1. Built environment
  2. Architecture & design
September 10, 2014updated 16 Jul 2021 10:55am

6 things we learnt from The Instant City

By City Monitor Staff

This week, the Sunday Times magazine published an article profiling Stan Gale, whose company, Gale International, is pitching to become the “Ikea of Cities”. The company come up with a series of flatpack designs for buildings and infrastructure that are faster and cheaper to construct than traditional cities.

The result is a set of designs Gale calls a “city in a box”, that developing countries can buy for as little as $12m. The firm is already halfway through building Songdo, a city in South Korea intended to show what it can do. It’s also sold designs to a local government in China, which has since hired a developer to build Meixi Lake, a new city of 200,000 under construction near Changsha.

John Arlidge, the piece’s author, met Gale in Songdo, and had a look around. You can read the piece, The Instant City, here (£) – but in case you were too busy strolling around parks or recovering from a hangover to read the piece on Sunday, we’ve put together some tips on how to build a city from scratch.


1. You don’t have to start small.

Songdo is 5.7 square km, and so far has population of over 80,000 by day and 33,000 by night (it’s technically a business district, so far more people work there than live there). The land cost £1m; but completing the city will cost £20bn. The city also houses Korea’s tallest skyscraper, the 305m tall Northeast Asia Trade Tower (NEATT). It’s fair to say this isn’t just a practice run for Gale and his team.

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NEATT (tower on the far right) as it neared completion.

2.It’s all in the detail.

Gale International’s designs for Songdo really do amount to an entire city. They include everything from houses to roads, canals, and country clubs. They’ve even planned for Wifi networks, waste management systems, heating and lighting that can be controlled by phone, and a system of video conference screens.


3. Someone has to build them.

According to the McKinsey Global Institute, around 100 new cities will be built worldwide over the next decade. Much of this explosion will happen in Asia. China’s urban population will reach 1bn by 2030, and the country will need “several hundred” new cities to cope; India may need up to 300.

So Gale’s vision of a “flat pack” set of designs for instant cities isn’t a bad idea. Tried and tested methods could help developing countries build sustainable cities without wasting resources.


4. Go green.

One advantage of planning and building everything at once is that you can design different systems to support each other. In Songdo, excess heat from power plants heats water for houses, refuse is sucked down pipes to a waste depot, and water is recycled through one central system.

On top of that, most of the buildings in Songdo are planted with greenery, to keep the heat down in summer and collect water; almost half of the city is parkland and allotments. Everything has also been built as close together as possible so Songdo can avoid the air pollution plaguing much of China. As Gale says:

“We cannot continue as we are. If all the new cities being built in this region turn out to be megacities with eight-lane highways, the consequence will be dire.”

A mock-up of the completed city. 

5. If you build it, businesses won’t necessarily come.

The biggest obstacle facing Songdo now is attracting people and businesses. Apartments are selling well, but retail space isn’t, and, so far, foreign multinationals haven’t set up shop. Even Korean businesses like LG, Hyundai and Kia have yet to rent offices.

Gale International has four years left to fill the city before construction is completed. The firm is hoping a global economic upturn might help.


6. It helps to have a pop star on your side.

Korean singer Psy filmed the video for Gangnam Style in Songdo. At time of writing, over 2bn people have watched the original video on Youtube – not bad PR for a city that’s not even finished yet.

Gale jokes that he might put Psy’s face on “ I♥ Songdo” branded T-shirts. He also, er, breaks into the song from time to time:

He is not averse to performing a mean Gangnam horse-riding dance routine himself, cracking an imaginary whip above his head. ‘Hey, sexy laydeez! Whup, whup, whup, whup, whup, GANGNAM STYLE!’”

That seems like an appropriate image to end on.

Images: Gale International.

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