Tekuma Frenchman designs new marine city in China

School of Architecture and Planning alumni and faculty team up to create an ecologically restorative urban waterfront.

Following their graduation in 2016, two dual-degree students from the MIT Center for Real Estate (CRE) and the Department of Architecture — Kun Qian MSRED '16, MArch ’16 and Marwan Aboudib MSRED '16, MArch ’16 — asked Professor Dennis Frenchman if he would join with their firm, Tekuma, to create an international design practice.  

“They came to me and said, ‘Look, we have this project opportunity in Jinan, [China],’” says Frenchman, the Class of ’22 Professor of Urban Design and Planning and now CRE director. “Would you like to join us?”

Frenchman said yes. The resulting urban design and innovation studio, Tekuma Frenchman, practices worldwide, applying Frenchman’s research at MIT to many scales of intervention — from planning cities for millions in China to art and cultural installations in the Middle East and Boston, Massachusetts. In addition to Qian, Aboudib, and Frenchman, the partnership includes urban designer Naomi Hebert and a staff of 10 working in Cambridge, Massachusetts; Dubai; and Beijing.  

The firm’s projects include design of Seoul Digital Media City in South Korea; the Digital Mile in Zaragoza, Spain; Ciudad Creativa Digital, Guadalajara, Mexico; Media City: UK in England; Twofour54 in Abu Dhabi; Jinan North New District and Chanqing University City in China; and, more recently, projects in cities across the Middle East.  

In 2018, Tekuma Frenchman won the Shenzhen New Marine City International Design Competition in China. Their design, titled “Ocean Edge,” will be home to 50,000 people on 5.5 square kilometers of reclaimed land.

The competition was part of China’s 13th Five-Year Plan for the Development of the National Marine Economy, which aims to advance manufacturing industry along China’s southern coast.

Shenzhen is a city of more than 12 million in the Guangdong province of southern China, where Hong Kong links to China’s mainland. Shenzhen was the first special economic zone in China that encouraged outside investment and is the home to high-tech industries in computer science, robotics, artificial intelligence, and data storage.

The urban design competition for Shenzhen New Marine City received over 140 design submissions from international firms. A jury of nine design professionals and senior academics selected Tekuma Frenchman’s proposal. The organizers wanted a scheme that would be both innovative and operable, and become a world-class demonstration site for the future of marine economy and sustainability.

Frenchman’s winning scheme integrates marine ecology, marine industry, marine culture, and coastal landscape, providing the design framework for a visionary development. Land reclamation for Ocean Edge has already begun, and key aspects of the development will be in place by 2022. It is expected that the project will take about 20 years to complete.

Piers and mangroves as a solution

The waterfront site poses many challenges. To minimize the use of fill and disruption of water flow, Tekuma Frenchman decided to put parts of the city on piers, islands, and autonomous floating structures.

A 1-kilometer central entertainment pier will connect Shenzhen’s convention center with the ocean and anchor recreation areas along the waterfront. This pier and boardwalk area includes a ferry terminal, port offices, deep-sea aquarium, theater, cinemas, clubs, water sports, seafood restaurants, and specialty retail shops.

Tekuma Frenchman’s design will regenerate an indigenous mangrove forest to protect the shoreline from waves, retain soil, support biodiversity, and help clean the water. The design also provides a habitat for fish. The growth of the forest will be monitored by sensors controlling the mix of freshwater runoff with salt water, ensuring an ideal habitat for optimum growth of marine fauna and flora. In this way, Ocean Edge both senses and responds to the natural environment.

Sea-level rise and storm surge from the South China Sea is a concern in Shenzhen. Ocean Edge helps prevent flooding by using the regenerated mangrove forest as a natural protection from storm surge. “There’s a sustainable matrix into which this contemporary city is built,” Frenchman says.

Promoting ocean industry

The heartbeat of the city is a new industry cluster dedicated to deep-sea exploration and resource extraction, using autonomous undersea vehicles.

Robotic vehicles will be researched, developed, and deployed from Ocean Edge to, for example, scavenge manganese nodules from the ocean floor or to manage fish and agricultural production. A spine of development, accessible directly to the water, will house private labs, academic research institutions, and public agencies devoted to understanding and exploiting the resources of the South China Sea.

Production and manufacturing for this industry cluster are woven in with housing and entertainment.

“Most of the new cities out there are built as places to consume — shopping, eating, culture,” Frenchman says. “What’s interesting about the Ocean Edge design in Shenzhen is its focus on making a productive city with emerging 21st century industries and lifestyles at its heart. Ocean Edge will become a key link in the chain of manufacturing cities which make up the Guangzhou-Shenzhen Innovation Corridor.”

“Over the years we have been researching and implementing a new methodology to design cities that celebrate production, making places that are human-centric and productive,” says Kun Qian. “We believe that the future is moving toward a productive urbanism, where companies from all economic sectors also participate in the shaping of our public realm and creating unique experiences for people. The Ocean Edge proposal is a great testimony to this approach.”

“What differentiates our firm is that our work goes beyond design,” says partner Marwan Aboudib. “The key is our integration of design with real estate economics and technology. Our understanding and ability to bring those domains together enables us to create more vibrant cities in which people can excel. We make it possible for cities to thrive, which creates stronger returns for businesses and residents.”

For a video of Tekuma Frenchman’s winning design, see Vimeo.

Story originally published July 24, 2019 by Devi Lockwood MIT School of Architecture and Planning for MIT News.