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Many developers and designers claim that their projects will leave the environment better than it was before. In the case of a new district to be built on the Wusong River outside Shanghai, that literally will be true, its designers say – special water treatment facilities and techniques will use natural biological techniques to turn a smelly industrial mess into the background of a healthy riverfront neighborhood.

The first phase of the 10.2-million-square-foot (955,000-square-meter) project in Kunshan, China, calls for the cleaning of a portion of the Wusong River through natural processes, according to SWA Group, the master planner for the project, which is being developed by the Kunshan Huaqiao Economical Development and Planning Bureau.

“Through the construction and biosoils, the river will become a cleaner water body,” says Hui-Li Lee, a principal at SWA Group’s San Francisco office and the project’s landscape planner and designer. “We are talking about the whole development being a water-cleaning system.”

The development calls for a business district and the 107,640-square-foot (10,000-square-meter) Huaqiao Forum building, a public gathering space, all located along the key oxbow portion of the waterfront. Open spaces and parks will be equally important to the project to create a comfortable pedestrian scale. But to make that possible, the river must first be treated. Years of industrial development in the region have left the Wusong dangerous and odoriferous.

“The water is a big issue there,” Lee says. “The water is actually black in some places.”

By adding aquatic plants, the development will actually create a wetland that will act as a “kidney” for the river, cleaning the sludge and industrial effluents being produced upstream, Lee says.

“We’re mimicking a natural process,” said Mark Merkelbach, a project engineer at Seattle-based Herrera Environmental Consultants, which also is consulting on the project. Other project consultants include Ojanen Chiou Architect LLP.

The firm will place four bubbling ponds in oxic (oxygen-rich) areas, diffusers that will accelerate the transfer of oxygen to anoxic (oxygen-less, or stagnant) zones. “Each of these areas support microbes that do all the work,” Merkelbach says.

The Wusong Water Purification Park will be situated upstream from the development to improve the quality of the water at the complex from Class 5, the lowest rating and signifying completely unsafe, to Class 3, which is not potable but safe to touch. While the process takes just eight days for a conversion, the size of the river will require six months to one year for the riverfront area to be clear.

The river has several small branches that will extend the benefits throughout a larger region, Lee notes.

“We’re trying to recreate a flood-plain landscape,” Merkelbach says. “It’s a very small percentage of what’s flowing down the Wusong. We’re allowing the water to spread out to this wildlife habitat.”

Construction will begin next year, with overall completion in 2020. Other sustainable features include providing habitats for migratory birds, preserving open space, advanced storm water management techniques, use of solar and wind power, and green roofs. The result will be a truly green development in China.

“They’re learning the lessons of the United States and Europe,” Merkelbach notes. “The last few years have been very progressive.”

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