Meet the Drumsurn man who is literally building a new China.
Architecture graduate Ian Foster left the family farm in the economic gloom of 1990, just as China was developing as an economic world power.
Today he is a key go-to man for the Chinese Government when it comes to designing and overseeing the construction of new high-rise cities as the economic revolution spread east to west across the vast expanse of China.
“For me, it was a case of being in the right place at the right time,” he told those who attended his address at a ‘Doing Business In China’ information session hosted by the University of Ulster Magee Campus.
The urban design expert and large scale development master planner has literally designed accommodation for many millions of people as China’s urban population growth has spiralled in the last 20 years. Indeed whole cities are being designed and built in just a few years.
In just five years the masterplan drawn up by Ian and his employees at Urban Development International Co. Ltd for the resort city urbanisation project in Guiyang was fully constructed, he told the seminar. “Urban growth is amazing in China when compared to projects such as in Milton Keynes where it took 20 to 30 years to complete.”
Ian believes much can be learned on the fast tracking development projects at home.
He revealed that at around the same time he began working on the masterplan for the Guiyang resort city, he bought a 18th century property in Scotland with a plan to refurbish it. “That is still at planning stage but in the same time we’ve done a whole city in China - that’s the difference in the way things are done. That one residential development is still awaiting final planning permission. The amount of bureaucracy and red tape there is to do simple renovation on a 1750’s building is incredible.
“I think the government and local councils in Britain need to wake up to the fact that they are tying developers hands.”
He admitted that he is aware of the importance of safety and planning issues development, but questions whether sometimes there is “too much” attention paid to certain aspects.
The rampant march of China’s urbanisation is clear with a rate higher than anywhere in the rest in recent years. However, the country still has a long way to go in catching up with the western developed countries, influencing the governments urbanisation policy - something which in turn has allowed the Drumsurn man career to flourish.
As well as creating mast plans for cities, Ian has designed more than 60 golf courses, mostly in Eastern China, in the last 15 years. He also designed and oversaw the construction of many factories as the country’s mass industrialisation boomed.
“It’s fair to say that the growth in China was very rapid compared to what I would have experienced in Limavady,” he said.
When he first, arrived in Shenzhen - where one of his company’s two offices are situated - he found a very different landscape to what exists there today. “It was all paddy fields and agricultural land,” he said. “The view now is high rise everywhere - in a matter of ten years it has gone from paddy fields to a high rise city,” he added.
During his address, he acknowleged that “there are some human rights issues” in certain areas such as Inner Mongolia and Tibet.
However, he added that “development issues override the human rights issues as perceived in the West”.
“The West usually beats China with a stick over perceived human rights issues.” He added that he believes the communist regime in China “is as good a system as any”.
Ian arrived in China in 1990, after graduating, having studied in universities in Manchester, Oxford and Washington DC. He found himself well qualified but with recession biting at home, he decided to take a plunge into the unknown and head to China after being told it was the place to be for anyone specialising urban planning.
Within three days, Ian had secured two job interviews and by the following Monday made his first start with a large architectural firm.
“Seven people lived on our road outside Limavady, 7.5 million people lived in Hong Kong at the time so it was big change.
“I arrived in Hong Kong with £500 in my pocket and I thought I’d be there for a few years. After a while I knew I would stay on as there was a good future there.”
Within a few years he had risen through the ranks to become a director of the company. Five years later, Ian opened his own firm Urban Development International Co Ltd after the Chinese Government asked him to take on several large projects. Today he employs almost 40 people at the firm’s offices in Hong Kong and Shenzhen.
To date Ian’s firm has designed and overseen the construction of several major city and resort developments and that looks set to continue with the Chinese government extending the large-scale urbanisation project further west.
He has become assimilated into Chinese society and gained a solid understanding of the way of life, eating habits and very different customs of its people.
“Always in China it is 24 hour living. It is a country where people are always on the move and it’s the same in rural areas as it is in cities.”
He also had some words of advice for anyone seeking to follow in his footsteps and seek a career in China.
“Don’t think you can just come to China and succeed because it is a country of more than one billion people and already has most of what is needed in terms of qualified people.
“But if you have a niche or something different to offer potential clients then there is great opportunity,” he added.