentioned earlier — the thinking and approach to spatial and specialised planning has changed and there is now stronger integration in urban planning. This thinking and approach come to the fore in the reconstruction of our old cities, construction of new cities, or building of city zones, altogether raising the overall level of urban construction.

Ke (to Liu): Over the years, you have done quite a bit of work in Chinese cities. In the context of China’s new development, do you have any new suggestions for China’s urban planning and development?

Liu: For good planning, first of all, the government must have strong executive ability. There has to be enough state-owned land for the development of municipal projects. Finally, there has to be a good planning approach. The Chinese government is strong and able, the land is state-owned, and their planners have in recent decades accumulated some good experience — but there is still room for improvement. On the positive side, I do greatly appreciate their strict protection for good farmland. This is because China’s population is three or four times the US population, but its arable land is only about 80% of what the US has. So whatever arable land they have has to be well taken care of.

Urban planning for Xiamen. (Courtesy of Liu Thai Ker)

Second, their insistence on the integration of various plans is another good move. That means integrating various types of urban plans, including land use and transport plans. The difference between Singapore and China is that Singapore only has one government, while Chinese cities have governments at various regional and county levels, each doing its own plans. Now, the top leaders are asking for integrated planning, which is good. Recently, the Chinese government is also saying that the focus cannot be just on large cities — medium and small cities also have to be taken care of. This approach helps reduce the population increase in big cities, while adding diversity to other smaller cities in China, which helps to spread various local cultures, including minority ethnic cultures.

Also, after having gained good experience in urban planning, in recent years, it has ramped up on pushing the idea of “enforcing one blueprint to the end” (一张蓝图干到底). It is not uncommon in Chinese cities that when a new leader comes on board, he would often discard the plans of his predecessor and come up with a new plan.  But now they are advised to see through the approved plans. But while the intention is good, I worry that if a poor plan is faithfully pushed through, the urban development of the city might not be good. Of course, it would be highly desirable if the plan is good, and therefore it is of utmost importance to get the blueprint right in the first place.

One more suggestion: the first priority in urban planning is to understand and plan for the city’s basic functions. Once that is assured, then the city can also incorporate other special functions to enhance its uniqueness. It’s like bringing up a child who is artistically inclined. First, you have to teach him or her the basic knowledge — language, math, science, history. If you only help them learn singing and dancing when the basic functions or learning are not there, it will be impossible for them to become a good artist. Urban planning is like that too. First, plan the basic functions, then think about the unique, attention-getting functions. It is my wish that the governments in various places do not focus exclusively on special projects and in the process forget to take care of the basic functions of a city.

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