In China and Worldwide, Sustainable Design is Reshaping the Theme Park Industry

While other industries have made headlines with energy-efficiency, one of the largest development sectors – the theme park and resort industry – has quietly been pushing the boundaries of sustainable design. China is arguably on the forefront of this trend, both because of the sheer scale of its many new theme-park developments, and because top industry leaders now share best practices in China.

James S. Scheidel, AIA, LEED® AP, principal and chair of the Cuningham Group Architecture, is the founder of the annual Themed Entertainment Sustainability Summit. TESS 2016 was held in Shanghai, China, on the eve of the opening of Shanghai Disney. Scheidel addressed the major issues theme parks and resorts.

Mystic Springs Resort, China

Rendering of Mystic Springs Theme Park and Resort, Zhuhai, People’s Republic of China. Sustainable design elements of the resort include water-efficient landscaping, daylighting, and central cooling with thermal storage.


Why is there a need for sustainability in the theme-park industry?

By its nature, theme parks can occupy large parcels of property, use significant natural resources in their development, consume large amounts of energy and produce a significant amount of waste. On the plus side they entertain millions of people annually on a relatively small footprint, generate a wide variety of employment opportunities, increase property values of the surrounding areas and generate a significant tax base. The challenge is to minimize the negatives and maximize the positives. Although a very complicated process, sustainable theme parks start with site selection (a more sustainable location would be on pre-developed property near an existing or new public transportation hub to minimize car trips), site planning (orientation relative to sun patterns and prevailing winds, landscaping by selecting native plant materials, building design using local materials and methods, energy efficiency in lighting design, ride selection, alternative energy, etc.), locally sourcing food and recycling waste.

Do you find that Chinese authorities or partners are concerned with the sustainability issue and have the expertise to plan and execute sustainable concepts?

With the ongoing publicity surrounding air quality and other pollution in China, authorities are increasingly focused on sustainable design. For our large-scale projects, we are often asked to provide sustainable design and implementation plans as part of the concept design. In teaming with our partners at the Architectural Design and Research Institute of Tsinghua University, we devise maximize sustainability on every project, whether or not we are asked do so by the client or local government. We find the quality of construction in China to be improving and by its nature, building something sustainably is no more difficult than non-sustainable construction.

Which are the parks around the world right now which you would point to as good examples of sustainable design? Are there any in China?

Literally all of the major clients in the entertainment industry are implementing sustainable design, development and operations into all of their most significant projects.

Are sustainable designs are more expensive to plan and build than normal? What is a ballpark estimate of how much more expensive than normal it would be to incorporate sustainability?

Specific metrics are unavailable due to the complexity of theme park operations. But sustainable design is only marginally more expensive in initial costs, and there are a long-term savings in energy costs, landfill fees, employee efficiency, along with rewards in public perception. Our large entertainment clients are investing long-term in their properties and brand: Aside from the monetary pay back, they understand that this is the environmentally responsible course of action and any increase in cost is part of their social responsibility.

—Jack Skelley

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