Are Chinese Subway Systems the New American Interstate?

Beijing-Subway_enBeijing Subway Map

It is virtually impossible not to marvel at China’s new subway systems after spending some time in a city like Beijing or Shanghai. The relatively new subway systems allow for convenient and affordable (albeit crowded) way to travel around these cities. These infrastructure investments will certainly leave a lasting impact on Chinese cities for years to come, but what will this legacy be?

On one hand, this massive commitment to public transportation could be interpreted as China learning the lessons from American sprawl, suburbia, and private car ownership. On the other, we could be looking at the development of sprawl with Chinese characteristics, with subway systems playing the same role as the American interstate.

Urban planners generally consider sprawl to be bad- but why? Above all else, sprawl is environmentally and economically wasteful. By spreading out where people live, sprawl leads to infrastructure redundancy and the conversion of undeveloped land — land that could be used for agriculture or simply natural environment preservation (which provides a wealth of environmental services like improving air and water quality) — into developed land. Additionally, the further people live from where they work and play, the more likely they are to travel to those places by carbon-intensive modes of transportation (primarily the private automobile).

Sprawl is the major defining characteristic of 20th century American growth.While there are numerous reasons why this is the case (including Federal housing policy that encouraged home ownership), one theory that helps urban planners understand sprawl and suburbanization is the bid rent theory. At the heart of this theory is the idea that choosing where to live or set up a business is about balancing access to lots of people and rent prices; land users’ willingness to pay rent is dependent on their need for access to the central business district (i.e. downtown).

Pre-Interstate GraphsFigures 1 & 2. Bid-Rent Graph (left) and its Effect on City Structure (right)

Commercial services and retail (the blue line on the graph in Figure 1) benefit the most from close proximity to downtown, its density, and its high concentrations of people; therefore, commercial and retail entities are willing to pay the highest levels of rent, and the areas closest to downtown are generally dominated by commercial businesses.

Manufacturing and large retail (the green line) benefits some from access to people who work in factories and buy goods, but it also requires a greater area of land to set up production facilities; therefore, manufacturers and larger businesses often locate outside of expensive downtown areas but still somewhat close to the center.

Finally, though living in the center of a city is very convenient, housing prices (i.e. rent) are quite high. Residential uses (the red line) are generally seen to benefit the least from access to downtown, so people therefore are willing to live further away from the city center. The further one move out of the city center, the lower housing prices become; therefore, the outer regions of cities are usually dominated by residential development. When the lines on the graph are translated into a two-dimensional map, the city is divided into concentric zones. The spatial distribution of commercial, manufacturing, and residential areas under the bid rent theory can be seen in Figure 2.

Though the bid rent theory has its own limitations, it still provides a helpful way to understand American cities. In addition to the obvious information on willingness to pay rent for access to downtown by sector, bid rent graphs contain another important piece of information about consumer preference: the point at which each line crosses the x-axis (or where the rent becomes 0). The residential line is particularly important, as it shows the distance away from downtown where developing residential land becomes impractical (i.e. the land is worthless); in practice, this represents the outer boundary of cities.

Before the development of interstates, city size was greatly limited by travel time. Even though land exists beyond where the residential line reaches the x-axis, additional non-financial costs (particularly commute time) made living in these areas impractical. The American interstate system had a profound effect on the slope of the residential line on the bid-rent curve. Interstates, with higher speed limits and limited stops, significantly reduced travel times from employment in city centers to housing miles away, thus reducing the non-financial cost of living far away from downtown. As the residential line became flatter, and the x-intercept moved further away from downtown (see Figures 3 & 4); this means that previously impractical land became a viable option for some individuals. Cities, once limited in size by travel time, were able to expand far further than they were before interstates. Fifty years later, interstates have allowed cities like Atlanta and Houston to sprawl to incredible levels.

Post-Interstate GraphsFigures 3 & 4. Pre & Post-Interstate Bid-Rent Lines (left) and its Effect on City Structure (right)

It’s easy to dismiss sprawling Chinese cities as inevitable, due to the large size of the population in an average Chinese city. However, the same factors that led to American sprawl (particularly a strong desire for homeownership) are also very important parts of Chinese culture. If homeownership is a significant priority yet housing prices remain unaffordable, the only option is to move further away from the city center.

If an individual’s only transportation options are buses, bikes, or even cars, non-financial costs like travel time would effectively limit the size of Chinese cities; however, land further from the center becomes more attractive when citizens have access to high-speed  transportation options like subway.

Much like interstates did to their American counterparts, Chinese subways will flatten the residential bid-rent curve and allow for Chinese cities to grow increasingly expansive. Though this may not seem like a major problem, increasing the distance from downtown to city borders by 25% means increasing the total developed area by 65%. That’s a huge amount of land that could be used for other purposes like farming and environmental services.

There is a very compelling case for building these subways. The most compelling case is that China’s major cities are inevitably going to continue to grow. If Chinese cities do not develop extensive transportation infrastructure, then they may pay a major price in the future as they battle traffic congestion, environmental degradation, and high real estate prices (due to limited housing supply).

Alternatively, one could also argue that outward urban growth is not inevitable; in its place, cities would either become increasingly dense or people would just choose to move to smaller, less expensive cities. Some urban planners argue that American cities are reaching “peak sprawl” due to suburban developments reaching reasonable limits on individual travel time from job centers; is it possible that Chinese cities would reach the same point?

By increasing the area where city residents can reasonably commute to the city center, local governments are making land that was previously unappealing due to its distance from the city center more appealing (i.e. inducing demand). Rather than reducing traffic congestion, it could instead be enabling more people to move to these cities than would otherwise be feasible. This would put significant stress on existing infrastructure, encourage redundant infrastructure, and decreases green space surrounding cities.

Building these major subway systems can also pose major systemic issues to Chinese cities over the upcoming years and decades. Over the past decade, China has been grappling with high real estate prices. In the short-term, the government decreases the necessity of dealing with high real estate prices in city centers by increasing the overall supply of developable land through subways. Long term, as individual purchasing power increases and more people buy cars, more individuals may transition from public transit like subways to personal cars.

Chinese cities face problems that are unprecedented in both size and scale. Planning cities under these conditions is extremely challenging, and building massive transportation infrastructure is a logical way to manage the challenges that come with massive growth.

It’s easy to marvel at the sheer size and speed of growth of Chinese transportation systems. That said, the growth of Chinese subway systems isn’t necessarily a sign that China is fighting off American-style sprawl and suburbia; rather, it may setting the foundation for sprawl with Chinese characteristics.

Q&A With Author of “The People’s Republic of Chemicals”

PRC cover

Nothing threatens the stability of China’s economic miracle more than the hazardous levels of pollution generated by rapid development. The rise of the private automobile, unregulated toxic factories, and the widespread use of coal-burning as an energy source have all contributed to environmental degradation across China’s cities. While in the past, these issues were swept under the rug in favor of economic growth at all costs, the rise in living standards means that China’s leadership can no longer ignore the concerns of the people they serve.

China is now at a crucial turning point where economic goals must be balanced with considerations for the environment going forward. This is not an easy problem to tackle and the solution will require a global effort.

The new book The People’s Republic of Chemicals serves as an excellent starting point in understanding how China’s pollution problem got so out of hand in the first place and what can be done to stop it (or at least slow it down). The book’s co-authors, William Kelly and Chip Jacobs, are appropriate storytellers having together written the 2008 book Smogtown about the rise and fall of pollution in mid-century Los Angeles.

William took the time to answer some questions for us about their new book:

Adam Mayer (AM): As you observe in your previous book, Smogtown, Los Angeles has done a good job of cleaning up its air in a relatively short amount of time. Aside from the rise of use of catalytic converters for cars, how much does this have to do with the fact that L.A. is no longer a manufacturing powerhouse for the aerospace industry? Using L.A. as an example to learn from, how can China move away from manufacturing to services without sending shockwaves through its economy?

William Kelly (WK): In history, sixty years seems like a short time, but for those who lived it in Los Angeles it seemed like forever, especially for the roughly 10 percent of the population that suffers from asthma and other chronic respiratory diseases. And bear in mind the air in Los Angeles is still unhealthful, though much less so than even in the 1990s.

Aerospace really was a fairly minor source of air pollution in Los Angeles and its downsizing had more to do with the end of the Cold War, consolidation in the industry and the rise of Airbus and other competitors around the world. However, like virtually every other source of air pollution it was regulated and required to follow best practices and use the cleanest technology available. The fact is that around 1990, the LA area needed to cut emissions about 80 percent to meet health standards and to do that all sources had to be controlled. So the effort went far beyond the catalytic converter which was first required in the 1970s.

But without digressing, China can learn much from Los Angeles and California, but replacing manufacturing with services is not the answer. Instead, cleaning up the sources of energy in China is the key task that will bring the biggest environmental improvements, as well as much better control and treatment of waste byproducts from manufacturing that also pollute water, soil, and air.

The tragic thing we’re seeing now is that with the U.S. pushing the TransPacific Partnership trade agreement, we may replicate what happened environmentally in China in the 1990s in Vietnam, Malaysia, and other underdeveloped nations by helping to set up manufacturing that will be all coal powered. The coal plants in those nations already are being built in anticipation of the trade agreement.

AM: One of the more recent developments in China is the proliferation of citizen protests against new chemical factories. In your research, did you find this phenomenon to be widespread? How is the government (both local governments and the central government) reacting to these protests?

WK: The protests have been widespread, persistent, and often violent. The reason stems from fear of releases, particularly potentially catastrophic releases from chemical plants, but at the root is distrust of the public officials charged with regulating these plants.

Here’s a fact Americans might find hard to believe. In a nation with more than three times as many people as in the U.S., the Chinese equivalent to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has fewer people than work at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a few hundred. That’s in a nation that covers more land area than the U.S. too. Obviously that’s inadequate.

So as a result, the enforcement of standards largely falls on local and provincial government personnel, who are under the thumb of local and provincial Communist Party officials who are constantly wined and dined, if not controlled by industrialists. The common people know this, so they feel left to their own devices when these plants come to town.

The key to gaining trust here is for the national government to build up its capacity to enforce environmental laws and standards and for the national government to exert more control over provincial and local party officials by making their compensation and promotion contingent on environmental as well as economic performance.

AM: Perhaps most detrimental to China’s air quality is the widespread use of coal-burning as a power source. Given China’s growing demand for energy, and the cheap cost of coal as a resource, what are the necessary steps that the country needs to take to incentivize cleaner sources of energy? Is this already happening? If so, how?

WK: First, coal is the biggest cause of air pollution in China, particularly the terrible particle pollution we see in the pictures.

Solving the problem, therefore, is easy as ABC, anything but coal. Fortunately, China’s historic strength is in bringing technologies to scale, from the canals and roads of the dynastic days, to the great outpouring of digital devices we see today.

Now the nation is successfully turning to solar and wind power, where it’s become a leading nation both in manufacturing solar panels and wind turbines, and also deploying them in its grid. Indeed, China is the world’s biggest solar panel manufacturer.

Now, it’s beginning to do the same by turning to advanced batteries to store intermittent renewable power so it will be there at night and when the air is still. Coupled with the energy efficiency inherent in denser, urban living in small quarters we can hardly fathom in the U.S., China could be the next nation after Germany to get huge amounts of energy from renewable sources. In fact, it’s happening most energy analysts agree.

All that the Chinese have to do is follow Deng’s advice, to “be brave” and “walk with faster steps” when it comes to moving to renewable energy and to drop further development of coal.

AM: Looking ahead, do you think that urbanization will eventually lead to a better environment in China? In other words, once the new cities are built and the infrastructure is in place, will we look back on the last 3 decades as a small sacrifice paid for what could ultimately be a sustainable urban future with an intelligent grid, efficient public transit and green buildings? Or has the pace and scale of urbanization taken a toll on the environment that can never be rectified?

WK: When it comes to what China is doing with public transit, housing, and amenities for its people, one could argue it puts the U.S. to shame. In many ways, we have much to learn.

Clearly, even the casual visitor can see China is making a lot of the right moves on transportation and urbanization, moves that are setting it on a path when it’s fully developed toward much lower emissions per capita than in the U.S.

The danger is, however, that continuing to rely on coal to build out its cities will do irreparable harm to the world’s atmosphere by pushing up carbon levels to the point that triggers runaway global warming. The Chinese leadership ultimately is coming to grips with this, but needs to embark on a crash program to transition to clean energy.

Given their great communitarian tradition and amazing technical ingenuity—remember they had vastly superior technology to Europe even at the time of Marco Polo—the Chinese are fully capable of doing this, in fact leading the world on it. The ability is there, all they need to do is muster the resolve.

Many thanks to William Kelly for taking the time to answer these questions for us. Please be sure to read their new book The People’s Republic of Chemicals.

Vanke Jiugong Mixed-Use Development by SPARK Architects

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SPARK Architects have shared with us their award-winning design for a new mixed-use development in Beijing. Designed for Vanke in the city’s growing southern suburbs, the project is a mix of retail, leisure, entertainment and office programs.

Currently under construction, Vanke Jiugong is a continuation of SPARK’s investigations into the breaking up of the architectural mass of the shopping mall, and the forging of connections between ‘interiorized’ space and the city. The 127,000 sqm development will incorporate a mall, a cinema, three live-work towers, and a separate retail pavilion, with a pedestrian bridge connection to an adjacent train station.

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While shopping malls traditionally turn their backs on the city, in the context of China, where there is very little urban public space, SPARK director Jan Felix Clostermann says of their design approach, “we typically try to extend the city into the building.”

The scheme proposes a perforated and penetrable building mass of interlocking components of various scales. A base retail block (with traditional curvilinear ‘race-track’ circulation) is prised open with glazing and voids at its periphery and pierced internally by two large conical voids, which draw daylight downward into the center of the building mass and forge visual connections between levels. A sleek white palette contributes to a seamless and flowing retail environment.

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On levels four and five, these volumes terminate with a second ‘ground plane’ – a village of restaurants in an orthogonally planned zone expressed with an alternate material treatment of timber and traditional terazzo tiles. Above is a third ‘ground plane’ – an environment akin to a miniaturized business park, where small office pavilions and larger live-work towers rise from a roof garden. “Level six will be a bit like a hutong in the sky,” says Clostermann, with the fragmented open areas of the garden taking a character similar to courtyards and available for the enjoyment of office users and the wider public.

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The cinema, positioned at one end of level six, will be connected to an external 24-hour circulation route that traverses the façade to allow direct access to and from the entertainment zone after shopping hours. While preventing the disconcerting experience of circulating through a ‘dead’ mall after hours, the external circulatory route will also enliven the exterior of the building, bringing vitality to its principal street façade.

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Thanks to SPARK Architects for sharing their design for the Vanke Jiugong Mixed-Use development. To learn more about the firm and their other exciting work in China, check out their website: http://www.sparkarchitects.com

Urban Creative Culture, Air Quality and the Tragedy of Beijing

Beijing_Pollution

Like many foreign travelers and working expats who arrive to China, Beijing was my first port of entry into the country. Leaving Capital Airport I was struck by the massive scale of the city, overwhelmed by the repetitive concrete towers standing like regimented rows of soldiers in the skyline. Beijing’s urban form is undoubtedly inspired by the Soviet-era tendency towards grandiose urban planning schemes, but as I would come to learn the story on the ground painted a different, much more vibrant picture of urban life.

Beijing is not a city that one can fully appreciate in the matter of just a few days visiting the famous historical sites. In the space between gigantic attractions like The Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, and Summer Palace, a modern grassroots culture thrives. Underground rock clubs, artist studios and independent coffee shops coexist in what’s left of old hutong neighborhoods as well as reclaimed industrial spaces on the periphery of the city center.

The notion of a burgeoning arts scene would seem to run counter to what many outside China still think of the city: that is, the seat of an oppressive Communist government devoted to quashing all personal freedoms. Although Chairman Mao’s portrait still looks ominously over Tiananmen Square, the perception of Beijing as a cultural desert couldn’t be further from the truth.

Arts and culture are engrained in the city’s urban DNA. Beijingers are rightly proud of their city’s long history as a cultural center, and its young creative residents continue that tradition today. Just as the infinite looping ring roads that surround the city conjure up images of Ouroboros (the serpent eating its own tail), so is the city itself in constant cyclical reinvention mode. The tremendous social and economic changes provide a fertile ground for artistic inspiration and creative freedom.

Yet there is one factor that undermines Beijing’s aspirations as a global urban creative center, and it is not the threat of government oppression. Rather, it is the layer of hazardous grey smog that envelopes the city on a regular basis.

When I first visited Beijing 2006 air pollution was already a problem, but not at quite the level it is now. When I returned to Beijing in 2009, this time moving to China for work, I noticed the pollution had become markedly worse. Thousands more cars were added to the roads and urban development was pushing out past the city’s distant 6th Ring Road. Today, the pollution levels are worse than they’ve ever been, with the density of PM2.5 particles reaching as high as 671 micrograms (or 26 times the level considered safe by the World Health Organization).

As someone with the fortune of being born in a country that is already developed and has established emission standards, I’ve been hesitant to criticize China regarding their development aspirations. Throwing stones from afar would be nothing less than hypocritical, as most developed countries also went through a “dirty phase” during rapid industrial expansion. Thus, the general tone of this blog is supportive of China’s urban development and the economic benefits it has created for the Chinese people.

Yet China’s environmental crisis is a serious threat to that process- and Beijing is ground zero for the country’s challenges. Beijing’s air pollution is a health problem for everyone in the city, regardless of class or economic status. It is an economic problem as much as it is a social problem: if the city’s residents can’t breathe clean air then urban life cannot continue to thrive. Pollution is also a real threat to urbanization, as crisis levels could prompt people to revert back to rural living despite economic opportunities offered by the city.

Encouragingly, the Chinese government has fully acknowledged that pollution is a problem and is taking proactive steps to address the issue. This includes everything from limiting the amount of automobiles on the road at any given time to decommissioning coal-fire power plants near the city.

Yet this is not enough- there needs to be a paradigm shift in the way China and other developing countries urbanize and grow their economies. This includes embracing more ecologically sensitive technologies in power generation and transportation. To incentivize using these new technologies, China is testing out a pilot cap-and-trade program in 7 cities (including Beijing). If successful, China will roll out a nationwide cap-and-trade program by 2016.

In the meantime Beijing residents will have to do what they can to stay healthy in the current environmental conditions. Sadly, until the air is cleaned up, Beijing may have to put on hold its aspiration as a global center of arts and culture, despite the exciting activity happening at the grassroots level.

Why is Zaha Hadid Being Copied in China?

Zaha_copied in ChinaZaha Hadid’s Wangjing SOHO design (left). Chongqing Meiquan 22nd Century design (right). Image from AFP.

Earlier this year, the architecture world was in shock after a story made the rounds that a Zaha Hadid designed project in Beijing is being pirated by a developer in Chongqing. What’s surprising about this story is not the actual copying of Hadid’s design but the reaction from the design media, as if this is the first incidence of architectural piracy in China.

Of course this is not the case as building designs are routinely copied in China. However, what makes this instance unique is that while Hadid’s design (Wangjing SOHO) is still under construction, the copied version (Chongqing Meiquan 22nd Century) is set to complete first. Pan Shiyi, Board Chairman of SOHO China, Hadid’s client, has not kept quiet about his disapproval, and is now taking legal action against the developers in Chongqing.

This situation brings up the reoccurring discussion about authenticity (or lack thereof) in China. It is no secret that China ‘learns by imitation’ in everything from product design to software development. In the realm of architecture, it is not uncommon to come across functioning replicas of famous buildings from history (like the Chrysler Building, Sydney Opera House, or the entire Austrian Village of Hallstatt) in China’s cities.

Hadid’s office speculates that perhaps someone got hold of their plans for Wangjing SOHO to produce the copy. Yet having seen Chinese architects in action, it would not be far-fetched to speculate that the designers of Chongqing Meiquan 22nd Century saw nothing more than a computer rendering of Hadid’s project on the internet to generate something of similar likeness.

Architects around the world learn from other architects. Websites like ArchDaily are a great resource for architects to promote their work and for other architects to get inspired. Like professional writers, there is an unspoken ethical code among architects about borrowing from other designers: re-using certain ideas or building elements is ok, even flattering at times, but outright plagiarism is never ok.

This code of design ethics doesn’t exist (yet) in China. As is often the case, copying a famous design from another architect can be a good strategy in getting approval from a Chinese client or local government official. In response to the accusation of copying, developer Chongqing Meiquan even said “never meant to copy, only want to surpass.”

This response is very telling of where the value of architectural design lies today in China. While it could be argued that China is still in its “learning phase” of development, it is starting to become clear that the country’s ambitions lie much further beyond not only being the ‘biggest’ but the ‘best’ – even if that means using dishonorable means to get there.

An Experience in Contrasts: Redevelopment in Beijing’s Historic Qianmen Neighborhood

Before and After Photos of ‘Quanjude’, a famous Peking Duck Establishment in Qianmen Since 1864

It is a familiar narrative across China’s cities: historic districts routinely razed to make way for new developments comprised of high-rise residential communities and retail mixed-use complexes designed to reflect China’s 21st Century image.

Yet in some of China’s more high-profile historic neighborhoods, redevelopment is conceived to capture the spirit what was once previously on site by rebuilding in traditional Chinese architectural styles. ‘Tourist Streets’, as these kinds of developments are referred to by developers and government officials, are a hot project type in China- nearly every city wants one. They range from accurate recreations of China’s past to cheap pastiche.

In some exceptional cases, such as Xiantiandi in Shanghai and Kuan Zhai Xiang Zi in Chengdu, serious efforts were made to preserve some of what was already there and reuse materials from demolished buildings. In most instances though, the practice of completely demolishing/rebuilding remains the typical Chinese development modus operandi.

One of the most controversial instances of the demo/rebuild type of historic redevelopment is the Qianmen area of Beijing, a neighborhood directly south of Tiananmen Square. Thanks to its adjacency to the heavily visited city center, Qianmen (which translates to ‘Front Gate’) is a popular tourist area with several shops and restaurants.

Similar to other developments around China, thousands of residents were relocated for redevelopment in Qianmen. Yet given its high-profile location, the project received a lot of heat, not only from preservationists but from local Beijing residents as well, many of who have connections to the tight-knit community.

I first wandered into Qianmen on a visit to Beijing back in 2006. At that time, the neighborhood was in full-scale transition, with demolition of old courtyard siheyuan buildings taking place at an alarming pace. Despite the dust and noise, retail commerce, which consisted of small family-owned shops selling touristy knick-knacks and knock off goods, thrived in the area.

Qianmen in 2006: Still Retaining Some Original Character but Redevelopment Commencing

Qianmen in 2011: Pedestrian Street Directly South of Tiananmen Square Rebuilt Completely in Qing Dynasty-era Architecture

Although Qianmen Street, the main pedestrian thoroughfare bisecting the neighborhood, officially reopened just in time for the Beijing Olympics in 2008, I didn’t make it back to the area until last year. When I finally did make it back, the area was completely unrecognizable from what I saw in 2006.

Ramshackle old buildings and maze-like narrow alleys were replaced by new retail buildings evoking Qing-era architecture lining a wide avenue with a trolley car (which reminded me of another outdoor pedestrian mall across the Pacific: The Grove in Los Angeles). Mom and pop shops selling questionable goods were replaced by international retail chains such as Starbucks, Häagen-Dazs, New Balance and H&M. The only landmark that remained (and which I recognized from its memorable sign) was the famous Quanjude Peking Duck restaurant.

Perhaps most interesting though was not the new tourist street itself, but the current state of the surrounding area. Directly east of Qianmen Street, new construction extended for several blocks, continuing in the same new/old Qing style of the tourist street. Much of the construction was already complete, but the retail spaces remained mostly empty..

The other (west) side of Qianmen Street was an experience in contrasts. The narrow and crowded streets flowing through the old single story siheyuans reminded me of what the area looked like back in 2006. Sure enough, this area had escaped development up to this point but given its inconsistency with plans for the overall neighborhood it is a sure thing this area will eventually be redeveloped as well.

It might be too late for preservation in Qianmen, but the public outcry against the redevelopment there prompted preservationists to put a stop to plans for another large project in a historic district not too far away: The Drum and Bell Tower ‘Gulou’ Area north of the Forbidden City. With advocacy from the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center, preservationists were able to convince the government to greatly scale back plans to redevelop a 12.5 hectare area in the Gulou neighborhood.

Once a very sensitive topic in China, historic preservation is now discussed openly among stakeholders. With much of the country’s architectural history lost in the rush to develop, a new generation is ever more aware of the importance of what is left. Given this shift in dialogue, it will be interesting to see how the new leadership in Beijing approaches the subject when it takes office next year.

Building a Greener Capital

Prosper Center, Beijing’s First LEED Gold Certified Building

The following is a guest post by Daniel Garst, a Beijing-based American writer. This article originally appeared in the March 24, 2011 China Daily Metro edition.

Nothing concentrates the mind of economic planners quite like political instability in key overseas energy suppliers.  China’s new Five Year Plan therefore not only mandates further reductions in the energy used in generating economic output, but also sets, for the first time, overall consumption goals.

Making buildings here more energy efficient will be one key element in achieving these goals.  A January 7, 2011 National Geographic News story states that the building sector absorbs 30% of China’s energy, a threefold increase since 1980.

Beijing has recently made notable progress in reducing energy waste in this area.  A thirty percent wholesale subsidy program encourages the purchase of efficient light bulbs, while local authorities have aggressively pushed a coal-to-electricity project in hutong neighborhoods.

This program both lowers sulfur emissions and energy use, as the electric heaters are more efficient and have adjustable thermostats; some models even have thermostats pre-programmed to use less electricity during peak day hours and store it up at night.  Rooftop solar water heaters are also now a common sight in Beijing’s hutongs.

Moreover, a Ministry of Construction crackdown has raised the compliance rate with the construction code calling for new Beijing buildings to use 65% less energy than their 1980s predecessors to over 90%.

However, even with this success, Li Bingren, chief economist at the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, notes in a September 21, 2010 China Daily story that heating energy consumption in buildings here will still substantially exceed those in the west.

Fortunately, lots of room still exists for further efficiency gains.  For example, heat for most residential buildings is still supplied by coal-fired boilers pumping hot water into radiators, so dwellers cannot lower or turn off the heat when it warms up or they’re out of the house.

An October 2010 University of Nottingham China Policy Institute paper on energy consumption in Chinese buildings states that 7% of the heat here is wasted when people open their windows because they have no way of controlling it themselves.

As incomes continue rising in the capital, Beijingers will demand larger flats with more lighting and electrical gadgets.  This makes it imperative for new buildings to allow residents—China’s 2008 Energy Conservation Law mandates that they be charged according to the amount of heat used—to control interior temperatures.

Subsidies could also be given to residents adopting thermal technology products that automatically allocate heat to rooms with different temperature demands.

Lastly, Beijing can be much more aggressive in retrofitting not just siheyuans, but other residential units as well.  The National Geographic News article cited earlier notes that Harbin has spent 1.1 million RMB to improve wall insulation and roofing in 2 million square meters of residential buildings.

Many high-rise commercial buildings also waste energy.  The University of Nottingham paper notes that while such structures take up just 4% of the floor space of Chinese construction, they account for 22% of the building sector’s energy use, thanks to poor design, especially badly insulated windows.

Unfortunately, as a leading Tsinghua University Professor quoted in an April 3, 2006 story on the Science Ministry headquarters, the granddaddy of Beijing’s “green” office buildings, puts it, “local governments just want fancy post-modern designs you can brag about.”

But the newly completed Parkview Green building on the Dongdaqiao Lu, which sports a slanting environmental shield resembling a giant greenhouse, shows that such structures can be very green.  In 2010, it was the first Chinese building to win the prestigious MIPIM Asia “Green Building” award.  And just down the Guanghua Lu stands the Prosper Center, Beijing’s first LEED Gold certified building awarded by the U.S. Green Building Council.

While both these buildings were expensive build and are costly to lease, Beijing’s first U.S. Natural Resources Defense Council certified green building, the Science Ministry headquarters, demonstrates that green construction can be less expensive in the short- as well long-run.  According to the Christian Science Monitor article on this structure, by avoiding the use of expensive materials, like marble, it cost $700 per square meter to build vs. the $850-1000 per square meter for other government buildings.

Of course Beijing’s construction industry still lacks a green material supply chain and expertise.  However, these things will develop as more of these buildings are constructed.  And since most factories have already been moved from the capital, Beijing will have to go green in building to do its part in helping China conserve energy.

Deindustrializing Beijing: Images from the Decommissioned China National Steel Factory

Beijing’s poor air quality is a well-documented phenomenon, yet what is often not considered is the fact is that the municipality has taken steps in recent years to deindustrialize and move its polluting factories outside the city to neighboring provinces (mainly Hebei Province). Unfortunately the closure of factories doesn’t seem to have done much to abate Beijing’s air quality problems as an increasing number of private automobiles continue to clog the city’s roads. That being said, Beijing did try its best to at least keep its air clean for the two weeks of the Summer Olympics back in 2008.

One of the most high-profile examples of this effort was the permanent closure of the China National Steel Factory in western Beijing- one of the largest steel mills in the country. My friend and Beijing resident Daniel Garst, an American writer, recently had the opportunity to visit the decommissioned factory and take some nice shots of the slowly decaying complex.

As the future remains uncertain for the former steel factory, it presently serves as a reminder of Beijing’s industrial past and is a prime location for shooting photography and filming commercials. Perhaps the factory will be reused in the future as a commercial/entertainment district as developers take advantage of the ‘industrial chic’ aesthetic to redevelop other decommissioned factories around the country.

For now, please enjoy the following images of the abandoned complex.

A Guide to China’s Rising Urban Areas

Source: Demographia World Urban Areas: Population & Projections: 6th Edition. http://demographia.com/db-worldua.pdf
 

I have a new piece up at NewGeography about China’s rising urban areas. Below is an excerpt from the introduction:

From a Rural to Urban Dispersion in the Middle Kingdom

China’s rise to economic prominence over the past 30 years has rested in large part to its rapid    urbanization. Prior to ‘reform and opening up’ that started in earnest during the 1970s, cities in China were viewed as pariahs by the party leadership. Millions of young urban dwellers were forced into the countryside to labor on farming communes during the Cultural Revolution. In stark contrast, today millions of rural migrants make their way to the city.

The scale at which this is happening is unprecedented. Currently, there are 85 metropolitan areas in China with more than 1 million people, compared to 51 in the US. By 2015, urban regions will account for half of China’s population and by 2025, the urban population’s share should reach about 75%.

To date, international attention has remained fixated on China’s largest cities of Beijing and Shanghai (and to a lesser extent, Guangzhou and Shenzhen). This is not without good reason, as Beijing and Shanghai are not only the respective government and financial centers of mainland China, but both were host to two of the most visible world events of the past decade: the 2008 Summer Olympics and the recently concluded World Expo.

Second and Third-Tier Cities Enter Onto the World Stage

Increasingly, however, the real trajectory of urban growth is shifting to China’s so-called ‘second-tier’ and ‘third-tier’ cities. To the outside observer, China’s lesser-known cities might seem all too similar to one another given the monotonous aesthetic of their newly constructed cityscapes. Indeed, the newfound appearance of Chinese cities is a point of contention among local urban development scholars who are concerned about the converging ‘identical faces’ of these urban areas.

Yet to Chinese locals and foreigners who have spent some time living here, it Chinese cities are defined more by their local cuisine, dialect, history, geography, culture and climate rather than their architectural character. These often-overlooked nuances of local culture are much more essential to the identity of these cities than buildings. In the future, these distinctions may prove more effective in attracting investment and talent than flashy new construction projects.

To continue reading about these cities please click here.

Beijing to Shanghai High-Speed Rail Opens

Photo by bennettdesign

China’s ambitious high-speed rail program inaugurated perhaps its most important line yesterday: Beijing to Shanghai. The train made its debut on the eve of the 90th anniversary of the founding of China’s Communist Party with Premier Wen Jiabao onboard declaring the line ‘in operation’.

The trip linking China’s two largest cities takes just under 5 hours and scheduled trains will make stops along the way in Tianjin, Jinan and Nanjing.

AFP Infographic

Linking China’s government/cultural center with its commercial/financial hub is a milestone on the path towards creating a connected nation. Airlines will certainly be hurt by the line, but because China’s air traffic is already at capacity, the train should help ease the strain on Beijing and Shanghai’s airports.

Freedom of choice when it comes to transportation options is paramount to social and economic mobility. Thanks to the multitude of options Chinese citizens will be afforded when traveling around the country, overall quality of life should be improve significantly.

Fears About a China Housing Crash Overstated

Consensus among international media is that China’s economy is heading for an imminent and disastrous crash due to its inflated housing market. While there is absolutely no denying that housing prices in central parts of 1st Tier cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou are sky-high, this does not signal the end of China’s economic rise. If anything, the high price of housing in these cities affirms China’s rise from poor, cut-off backwater to the world’s second largest economy.

The New York Times weighs in with a Room for Debate feature on ‘China’s Scary Housing Bubble’. The debaters agree for the most part that even if growth slows, the slowdown in residential construction activity will not spell the end of China’s economy. Michael Pettis, professor at Peking University, offers a more likely scenario:

“The real risk for China, it seems to me, is not a property-led financial collapse. What is more likely is that at some point – and probably not this year or next – we begin a long process of adjustment in which economic growth slows dramatically as the economy grinds away at the overbuilding and at excess debt

For now China is just trying to catch up to developed world standards and keep its economic engine running while the domestic economy evolves into something more service-oriented and consumer based. That will take time, and until then, construction of new buildings and infrastructure will continue.

How China’s Megacities Have Avoided Problems of Other Developing Cities

Urbanist media can’t seem to get enough of the megacity these days. Much of the commentary surrounding this topic is disconcertingly celebratory about these leviathans despite such phenomena as overcrowding, high levels of congestion and sprawling slums.

Yet absent from most of the commentary is any mention cities in China. This is perhaps due in large part to the lack of serious social problems in comparison to its developing city counterparts in other countries. If a megacity is defined as a city with a population of more than 10 million, then China is home to 5 megacities: Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Dongguan. As the country continues to urbanize, more Chinese cities are bound to join the ranks of these megacities.

How has China been able to avoid the pitfalls facing other developing megacities? No one is denying that Chinese cities don’t have problems including unequal income distribution, pollution and growing traffic congestion. Yet China’s megacities seem to have largely avoided social dangers such as violent crime, disease and slum proliferation that plague urban areas of other developing countries.

Following I have identified five points as to how China’s cities have avoided these issues:

1. Construction of New Housing Units

Western media continues to bawl over the amount of new residential construction in China, calling it the ‘biggest bubble ever‘. I have pointed out before how this might be an overestimation of the problem and that the housing market is actually more stable than many think. One thing is clear: the ample construction of new housing units in cities across China remains the essential component leading the way in the country’s development. The ability to provide modern accommodations for millions of aspiring urban dwellers has also directly prevented the proliferation of slums and large-scale shantytowns.

2. Development of Public Transportation

The ability to move efficiently through an urban area is paramount to opportunity and quality of life. When one thinks of megacities such as Jakarta or Mexico City, automobile gridlock often comes to mind. Beijing might have its traffic problems as well, but China’s development of public transportation, including extensive underground subway networks, ensures citizens will have other options to move around besides motor vehicles. The more connected by different forms of a transportation a city is, the more opportunity people have to live where they want and have access to a wider geographic range of job options.

3. Land-Use and Zoning Flexibility

The often-overlooked reality of zoning and land-use regulations plays a much greater role in the shaping the character of megacities then it is given credit for. Mumbai’s draconian 1.33 floor-to-area ratio (FAR) throughout most of the city means that it is limited to construction of low-rise buildings, leading to the growth of overcrowded sprawling slums. Chinese cities, in contrast, allow for high FAR, promoting construction of high-rise buildings that leave room for ample green space.

Furthermore, Chinese cities are not limited by ‘urban growth boundaries’ and allow development to occur on newly annexed land outside of traditional urban cores. Even traditionally ‘dense’ cities like Shanghai and Hong Kong allow for new development outside of their traditional centers: the Pudong New Area in Shanghai and the New Territories in Hong Kong are huge areas that are still largely underdeveloped when compared to their respective downtown areas.

Critically, these nominally suburban or even “exurban” expansions are not mere bedroom community; they are frequently attached to areas of intense commercial, industrial and technical development. In many cities, including Chengdu, where I reside, most of the new economic growth takes place in such communities.

4. Providing Economic Incentives with Special Trade Zones

As China enters its third decade of rapid development, competition is heating up between its cities for domestic and foreign investment. The winners will ultimately be cities that are most business friendly and offer incentives like tax breaks to companies looking to set up operations. Many of China’s cities have gone about this by establishing special ‘economic and trade zones’, usually outside of traditional urban cores. As a matter of fact, one of new China’s most economically successful cities, Shenzhen, largely started as a ‘Special Economic Zone’ (SEZ). Special economic and trade zones that are not actual cities, but part of a larger city, thrive because they usually built on more affordable land on urban peripheries, opening up more investment for construction of state-of-the-art manufacturing and R&D facilities.

5. Willingness to Learn from Outside Experts

When it comes to political issues at the Central Government level, it is clear that China does not want to be told how to run its country by outside diplomats and foreign policy experts. Yet at the municipal level, Chinese government and business leaders are earnestly open to listening to experts in planning and development from outside its borders. One only needs to take a look at the countless architecture and urban planning practices from the West, Singapore and even Taiwan who currently work in China. This open exchange of ideas taking place is what allows best practices to come to fruition.

(Mis)understanding China’s Suburbs

Beijing Suburbs. Photo by Manuel.A.69.

As China’s expanding cities inevitably swallow up surrounding countryside, the boundaries between urban, rural and suburban areas become progressively more blurred. What today might be farmland could tomorrow be the next central business district sprouting state-of-the-art skyscrapers. This fast-changing reality makes defining what constitutes urban vs suburban with developed-world standards insufficient. China needs its own definitions.

Dan Chinoy, a student at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, ponders this conundrum with a post for The Atlantic titled “Is this Beijing’s Suburban Future?“. As Chinoy gets further from Beijing’s center, he describes coming upon what seem to be the remnants of a village. He explains:

This suburban expansion has taken place so quickly that in some places, it has created what are known in Chinese as ??? or chengzhongcun, which translates roughly to village-in-a-city: older mud and brick houses and abandoned fields surrounded by brand new apartment complexes.  Often, residents of these villages choose to rent them out to migrant workers.  Some even build small apartment buildings of their own and become full-fledged landlords.  This creates something that’s not quite a slum, but not exactly a well-regulated residential complex either.”

The existence of this not quite slum, not quite well-regulated residential complex will probably be a short-lived phenomenon as soon as full-fledged urbanization reaches it. Rather than being a permanent condition, the suburban experience Chinoy describes is a perfect example of the transitory and sometimes flat-out contradictory condition of China’s urbanization process.

The Atlantic: Is this Beijing’s Suburban Future?

Preservation in Beijing: The Battle for Gulou

A frequently revisited topic in discussions about China’s development is the widespread loss of historic structures and neighborhoods throughout the country’s fast-changing metropolises. From the Western historical preservation perspective, much of what has taken place over the course of China’s three-decade long modernization is nothing short of an epic tragedy. No other narrative exemplifies this lament more than the destruction of the hutong neighborhoods in central Beijing.

Last July, the New York Times ran a story about this very topic, aptly titled ‘Bulldozers Meet Historic Chinese Neighborhood’. The neighborhood in question is Gulou (meaning ‘drum tower’, which is the neighborhood’s landmark, along with the adjacent Zhonglou, or ‘bell tower’). Located in central Beijing, just north of the Forbidden City, Gulou is one of the last remaining areas comprising hutongs (narrow alleys) lined by the accompanying siheyuan (traditional courtyard homes).

Being one of the few historic neighborhoods left in Beijing, Gulou has become a popular destination for both foreign and domestic tourists. Some spots around the Gulou area, such as Houhai (a tranquil lake surrounded by low-key bars) and Nanluoguxiang (a restored alley cutting through hutong neighborhoods), have been gentrified. That is, trendy boutiques and restaurants featuring international cuisine have popped up in the area, but this has not been at the expense of neighborhood character.

With development and prosperity, as well as a foreign influx to Beijing, it was inevitable that gentrification of the neighborhood would take place. Walking around Gulou today is a pleasant experience of old and new. The success of the natural evolution of the hutong to present time has led many locals and foreign expatriates to take up the cause of further preserving the area. As the NY Times article mentions, this process is threatened by a redevelopment scheme that seeks to raze and rebuild large parts of the Gulou neighborhood.

Thanks to efforts by preservation groups, these plans have been put on hold, at least for now. Redevelopment in the central area of Beijing is appealing to the  local government because it means more opportunity to create  tourist retail space that will generate huge revenue for the city. Not only that, but many long-time hutong residents are more than happy to take the huge paydays to relocate out of the center to the peripheral areas of the city.

Thus, preservation is left to those who care about preserving the organic atmosphere of the area. Though well-intentioned, the fact that expatriates have taken up the preservation cause means that the effort risks looking like a group of self-righteous foreigners imposing their own quaint and antiquated vision of China on local development, adding another  complicated dimension to the already sensitive issue.

New York Times: Bulldozers Meet Historic Chinese Neighborhood

Rem Koolhaas’s OMA Relocates Asia Headquarters to Hong Kong

Construction Progress on the OMA-designed Shenzhen Stock Exchange. Photo by Shayani Fernando.

After completing what is arguably China’s most high-profile (and sometimes controversial) new building of the past decade, Beijing’s CCTV Building, Rem Koolhaas and his architecture firm, OMA, have decided to move their Asia HQ to Hong Kong.

The South China Morning Post has the details:

Architectural Firm OMA Moves Asian HQ From Beijing to Hong Kong

Olga Wong and Vivienne Chow, January 04, 2011

The Dutch architectural firm OMA has moved its Asian headquarters from Beijing to Hong Kong, saying the harbour city has more of the talented professionals it needs to handle coming Asian projects.

The renowned firm denied the move had anything to do with controversy over the CCTV “trouser legs” building in Beijing, or the furor over a passage in a book written by OMA that likened the design of the tower and the 30-storey building beside it to female and male genitalia.

Many people did not like the idea that OMA founder Rem Koolhaas may have pulled off a pornographic joke at the country’s expense.

David Gianotten, who started the Hong Kong office and is now a partner of the company, said the company had not suffered a loss of business in Beijing due to the controversy.

“We will still keep the Beijing office,” he said. “We just want a stronger presence in Asia and Hong Kong provides a convenient platform.

“We do receive positive comments on the CCTV design.”

The company’s architectural team in Hong Kong has grown to 45, up from 12 at the office’s opening in 2009, when the firm entered the final round of the design competition for the West Kowloon arts hub.

Now the company is planning to expand to 60 staff in Hong Kong, making it the second-largest branch after its headquarters in Rotterdam. To get there, the company will recruit more local professionals, including fresh graduates.

“It’s a change of strategy. We don’t aim for the China market only, but the whole of Asia,” Gianotten said.

“Hong Kong by far is the most convenient platform for hiring both mainland and international talent. It provides a good mix.”

While mainland architects were imaginative and those from Taiwan were pragmatic, Gianotten said, Hong Kong professionals were more rounded, adept not only in design, but also in engineering and technical skills.

The company plans to keep the ratio of Chinese staff at 60 per cent and to groom young graduates.

“We don’t want to be seen as a company from overseas,” Gianotten said. “It’s important to establish an office that crosses cultures and really knows and understands the local context.”

The company would soon start projects in Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam and would also set up an office in Middle East.

Arts and design industry insiders said OMA’s retreat from the mainland was not surprising, as many international firms had been experiencing trouble operating businesses there.

“There’s a huge cultural difference,” one industry veteran said. “The mode of business operation in China is very different from where these companies came from. And they have to look up to the mainland government officials, which is certainly not what they are used to.”

In August 2009, mainland media reported that a book written five years earlier by OMA had included an off-colour description of the CCTV building. Koolhaas may have just been having some fun. At other times, he has spoken seriously about the tower’s intent to “generate a space and to define a space” for the state broadcaster.

It’s unlikely that an architect like Koolhaas, who thrives among contradiction and chaos, would decide to relocate to Hong Kong due to controversy over the implied iconography of the CCTV Building. Rather, the decision is probably based more on the city’s geographic centrality to the rest of Asia, where OMA rightly sees a growth market for its future projects.