In Depth

How China’s new ‘Covid-proof’ city paves the way for easier lockdowns

Xiong’an is being championed by President Xi Jinping as a ‘new standard’ for post-coronavirus era

The Chinese government is constructing a “Covid-proof” city designed to make the implementation of lockdown measures easier in future pandemics.

Located about 60 miles southwest of Beijing, the flagship new metropolis of Xiong’an was first announced by President Xi Jinping in 2017 as an innovative smart city project and potential business hub for firms unable to find space in the overcrowded capital.

But the coronavirus pandemic has shifted the focus of the project, with architects commissioned to create “blocks of apartments that are equipped to allow residents to continue to function under lockdown conditions”, The Telegraph reports. 

What is Xiong’an?

The new city, in the northern province of Hebei, is expected to cost Beijing around $500bn (£385bn), with the basic infrastructure scheduled to be completed by 2022.

 Xiong’an will serve as a major smart hub for “cutting-edge technology firms, making the future city a would-be rival to California’s Silicon Valley”, says The Telegraph.

Originally proposed as a means “to relieve pressure on Beijing”, the urban enclave “will enjoy high-speed rail links and 5G broadband”, the newspaper adds.

Xiong’an is intended “to be innovative, helping China shift to high value-added industries and escape the ‘middle-income trap’, especially in the ‘rust belt’ of northern China”, according to the Brookings Institute.

And “just as Shenzhen and Pudong are considered gems of the Deng era, Xi aspires to see his name associated with a new urban miracle”, says the Washington D.C.-based research group.

How Covid changed the plan

The coronavirus outbreak has seen Beijing reframing the project to accommodate pandemic-friendly apartments where residents can “live in style during lockdowns”, The Sun says.

Barcelona-based Guallart Architects won a competition to draft new plans for the city’s living quarters that was held when Spain was in lockdown, and says that working under these restrictions influenced the design “completely”. The result will be blocks of flats with large balconies “to allow access to the outdoors and huge communal work areas to allow social distancing”, the newspaper reports.

And “vegetable gardens, greenhouses and solar power will help families stay self-sufficient in the event of disruptions to food supplies”. 

State-owned news channel China Global Television Network (CGTN) says the development’s various buildings will be “mixed-use, including apartments, residences for young and old people, offices, swimming pools, shops, food markets, kindergartens, and administrative centres, meaning there will be limited necessity to commute”.

The broadcaster adds that the enclave will “essentially contain an internal metabolic system that integrates energy production, recycled water, food production and material reuse, making it highly self-sustainable”.

Is this a good idea?

Guallart Architects founder Vicente Guallart says that his firm “wanted to make a manifesto of those things that we thought were important during lockdown and in the future”.

“If homes allow tele-work and tele-education, have flexible spaces on large terraces, and cities can grow food on the roofs or print objects in their neighbourhoods, we will be more prepared for the crises of the future,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The project is being championed by President Xi as “a new standard in the post-COVID era”.

As The Telegraph notes, past pandemics have also “played a major role in urban design. The cholera outbreaks of the 1800s, for example, where infected water lay in haphazard, umpaved alleyways, influenced the grid-design system of modern American cities, whose neat, simple layout also made water piping simpler.”

Tony Matthews, a senior lecturer in urban and environmental planning at Australia’s Griffith University, predicts that panic over a future contagion may create “elitist enclaves that are somewhat self-sufficient”.

“People who can afford it will often pay to insulate themselves,” Matthews told Reuters. “Post-Covid enclaves with security, private medical facilities and on-site food production may emerge.”

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