Published by City Farmer, Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture


A Seaside Arcology for Southern China

By Francis Frick
Department of Architecture
University of Hong Kong


Arcology, or architectural ecology, is a generic name for physical design intervention associated with a temporary, localized decrease in entropy within a defined context. Arcology is a stabilizing design element in the face of environmental, economic, and social change. Such change assumes the possibility of severe food and water scarcity induced by any combination of anthropogenic or natural causes. While arcology addresses interdisciplinary problems in interdisciplinary ways, this presentation highlights its role in urban agriculture (AU) and wastewater bioremediation.

Arcology is urban infrastructure in three dimensions, with architectonic(space-making) attributes, informed by the ecosystem model. It can be built within existing cities or in rural areas. Rapidly emerging problems in China's southern coastal urban areas already provide a need and a context to realize the arcology "seed" design described here. Beside feasibly addressing current problems, arcology's significance and value will probably increase as ecological/resource problems intensify in China and elsewhere. Additionally, Hong Kong is seen as a positive "green" influence for green technology transfer and advanced design services implied by arcology.

Keywords: Arcology (architectural ecology); urban agriculture; wastewater bioremediation; renewable hydrogen systems; China; Hong Kong.


All trends point to China as the world's largest GNP in no more than 2 decades, replete with dire environmental and other implications [1]. Nonetheless, China could feel the multiple effects of resource scarcity earliest, most intensely and with inestimable global repercussions [2,3]. Falling far short of answering current needs, Chinese policymakers, educators, planners and designers could easily face unprecedented instability. Using current construction practice and academic programs as a barometer, the mainland architectural and planning community produces work which can be generalized as simplistic, ecologically ignorant or blindly imitative of mostly American examples now known to be wasteful, destructive and antisocial. Western technologies, when sought after, are invariably poorly chosen because users "fail to think in total systems, only isolated parts"; further, these technologies are often already outdated in the countries of their origin[4]. Improved transfer programs and unique specialists will be sought to implement saner, healthier options alien even to Westerners [5,6].

Food Trends

According to Chinese sources, annual grain production since 1949 increased 3.1% to about 460 million tons in 1995; projected needs will reach 550 million tons by 2010 for 1.4 billion people (390 kg/capita). Population is expected to peak at 1.6 billion by 2030 with a need of 640 million tons of grain (400 kg/capita) [7].

China's food supply comes from a decreasing water supply.

China's food supply comes from a decreasing land supply.

China feeds a growing population which is becoming increasingly urban.

Why arcology in southern China?

Arcology and Urban Agriculture

By implication, urban agriculture (UA) asserts that the separation of urban life and non-urban food production is possible only under artificial, subsidized conditions which accelerate entropy. Both arcology and UA anticipate rural agricultural collapse in the event of climate change. Both seek to provide jobs to the jobless. In this scheme, migrant farmers and urban shitters provide mutually needed skills and resources in a self-contained urban ecosystem. UA, as a part of arcology, not only offers employment and nourishment, but also a home.

If UA is a basic tool, then Arcology is a kind of structured toolbox, housing many related "green" subsystems of food, water and energy. UA is built-in, on rooftops and much everywhere else, while often extending into immediately adjacent land, fed by its own wastewater. UA and arcology both draw from the same preindustrial city model which persisted through 97% of recorded human history. This model, based on logistical compactness and self-reliance, becomes crucial in the threat of climate change and scarcity.

Arcology: Background

Arcology (architectural ecology) is a name traced to the work of Dr. Paolo Soleri [49] for a compact, 3-dimensional infrastructure. Arcology is a workable model for human habitation. Overlapping, redundant relationships in 3D allow for efficient energy/material transfer and conversion while enhancing social interaction. The largest arcologies can theoretically reduce the footprint of a city by a factor of 50, eliminating the need for automobiles. An interpretation of biological principle, arcology is miniaturized, complexified, self-effacing, frugal technology operating within a negentropic (entropy-reducing) field. It is not only a means of addressing social and environmental degradation, but a cultural end unto itself, in ways alien to Western consumerist models of urban sprawl and waste.

Cultural bias, economic conservatism, and other difficulties hampered progress at realizing prototypes in the United States, exacerbated by the multiple excesses of the Reagan-Bush era [50]. Growing awareness demonstrates arcology as a near-mature concept coming of age. China's rapidly evolving enviro-socio-economic conditions increasingly justify the construction of modest prototypes, particularly in the urban peripheries of its southern coastal provinces.

Entropy as the enemy

Arcology's explicit goal is to decrease entropy within a defined region. This is normally achieved by biological organisms [51]. Entropy, a term originating from thermodynamics [52], implies a host of negative correlations attached to our global development paradigm based on Newtonian/Cartesian materialism. Entropy's negative correlations cross ecological, biological, meteorological, hydrological, economic, social, political, psychological and aesthetic boundaries [53]. Arcology reduces entropy by weaving itself into a torn fabric of unanswered needs. Entropy is an interdisciplinary phenomenon. Negentropy (in the form of arcology) is as well.

Sustainability = Interdisciplinarity

It is the fight against entropy that mandates interdisciplinary approaches. Sustainability, in its best meaning, begins with education. Orr [54]and Kline[55] show that classical academic disciplines, never innocent bystanders, have accelerated entropy by refusing to communicate with each other. Arcology explicitly ignores arbitrary boundaries between disciplines.

Design Generals

A seed arcology appropriate for southern Chinese coastal sites in the Pearl Delta River area or Hainan Island is proposed. It is the home for approximately 300 people to start, and centers around an in-house food packaging facility and Integrated Water Center (IWC).

Because this project intercepts flows of residential wastewater which might otherwise flow to industrialized treatment facilities or even the sea, cooperation with city planners and local governments is assumed. Marketable food products come directly from adjacent terraces where urban wastewater is biologically purified, i.e., urban agriculture. Solar and wind electrolysis and wastewater gasification provide hydrogen gas which in turn provides electricity and heat on demand to satisfy resident needs throughout the 15-hectare minimum site.

The structure passively saves energy via bioclimatic adaptation, reflected solar illumination, and reused/recycled materials. The structure contains a small craft marina, hydroponics gardens, filter beds, bioremediation tanks, dry and liquids storage, classrooms, offices, dormitories, a small market plaza and shared, communal spaces. Bio-terraces and algae ponds, linked by a Contour Retaining wall Infrastructure System (CRIS) surround its outer parts. Arcology is a factory, farm, school and community in one, located in the urban periphery where migrants tend to settle. Automobile traffic is limited to delivery and emergency vehicles; pedestrian traffic is the norm in a condensed, three-dimensional environment. This seed is meant to act as a self-reliant economic unit. The arcological seed not only provides urban infrastructure where none existed previously, but one predicated on the ecosystem model or natural resource cycles [56] Urban wastewater has already demonstrated its economic potential in China and remains largely untapped [57].

Design Particulars

Location. The design has evolved from an early concept originally intended for a south-facing waterfront hillside location in Zhuhai Special Economic Zone [58], but is feasible anywhere along the Pearl River Delta waterfront, most ideally on hill topography (altitude above sea level, 25 m/80ft). Hainan island, China's least developed Special Economic Zone, offers the best opportunities to introduce advanced infrastructural design. Hilly topography 15 meters altitude (minimum) greatly facilitates bioterracing (arcology by definition can create its own topography on flat sites with modifications). In all cases, the design described here assumes a subtropical location between 20 and 25 degrees north latitude, average temperature extremes of 31°C/89°F and 10°C/40°F for summer and winter, a wet season between January and April, and winds largely from the south or southeast (45% of the time). Gross bldg. floor area: m2/ft2 Occupied land area: 6 ha/14 acres. Overall height-length-width of structure: 25m /(80ft) - 150m/(470ft) -80m/(255ft).

Structure. The structure perpendicularly straddles the coastline: half built over shallow water, half built on inclined land. A contour access road, halfway up the hill, penetrates the structure under large portal arches where land and sea sections meet. Largely of poured concrete and brick, the seed arcology accommodates China's construction industry. An integrated network of masonry pylons and connecting arches support all of its interior and exterior spaces. Lateral thrust from central arches are buttressed by flanking arches on both sides, gently carrying all stresses to the seabed. The masonry pylons penetrate a cascading series of concrete sun terraces fanning out over the water. The cascading terraces hold verdant, lush wastewater gardens and filter beds, geometrically radiating from a common origin, the Integrated Water Center (IWC). Principal spaces lie in the cool, shaded, naturally-ventilated cavities below the trays: food packaging, dry/liquids storage, offices and various equipment rooms. The topmost "roof" houses small 'Living Machines', vegetable gardens and classrooms. The cascading terraces functionally and aesthetically unify land residences and ocean workspaces. Containing stairs, elevators or composting toilet/washrooms, vertical pylons stand upon concrete and masonry "finger" piers, resting on the seabed. All are secured pinned by a network of prefabricated or poured in place concrete piles, posttensioned after driving. Here, an arcuated, compressive masonry structure reduces the need for rare, expensive, and energy-intensive steel reinforcement.

Labor/material cost ratios in the South as a rule are the inverse for those in the North. All construction is based on masonry shell/ concrete core elements, eliminating the need for scarce, costly plywood forms. Arches under construction rest upon temporary brick supports. Site preparation and construction methods favor local labor. High-quality bricks, scavenged from demolished traditional buildings (common with new "development"), offsets the embodied (compounded) energy of construction, which on average is ten times more resource/energy intensive than post-construction occupancy [59]. Construction costs are minimized without compromising aesthetics.

IWC (Integrated Water Center). Dwindling water supplies facilitate an emerging water economy of which IWCs can be an integral part [60]. IWCs maintain normal levels of productivity even if supply dropped below 10 liters per day per capita (ldc). Normal physiological requirements are 2-5 ldc, according to temperature and humidity. Water for bathing, washing, and cleaning purposes consumes a minimum of 15 ldc. An IWC houses cooking and washing facilities, showers, tap water and toilets. Potable water, including ice, would be packaged and dispensed in supermarket-style containers. The heart and brain of the arcology, IWC is a natural social center, located between its main portals and surrounded by lush, verdant balconies of resident housing. It is the metaphorical "hinge" and functional center of the entire design. Transparent water tanks and conduits serve monitoring and educational needs. Residents and visitors can visibly follow water and energy flows through the site, itself a living educational tool.

Filtered, grey, and black water (each with its own storage) is directed through cybernetically optimized loops, dynamically maximizing useful life before recycling through flexible rerouting. Potable water, occasionally from unclorinated city supplies (best for gardens), but mostly from site storage or hydrogen fuel cells, becomes "grey" (after washing or bathing) and "black" (for flushing sewage and/or bioremediation) [61]. Wastewater is directed to bioterraces, aquaculture, bioremediation tanks, filter beds and hydroponic gardens depending on the degree of adulteration. Most site-circulated water would be raw since agri/aqua-cultural needs require nothing better. Sequencing , volume, flow rates and required areas for a 6-day bioremediation cycle are given by Hilbertz et al [62] and Todd et al [63]. Because hydrogen (and therefore electricity) production is directly linked to water use, the IWC is "mission control" for all energy flows as well. Algal, aqua-, pisci-and hydroponic culture, linked in three dimensions (dictated by site topography and physical structure) are all functional components in a densely packed, redundant, synergetic network which borrows directly from historical models [64, 65].

CRIS (Contour Retaining Wall Infrastructure System) Coined by American architect Daniel Liebermann [66], CRIS transcends millennia of accumulated experience in hillside terracing by incorporting multiple infrastructure elements within its mass. Liebermann proposed various types; the masonry shell/concrete core formula is adopted in this project for reasons already mentioned. Here, CRIS acts as a series of 'earth-dams'. It conserves topsoil much needed to support food production[67], stabilizes the site in question, provides seismic-proof foundations for resident domiciles and access road, impounds algal and aquaculture ponds, collects rainwater and provides varied interstitial social spaces, all dictated by hill topography.


A project of this type is feasible in various types of joint ventures with the possibility of initial support from higher authorities. Approximately 80% of the technology required exists either domestically or in foreign companies based on Chinese soil. Initial capital investment costs under several scenarios can be shouldered by local municipalities or higher authorities; arcology is infrastructure, and as such is a normal part of any municipal development agenda. Early assistance should provide for a skeletal renewable hydrogen energy system to facilitate the construction process and site power needs. Enormous substantiation exists on renewable hydrogen systems and economics [68]. Adapting construction to the local culture offsets the costs of highly refined component technologies; immediate implementation is thus possible.

Hong Kong, China's Green Dragon

While Hong Kong presents a priceless developmental model for China [69], it will cease to enjoy its privileged role as "middleman to the West" when China fully open its doors to the world market by 2000. Hong Kong will find its unique place among other cities competing for world attention, especially Shanghai [70].

Since China's Open Door Policy of 1979, industrial enterprises left Hong Kong for cheaper land and labour north of the border[71], allowing Hong Kong to develop its service industries, one of which is advanced design. It is in this sector the author stresses Hong Kong's future promise as China's environmental innovator, or "green dragon"[72]. If promoted by its professional, research and business communities, HK can lead China into the next century [73]. Arcology is already a timely and needed tool.


[1] Ryan, M; Flavin, C. "Facing China's Limits", State of the World, 1995. (Worldwatch Institute) (1995) W.W. Norton, New York.

[2] Smil, Vaclav. China's Environmental Crisis: An Inquiry into the Limits of National Development, (1993) M.E. Sharpe, New York.

[3] "China is probably the most important country in the world in terms of what happens to the planet" - Dr. Thilo Bode, Executive Director, Greenpeace, "Greenies come in peace", Fiona Holland, South China Morning Post, 20 October 1996, p.11.

[4] Greenpeace executive director Thilo Bode in "Mainland and green group to cooperate", Elisabeth Tacey, South China Morning Post, 11 October 1996, p.5.

[5] Meier, Richard. "Ecological Planning and Design: Paths to Sustainable Communities" (unpublished manuscript), Institute for Environmental Research, University of California (Berkeley), 1993.

[6] "In many from the dinosaur technology." (-Thilo Bode, Executive Director, Greenpeace) Fiona Holland, South China Morning Post, 20 October 1996, p.11.

[7]"Beijing sets 5% grain import limit", Ivan Tang, South China Morning Post, 25 October 1996, p.4.

[8] "Priority given to saving endangered resources", Agatha Ngai, South China Morning Post, 4 March 1997, p.10.

[9] "Serious water pollution wiping out aquatic life", Associated Press, South China Morning Post 19 January 1997, p.5, see also Guangming Daily, 18 January 1997.

[10] Ryan, M. et al, 1995.

[11] "Water shortages feared as global warming worsens", UPI, South China Morning Post, 9 January 1997, p.11.

[12] "Call for urgent action to avert grain crisis: Senior leader warns shortage a 'matter of life and death for communist party and country'", Willy Wo-lap Lam, South China Morning Post, 15 July 1996.

[13] "Sino-Brazilian ties boosted by accords (Agriculture cooperation agreement may result in Beijing buying areas of land to produce food)" Agencies, South China Morning Post, 12 November 1996, p. 8.

[14] State Land Administration Bureau Report, [Chinese] 29 March 1997.

[15] "Arable land loss halted, official says", Agence France-Presse, South China Morning Post, 19 September 1996.

[16] "Harvest must keep setting records", Xinhua, Hong Kong Standard (China Review), 30 September 1996, p.6.

[17] State Land Administration Bureau Report, [Chinese] 29 March 1997.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Agencies, South China Morning Post, 12 November 1996, p. 8.

[21] "Helping resolve housing crisis 'matter of world concern'", Agence France-Presse, Hong Kong Standard, 31 December 1996, p.4.

[22] Liang, Chao. "Country to Set Up 432 New Cities in 15 Years", China Daily, 2 June 1995.

[23] 'Population cripples urban development", Reuter, South China Morning Post, 9 October 1996, p.10.

[24] The Ministry of Agriculture notes that China's arable (rural) land requires only 44% of the current total of 450 million laborers to work on; another 28% are engaged in rural industries; and 28% have nothing to do. China still has 100 million ha of uncultivated rural land which could absorb most of this last 28%. Urban agriculture can form a significant portion of that. "A flood of rural workers: China's cities paying for farmers' low profit margins", Zhang Dan, The World Paper, November 1996, pp.1-2, appearing in the Hong Kong Standard, 23 November 1996.

[25] Meier, Richard. "Food Futures in China" paper presented at the International Conference of Urban Ecology, Beijing, November 1994.

[26] "Battle to satisfy awesome appetite (China's vast needs could disrupt the security of world food supplies)", Jennifer Lin, South China Morning Post, 22 November 1996, p.21.

[27] "Giant set to gobble world's resources" (researcher warns of growth dangers), Charles Snyder, Hong Kong Standard, 30 August 1996.

[28] Lin, South China Morning Post, 22 November 1996, p.21.

[29] "Beijing predicts cotton shortage", Agencies, Hong Kong Standard, 16 September 1996.

[30] "Disputed harvest claims behind new target" Tom Korski, South China Morning Post, 19 November 1996, p.5.

[31] Tom Korski, South China Morning Post (Business), 18 March 1997, p.4.

[32] Jennifer Lin, South China Morning Post, 22 November 1996, p.21.

[33] Tom Korski, South China Morning Post, 19 November 1996, p.5.

[34] Smil, 1993

[35] Zhang, Xia. "Just Opening Salvos in the War on Pollution", China Daily, 6 June 1995.

[36] "Environment is Vital to Urban Expansion" Opinion Column, China Daily 11 May 1995.

[37] Wang, Rong. "Acid Rain Still Haunts Guangdong", China Daily 5 May 1995.

[38] More than 40% of China was covered with acid rain as of 1996, affecting even Japan. China's coal-fired plants discharge more than 28 million tons of soot, dust, and sulfur dioxide into the air each year. "Scientists blame roast mutton for acid rain", Tom Korski, South China Morning Post, 12 December 1996, p.10. and "Raining acid on Asia's environment", South China Morning Post, 21 March 1997, p.22.

[39] 50% of Guangdong Province rainfall is acid. "Pollution shocks Guangdong into water clean-up drive", Pamela Pun, Hong Kong Standard, 19 February 1997, p.6.

[40] This loss is according to 1996 figures. "Guangdong vows to deal with pollution", Munn Tam, South China Morning Post, 19 February 1997, p.8.

[41] Wang, Rong. "Guangdong Tackles Water Pollution", China Daily 3 June 1995.

[42] 90% of rivers and lakes in Guangdong have been polluted. Pamela Pun, Hong Kong Standard, 19 February 1997, p.6.

[43] Chen, Y. "Dollars or Degradation", China Daily, 22 November 1995.

[44] Pamela Pun, Hong Kong Standard, 19 February 1997, p.6.

[45] Personal communication, Shenzhen City Planning Research Institute.

[46] "Pollution threat to our drinking water", Lucia Palpal-Iotoc and Maureen Pao, Hong Kong Standard, 11 April 1997, p.1. and "Raw sewage risk to drinking water as pollution soars", Fiona Holland, South China Morning Post, 11 April 1997, p.1.

[47] Soleri, Paolo. Arcology: The City in the Image of Man. (1969) MIT Press, Cambridge.

[48] Personal communication, Dr. Anthony Yeh Gar-on, Assistant Director, Center of Urban Planning and Environmental Management, University of Hong Kong.

[49] Soleri, op. cit.

[50] Personal communication, Arcosanti, Cordes Junction, Arizona.

[51] Asimov, Isaac. Life and Energy. (1962) Avon Books, New York, p.200.

[52] Asimov, Isaac. "What is Entropy", Science Digest 73 (January 1973); Brillouin, L. "Life, Thermodynamics and Cybernetics". American Scientist 37 (October 1949).

[53] Rifkin, Jeremy, with Ted Howard. Entropy Into the Greenhouse World (Revised Edition). (1989) Viking Press, New York.

[54] Orr, David. Ecological Literacy. (1992) State University of New York Press.

[55] Kline, Stephen J. Conceptual Foundations for Multidisciplinary Thinking. (1995) Stanford University Press.

[56] Yeang, K. Designing with Nature: The Ecological Basis for Architectural Design, (1995) Mc Graw Hill, New York.

[57] Ding, Xuemei. "Progress Depends on Efficient Use of Resources" (wastewater recycling), China Daily, 20 October 1995.

[58] Frick, Francis. "A Wave Power Design for China", Sunworld (International Solar Energy Society), June 1993.

[59] Roodman, D.M. "Making Better Buildings". State of the World, 1995 (Worldwatch Institute) W.W. Norton, New York, 1995

[60] Meiera, 1993.

[61] Kourik, R. Greywater Use in the Earthscape. Edible Publications, Santa Rosa, 1988.

[62] Hilbertz, W. et al. "Autotopia Ampere - Building with Sun and Sea", proceedings from IL 41:Building with Intelligence/Aspects of a different Building Culture. Institute of Lightweight Structures, Stuttgart, 1995.

[63] Todd, J. et al, From Ecocities to Living Machines: Precepts for Sustainable Technologies. (1993) North Atlantic Books, Berkeley.

[64] Li, W., 1993

[65] Zhong, G. et al. Integrated Farming/Aquaculture in South China. The Dike-Pond System of the Zhujiang Pearl River) Delta. (1988) Cambridge University Press, New York.

[66] Frick, Francis. "The Ecologics of Terracing and Related Earthworks" (manuscript), University of California, Berkeley, June 1994.

[67] ibid.

[68] Johansson, T. et al, eds. Renewable Energy: Sources and Fuels for Electricity, Chapter 22: Solar Hydrogen (Ogden and Nitsch, eds.), (1993) Island Press, Washington DC.

[69] Representing 22% of China's entire GNP, average per capita income in Hong Kong appears ready to surpass that of the United States shortly after 2000.

[70] Yeh, Anthony Gar-On, Ed. Planning Hong Kong for the 21st Century: A Preview of the Future Role of Hong Kong. (1996) Center of Urban Planning and Environmental Management, University of Hong Kong.

[71] Yeh, Anthony Gar-On and Mak, Chai-Kwong, eds. Chinese Cities and China's Development: A Preview of the Future Role of Hong Kong (1995) Center of Urban Planning and Environmental Management, University of Hong Kong.

[72] "Greens urge action on energy and waste", Linda Choy, South China Morning Post, 21 January 1997, p.4. (Hong Kong could become China's green dragon if business leaders are courageous and intelligent enough to see the need and the potential.)

[73] Currently Hong Kong boasts 11 environmental groups and organizations. A collective academic agenda aims to have Hong Kong match even surpass Tokyo as Asia's intellectual and research capital in less than a decade. (Personal conversation with Felix Wu, director of the Research School, University of Hong Kong).

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Revised January 16, 2000

Published by City Farmer
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