For most of the past decade, the architecture firm Urbanus has been slowly transforming one of Shenzhen's first factory complexes into a lively, mixed-use district catering to the needs of start-up companies and creative professionals. The multi-phase planning, design, and preservation effort in the Eastern Industrial Area in the Nanshan district echoes the changes overtaking Shenzhen as a whole, as the city moves from an industrial era to a period of creative entrepreneurship, from muscle to brains. But instead of tearing down the old factories and warehouses, Urbanus proposed recycling them as incubators for new companies and enterprises. This approach not only is more environmentally sustainable than throwing away the existing buildings and starting with a clean slate, but it has proved to be good for the client's business, reports the Urbanus partners Liu Xiaodu, Meng Yan, and Wang Hui.

Urbanus started with the southern part of the area, converting an old warehouse into a contemporary art center called OCAT and making a number of small-scale insertions in and onto other buildings. Galleries, bookstores, cafes, bars, artist ateliers, multi-media enterprises, fashion companies, and design firms moved in, establishing an economic ecosystem based on creativity and entrepreneurship. Urbanus was one of the first firms to move its offices to the OCT LOFT Creative Park.

The second phase of the project, which encompasses about 150,000 square meters of space, has transformed the northern portion of the site and took place mostly in 2011. It includes some new strategies, such as supplementing the existing network of roads with new passageways and second-story bridges, and a hill-like public plaza with stairs on one side and angled, wood-clad platforms for relaxing and hanging out. Tucked underneath the plaza are shops, cafes, and galleries. The architects have also recommended that the developer set up an educational institution to promote creativity and culture.  

Both phases of the project point Shenzhen in a new direction while maintaining the memory and much of the physical fabric of the old city. According to Urbanus, the price of rental properties in OCT LOFT has gone up 50 percent and the value of surrounding real estate has soared even more. The project has also established the client as a pioneer in developing creative business parks and become a model for similar developments in other cities. It has shown that orchestrating a large number of small-scale improvements can be a more economically and socially sustainable strategy than building large new developments dependent on big companies to rent huge spaces or focused on just one or two types of businesses.

Throughout both phases of the project, Urbanus has made sure that the streets, passageways, and public spaces in OCT LOFT connect not only the people working within the development but also the communities surrounding it. Because these communities include a broad range of socio-economic groups, OCT LOFT provides an attractive alternative to the privatized enclaves that many other developers are building around China today.