East Village, Michigan, and North Plaza Shanghai: A Contemporary “Grey Field” Land-Use Planning and Design Comparison
by Jon Bryan Burley, ASLA

Approaches to land-use planning and design vary across regions of the world. And it is no secret that planning and design operate within a social/political context, influencing the manner in which the built environment is assembled and composed. Many planning and design firms conduct their work around the world. Therefore, individuals from these firms are often interested in understanding the varying approaches to land-use planning and design to be efficient and thoughtful when proposing projects and alternatives for their clientele.

In addition, urban development can be characterized by the type of land being developed. Urban areas may develop in “Green Fields” (typically agricultural, wooded, and other previously non-urban areas), “Brown Fields” (urban areas with chemical contamination that requires special attention), and “Grey Fields” (urban areas that are being redeveloped). While Green Field and Brown Field issues have often dominated the literature, there is also interest in issues concerning Grey Field development.

This article addresses Grey Field redevelopment by illustrating, comparing, and contrasting two approaches to land-use planning and design. The first is the East Village in East Lansing, Michigan, and the second is the Shanghai Railway Station North Plaza Comprehensive Transportation Hub Project in the People’s Republic of China. Both approaches generate successful projects, but each has a different context and theoretical basis.

East Village Project 

The East Village site is located at the North East corner of Michigan State University. The site is about 35 acres in size. Currently, the area is composed of tightly packed privately owned low-rise apartment complexes that serve students living adjacent to the campus. It is presently known as the Cedar Village area because the Red Cedar River flows along the south edge of the site.

The environment is a sea of buildings, hardscape, and automobiles. Each parcel of land maximizes the footprint space for apartments and automobiles. The area represents a development model in which competing landlords each manage their property as a business and the marketplace drives the conditions and spatial pattern of the area. There is little that is remarkable about the area, but it is functional, relatively tidy, and efficient.

The City of East Lansing, Michigan has considered options and opportunities to redevelop this area as a mixed-use neighborhood with an urban college town atmosphere and to connect the site to the natural resource amenities between the university and the neighborhood. A developer, Pierce Education Properties (PEP), has prepared a series of development plans for about 25 acres. Stakeholders in the project include the City of East Lansing, Michigan State University, current land-holders, students, and nearby neighborhoods.

(Burley) East Village
The redevelopment of the East Village area.
Image courtesy Pierce Education Properties, L.P., and 5+Design. Copyright 2009, all rights reserved.

In order for the project to proceed, it must make financial sense to existing land-holders and address, the concerns for all stakeholders. Otherwise, the vision for the project will not be realized. The process to redevelop the area is not rushed and may take many versions and revisions with a long-term and patient attitude by those involved.

Shanghai North Plaza Project 

Shanghai is a large metropolitan province of China, as are several of the primarily urban provinces in China. Much of the area north of the Shanghai Railway Station, known as the Zhabei governmental district, was redeveloped in the 1980s. At that time, it contained a bus station and was an entrance to the station area for working class Chinese. The surrounding buildings were low-rise apartment/townhouses built in the late 1960s and 1970s, and are now being demolished.

(Burley) Demolition Zhabei District
Demolition of structures in the Zhabei District.
Image courtesy Wang Yu. Copyright 2010, all rights reserved.

In 2006, planners and designers began redeveloping the dated facilities in the area, to be completed in time for the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai. 4.1 billion RMB (6.8 RBM=1US Dollar) was appropriated for redeveloping the area to accommodate high density mixed-use development, increased bus transportation, metro transportation, taxi queueing areas, and queueing areas for thousands of working class train transportation users.

In China, all the land is owned by the government. The land is leased by individuals and businesses, and generates income for the government. The government can re-negotiate a lease, and provide individuals with comparable facilities elsewhere. This approach allows the government to relocate people and redevelop urban areas quickly. The approach is not unique to the current governmental authority. In some ways, it is similar to processes followed during historic dynasties in China, such as when the Chinese government relocated people and resources during the building of the Grand Canal from Beijing to Hangzhou.

Another Chinese tradition is to use experts in making decisions. Educated people are sought for advice and often the government may use a large group of “in-house” experts. The Zhabei district sought advice from outside professionals by hosting a design competition but “in-house” professionals planned and designed much of the project.  Construction of the project was accomplished by Shanghai No 2. Construction Group Co. Ltd., a state-owned construction company that is part of the Shanghai Construction Group.

(Burley) North Plaza area
A recent image of the North Plaza area.
Image courtesy Wang Yu. Copyright 2010, all rights reserved.

By the end of May 2010, 98 percent of the project around the railway station was complete, and the construction of adjacent areas was well underway. The plaza design accommodated existing structures such as hotels. While at times the plaza may seem a vast hardscape, at other times, it may be filled with people waiting for trains and buses during holiday seasons.

(Burley) Hotel in North Plaza
A view of an existing hotel on the North Plaza.
Image courtesy Wang Yu. Copyright 2010, all rights reserved.


While both projects were conceived around the same time, the more complex and expensive project in Shanghai is already partially complete and built, with the less complex East Lansing design still being considered and studied. Yet both projects and approaches merit appreciation.

In Michigan, the whole state contains less than half as many people as the City of Shanghai. Visitors to Michigan from Shanghai often remark how spacious, quiet, and open Michigan is. They are impressed by the vast areas of agricultural land, woodland, lakes, and clean air. And they are surprised how compact many of the notable cities in Michigan are, including Grand Rapids, Lansing, and Kalamazoo. In the Michigan setting, careful, thoughtful, and wise allocation of resources is possible because there is no strong social pressure for quick and massive solutions. In addition, cooperation among the stakeholders is essential. There is no compelling need to rush and construct a poorly considered project; instead extended foresight is a reasonable approach for major city projects. Communication and information-sharing with stakeholders is also important, and there are forums and other opportunities for people to learn about and give advice on a project.

In China, the population pressures are immense, as they have been for numerous dynasties over thousands of years. A strong centralized government, free of corruption and with the interest of the people in mind can often achieve many positive goals. Published information about a project may be quite limited and ultimately be unnecessary. But the belief in the valuable contributions of a strong national government have existed in China since at least the times of Confucius and the current successes of the government are similar in nature to those of the Han, Tang, and Song dynasties. Thus, Grey Field planning and design in China can be extremely efficient and effective.

For both of these projects, the social context and rate of development are quite different. Yet the process that each of these projects employ seems to be highly appropriate for those who are impacted by it. The projects illustrate how land-use planning and design are an integrated part of culture and that there is not just one way to plan and design—a simple point that some forget.

Readers are encouraged to submit articles to either the Landscape/Land Use Planning Professional Practice Network (PPN) or the International Practice PPN to illustrate other examples of land planning processes in various cultural settings.

Dr. Jon Bryan Burley, ASLA, is an Associate Professor at Michigan State University, and Chair of ASLA’s International Practice PPN, and can be contacted at:  burleyj@msu.edu.  

CommentsComments(0)  |  Print PDFPrint PDF  |  Send to a FriendEmail Newsletter
PPN Home




Stan Clauson, ASLA, Chair
(970) 925-2323