Urban renewal is core to China’s current strategy. The term ‘renewal’ often simply outlines the intention to substitute old buildings and infrastructure with new structures, yet it can also mean to add to and adapt existing buildings.

Following a key event – Savills 2023 Greater Bay Area Forum – that our Director in China, Reza Esmaeeli, spoke at recently in Guangzhou, it seems that for core well-developed areas in the Greater Bay Area, the focus seems to be the latter. As part of this approach, the interest in repurposing China’s hidden spaces is growing.

We would like to thank Alvin Lau, Managing Director of Savills Guangzhou, for inviting Chetwoods to participate in the forum, Andrew Deng, Head of Savills South China Strategic Advisory Department, for hosting this discussion, and also John Lu and Steven Chow from Savills, and the wider Savills team in China.


On 19th October 2023, the second part of Savills 2023 Greater Bay Area Forum was held at the Huadiwan Living Center, on the topic of ‘Urban Revitalization of the Greater Bay Area’. Reza Esmaeeli, who leads our office in Guangzhou, was invited to join other experts from Savills, SOM and New World China, to share his thoughts on the current opportunities and future considerations in urban renewals.

While the event discussions were varied, and included topics such as movement in urban areas, sustainability solutions were also top of the agenda.

In terms of viable spaces for living and working, China currently has numerous opportunities and options. Repurposing space is undeniably the most environmentally conscious approach, but what types of spaces should be repurposed and what uses should be considered? During the event Reza was able to provide his insight, based on his experience, research, and schemes that Chetwoods has delivered.

The term ‘hidden spaces’ is often misused and misunderstood across the built environment. The hidden spaces concept aims to find the unused or under-used spaces within a city’s fabric or particular developments, and identify new functions for them that are more suitable to the needs of local people or whole communities: a solution that has been well received by various developers in the UK.

The conversion of hidden spaces seems to be an inevitable step for the Greater Bay area of China, should the region want to continue to address its changing needs as sustainably as possible. The interest in the topic at the Greater Bay Area Forum event also reflected that other experts in the region see this as a viable solution. Chetwoods is involved in a series of projects that are converting hidden spaces from one function to another. This includes the transformation of a 12-storey underground car park to create a mixed-use leisure hub for a local urban community. We have also worked on the creation of a range of dark hotels from spaces that were otherwise unused, yet situated in key urban areas. The visual below is of a design for a dark hotel in the centre of London, which repurposed surplus underground space that was previously hidden.


Another key point with regard to hidden spaces, is that as well as delivering schemes that are more sustainable and truly work for the people who inhabit them, they can also provide solutions to other issues that urban environments are facing, such as the logistics of servicing growing populations with increasing e-commerce demands.

China has delivered many successful plans in the past to facilitate and organise the movement of people throughout the country with the development of roads, metros, trains and other transport infrastructure. It is undeniable that the country is an exemplar in this field. In addition, as the so called `Factory of the World`, the Greater Bay Area has plenty of infrastructure to move goods around and in and out of the country, with many more under planning and construction. However, the streets in urban cores are designed primarily for the movement of people, not the movement of goods, and therefore the Greater Bay area is still facing the same opportunity as most other cities, which is the transportation of millions of parcels rapidly through densely built-up regions.

While certain cities are considering designated lanes in their streets for logistics, there are other options that can take the pressures off already congested roads. For example, through designing and incorporating mechanisms and systems that move goods from one location to another via underground channels, or by utilising rivers and canals.

Many perceive this approach to be costly, presuming underground channels or tunnels would need to be created, yet most cities already have purpose-built tunnels that are being underutilised or not used at all. So, the Greater Bay area of China could further explore what concealed options they may have in terms of these other types of hidden spaces.

In London for example, there is an unused 10km-long underground tunnel that goes across the city, from east to west. Chetwoods has developed a proposal to convert the tunnel into a new hi-tech logistics supply line that injects goods and data into the urban environment. It has been estimated that utilising this hidden space could reduce the number of goods vehicles in the city centre by 60%. The diagram below illustrates this initiative.

Storage and distribution networks require careful planning in urban renewal programs; a multi-layer logistics system that facilitates the movement of goods through the country, from the provinces, to the city, to the district, to the neighbourhood and then to each individual development; a system that requires multiple logistic centres and systems on various scales. However, pre-existing hidden spaces could be a solution for many cities, including the Greater Bay area of China.

There are various examples of these solutions being tested around the world, and Chetwoods has been involved in this process in the UK and Germany, assisting and advising the local authorities in suitable creative ways to utilise hidden spaces.

The philosophy of Chetwoods’ Chairman, Laurie Chetwood, is that `enjoyable buildings are valuable buildings` and `enjoyable cities are valuable cities`. By utilising these hidden spaces and incorporating sensory ideas in our design approach, we can create places that give people the ‘tingle factor’ and answer their physical and mental wellbeing needs. Through working with specialist teams, conducting research and collaborating with academic institutions, this is our aim at Chetwoods.


The forum was launched with a speech from Mr Dazhi Deng, the Leader of Liwan District Government, who was followed by Mr Alvin Lau, Managing Director of Savills Guangzhou, Mr John Lu, Head of Savills S.A.S Guangzhou, and Ms Felix Feng, Deputy Director of Rule of Law in Real Estate Research Institute. The forum was concluded with a roundtable discussion with the invited panel.

The roundtable was hosted by Mr Andrew Deng, the Head of Savills South China Strategic Advisory Department, and the panel included Ms Sammy Chen, General Manager of Urban Renewal Division in New World China, Mr Reza Esmaeeli, Director at Chetwoods Architects, Mr Ted Yu, Associate Principal at SOM Shanghai, and Mr Tom Chow, Head of Valuation & Professional Services of Savills Guangzhou. The panel discussed issues such as attitudes towards urban revitalisation in the east of China and Shanghai and its differences with the Greater Bay Area and the south of China.

Taking into account the topic of the forum, Savills’ decision to hold the event in the Huadiwan Living Center was a considered and positive choice. The Huadiwan Living Center is a new cultural landmark in Liwan, which has been the main representative of Guangzhou’s history of over 2,000 years and was once regarded as a synonym for Old Guangzhou. The venue itself is a good example of urban renewal.

The discussions around urban renewal at the event responded to the changing needs of the region, from adjustments to the population, demographics, economics, and business models, as well as changes to lifestyles, such as physical needs that need to be addressed.



To find out more about our approach to the repurposing of hidden spaces internationally or the insights we shared at the Savills 2023 Greater Bay Area Forum event, contact us.


Our Chetwoods China team is led by Laurie Chetwood, Chetwoods’ Chairman, Tim Ward, Chetwoods’ CEO and a specialist in the industrial and logistics sector, Anny Fan, Chetwoods’ Head of China Business Development and Reza Esmaeeli, Director at Chetwoods.


Contact our China team directly:

Anny Fan

Head of China Business Development

WeChat: wxid_76te8uirmig912


Guangzhou, China

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