By 2020 China will have more than 260 million people over the age of 65. Here, Jess McCabe gets a glimpse at how the country plans to house some of them in a giant, retirement eco-city
David Cao Wai likes punk. His favourite western bands, he says, include Fugazi and The Clash. One of China’s leading urban planners and architects, Mr Cao’s musical tastes might run to music that’s primarily for and by young people, but his latest project is aimed at a different demographic. He has been asked to design a massive, 650-acre green city for retirees in Laixi, near Qingdao (home of the famous Tsingtao beer) in the east of the country.
Mr Cao is vice-president of the Capital City Commerce & Urban Planning Design Academy in Beijing, which has been tasked by the Chinese government with designing a protocol for use in all urban planning across the country. Stylish, with long, wispy hair and wrapped in a black coat and scarf, he visited London last month to speak about his plans to a collection of urban design experts at engineering consultancy Arup’s Bloomsbury headquarters. Switching between English and Mandarin (with the help of an interpreter), he flips through a glossy slideshow of his plan for the Laixi retirement city: a mash-up of modern and historical influences from the local area.
But it’s immediately clear that the city is not a universally popular idea with the UK audience. ‘I have a problem with the whole philosophy of this,’ one attendee, who identifies himself as in his 90s, observes. ‘Old people are no longer capitalisatically useful, so we put them out to grass.’
Mr Cao replies: ‘If it’s a giant plot of land with a lot of retirees, it’s not going to work. That’s why I championed this idea of an urban city, but in a green, lush place.’ People of all ages would live in the city, he adds, but it would be designed to be entirely accessible for older people.
He begins with some photos of a group of ancient homes in southern China, a collection of doughnut-shaped and square living quarters, built up around a central courtyard. ‘The Americans, with their satellites, thought it was a military barracks,’ Mr Cao observes, clearly amused. ‘Probably it was true - 2,000 years ago.’
It is this design that he has drawn on in the plans for Green Affinity City. Giant doughnut rings of homes will be surrounded by green parks and the whole development will be spread out around a central lake. The ‘green’ in Green Affinity City is partly about embedding it in the natural environment, but there will also be green design elements. Homes will be constructed based on passive design principles - aligning and designing buildings to make best use of sunlight and using natural ventilation. The city will also boast a calligraphy museum, hot spring spa, medical facilities and, possibly, theme parks.
Work is already underway on preparing the site for construction, while the local authority discusses how to get the plans off the drawing board with developers and housing associations. The project will cost ’10s of billions of renminbi’ (billions of pounds). As yet there is no exact figure. ‘It’s hard for me to put a precise number on it,’ says Mr Cao. And details about how long it will take to develop, who will build it, how much it will cost to buy or rent a home, or how affordable it will be for residents, are still to be decided by the Qingdao municipal government.
At the moment the plans don’t go into specifics about energy efficiency or sustainable construction techniques. These decisions, he says, will be taken later by the city government and developers, and partly based on priorities and cost. ‘It’s critically important that we do our best to incorporate it,’ explains Mr Cao. ‘But it’s about whether there is the money behind it.’ It may be necessary, he adds, to import British and European expertise on sustainable construction.
Ashish Mishra, chief executive of consultancy Strategic Asia Europe, which specialises in building connections between Asia and Europe, and brought Mr Cao to London, explains that architects and developers in China and Europe have a lot to learn from each other on sustainable housing. ‘It’s one planet and we don’t have enough resources to go around. If we don’t have enough resources, then we need to find a platform of agreement,’ he adds.
The reason for taking on such a potentially expensive project on such a grand scale, however, is clear. In most countries, Mr Cao says, about 7 per cent of the population is over the age of 65. In China, it’s 11.5 per cent. And, because of the one-child policy, it’s ageing fast. By 2020, he says, there will be 260 million over-65s, or about 11 per cent. He describes conditions in many of China’s existing care homes as ‘not great’.
One of his key objectives of the development was to tackle loneliness. ‘I wanted to create a space where people won’t feel that disconnection,’ he explains - as physically embodied by the doughnut theme. In the centre of buildings, there will be space for residents to hang out, have a chat, and perhaps do some Tai Chi.
He adds: ‘A lot of people probably think when you go to a retirement city, there’s only really one thing on the cards - which is waiting to die. This should be the start of life.’