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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.

  • Matthias (Beijing) - There is another aspect that undermines Beijing’s aspirations as a global creative centre: sky-high costs of real estate. As we know, artists rely on affordable spaces to run their studios and exhibitions. In Beijing’s 798 art district – re-developed from disused factories – rents are allegedly now almost as high as in Beijing’s CBD. Hence the tendency for artists to congegrate in small ‘artist villages’ at the edge (or far outside) the city, because they can’t afford to reside in the city itself anymore.ReplyCancel

    • Adam Nathaniel Mayer - Yes I know of this to be an issue as well. But artists being pushed towards city peripheral boundaries is a phenomenon that happens around the world, not just in Beijing. As the urban theorist Richard Florida points out in his book “The Rise of the Creative Class”, artists are usually the first to arrive in derelict parts of cities where rents are cheap, only to be followed by waves of gentrifiers and real estate developers- which then in turn drives the cost up.

      This seems to be what has happened in 798 in Beijing. In a way, 798 is a victim of its own success in that there probably wasn’t the expectation that it would become as popular as it now is.

      What the solution is to this issue, I’m not sure. There are still a lot of decommissioned industrial zones in Chinese cities that could be inhabited by artists.

      Housing costs in China, especially in 1st Tier Cities, warrants its own blog post, but to keep it short I think we will have to at some point see the introduction of property taxes to cool down speculation. There are still a lot of unknowns regarding the fate of the Chinese housing market.ReplyCancel

  • Anonymous - And Beijing’s aspiration to be global center of art and culture is also being put off by its crazy costliness. Artists can no longer afford to live here.ReplyCancel

  • Charlie - Great post, Adam.

    I personally have heard from a lot of friends in Beijing and Chengdu who are leaving the country this year due to the pollution. In many cases these people are long-term residents who have made significant contributions to their culture of their respective host cities. And I’m certain that this exodus of people who want to breathe clean air will have cultural implications for both cities. I single these two out since between all of China’s urban metropolises these two cities seem to be getting it worst at the moment.

    The feeling on the ground is that this situation will not be improving anytime soon due to China’s economy underpinning every other facet of society. I now regularly receive correspondence from friends overseas who show concern over my health due to pollution here. Pollution has always been bad in Chengdu, but that has never happened to me before.ReplyCancel

    • Adam Nathaniel Mayer - In many ways, Chengdu is a lot like Beijing both in it’s geography (mostly flat, surrounded by mountains) and its history as a cultural mecca within China. The geography of both cities certainly don’t help in terms of air quality, as pollution gets trapped in their respective topographical basins (unlike Shanghai or a place like Xiamen which have the advantage of ocean breezes).

      Much of what was said in the post can definitely apply to Chengdu. Initially I did not anticipate that Chengdu would develop the same problems as Beijing simply due to it being a provincial capital and smaller city. But what has transpired in the past couple years in terms of deteriorating air quality is troubling. Of course, it all comes back to development as the city expands outward and more people purchase private automobiles. I believe Chengdu is something like 3rd (after Beijing and Shanghai) in China now in the number of registered automobiles.

      It will be interesting to see what measures Chengdu’s local government takes to improve the environment in the near future. I’m pretty hopeful that air quality will soon become an issue that takes precedence over economic growth just for the sake of growth, if it is not already.ReplyCancel

Beijing Residential Tower

As China’s state media increases its accusations of tax evasion, real estate developers are going on the defensive.

Last week, property tycoon Ren Zhiqian, Chairman of Beijing-based developer Hua Yuan Real Estate Group, posted  a message on Weibo (China’s version of Twitter) calling China state broadcaster CCTV “the dumbest pig on earth“.  This was in response to a program recently aired by CCTV accusing Vanke, another very large property developer, of owing more than 4.4 billion yuan (~$727 million USD) in unpaid taxes. The unpaid tax in question is the ‘land appreciation tax’ (LAT).

As a tax levied on the gains from the transfer of land development rights of state-owned land to real estate developers, the idea of the LAT is simple enough in theory but more complicated in practice. As explained in this South China Morning Post article from November:

“Land appreciation tax is collected by local governments, who have much leeway on deciding the actual tax rate. When a developer gets a pre-sale licence, it needs to pay a certain amount of land appreciation tax based on the asking price of the project. When the project is sold out, the exact amount of the tax will be calculated, deducting the cost of land, construction, marketing and other expenditures from the sales revenues, and multiplying the result by progressive tax rates.”

What this essentially means is that as a property developer increases the value of land through improvements and subsequent sales of housing units or leasing of commercial space, they need to pay a percentage of their gains to the local government. This is money due on top of what they already pay to the local government to bid on the land-development rights. The amount of money earned by local municipal governments in China on land sales is huge, accounting for about 30% of revenues.

Needless to say, as China has been going through its decades-long urbanization boom, local governments have not had to worry about a steady stream of money coming in from land sales.

Yet now China is at a tipping point.

With half the country urbanized, local governments are going to have learn to wean themselves off the land sales teat. There is also growing concern that local governments will not be able to pay back debts from loans taken out from state-owned banks used to fund the building of infrastructure.

Given this reality, it makes sense that the issue of land appreciation taxes is just coming to light. Don’t be fooled though- the accusations by CCTV are very calculated and a poorly veiled threat by the Central Government directed at country’s big real estate developers to “pay up”. It also creates a false narrative using developers as a straw-man to direct negative public sentiment towards.

No wonder Ren Zhiqian is livid.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out, especially since for at least the past 10 years developers have been the go-to guys for local governments in meeting their GDP targets (set by the Central Government ironically enough). As urbanization inevitably slows, tax laws will have to be reformed (and enforced).

Unfortunately, there is perhaps no easy way to make this transition. Clearly broadcasting exposés on state-run media against the country’s developers is only adding fuel to a potentially bigger fire.

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Value Factory 161The “Value Factory”: Site of the 2013 Bi-City Biennale of Urbansim/Architecture

The 2013 Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture is now underway in Shenzhen and Hong Kong. Open until the end of February 2014, the event is the world’s only biennale exhibition based exclusively on the themes of urbanism and urbanization. Now in it’s 5th edition, the Bi-City Biennale takes place across one of the world’s most dynamic economic regions, exploring not only the dichotomy between Hong Kong and Shenzhen, but the larger issues facing urbanization in China (something this blog is always very excited about discussing).

The Creative Director for this year’s Bi-City Biennale is Dutch Curator Ole Bouman. Mr. Bouman answered a few questions about the Biennale for the CUD Blog discussing some of the relevant issues surrounding this year’s event:

Adam Mayer (AM): Hong Kong, Shenzhen and the greater Pearl River Delta is arguably the world’s most dynamic urban region at the moment. What does it meant to curate a Biennale in a place that is very much “of the now” in terms of economic might versus a city like Venice which, while it lingers in our collective cultural imagination, is long past its primacy as a mercantile power center?

Ole Bouman (OB): To work in Shekou, at the heart of the Pearl River Delta conundrum, gives a chance to position this biennale as a real urban laboratory, with real implications for Shenzhen, but perhaps also with effects on the practice of urbanism in China. We have been given a chance to work on the scale of the city, with real investors, real owners, real users. This is only possible when the city is still a battlefield, not a museum. In Venice, history is the background of an event. In Shenzhen, you can make urban history.

AM: The main site for the Biennale is the “Value Factory” – a repurposed space in what used to be the Guangdong Float Glass Factory in the Shekou area of Shenzhen, which operated from 1987 to 2009. Considering that little more than 30 years ago Shenzhen was nothing more than an ambitious economic experiment on paper, how does the city come to terms with such a rapid progression from industrial development to post-industrial metropolis?

OB: In many different ways, of course. And to some extent it doesn’t come to terms at all, because the terms are changing themselves so rapidly. Under the current dynamic conditions, city development happens by stealth almost by definition. Nevertheless, I have been working with people with a growing awareness of the historical opportunities; they increasingly work with a helicopter view which enables them to set up urban relations that matter. That’s also why I am very happy we could realize a panorama deck on top of the factory which reveals all the frictions and storylines at a glance.

AM: Shenzhen is often derided within China as a cultural desert especially when compared with the more traditional cultural centers of the country such as Beijing, Xi’an and Chengdu. How does Shenzhen combat this reputation?

OB: I know this reputation. It can be related to the first stage of an arrival city. And in that sense, time will tell how it matures. But Shenzhen even now is certainly no cultural desert, unless you think that culture is a matter of consuming cultural products. For me essential to Shenzhen is its pioneering mentality. It is about the culture of creating new things, rather than the celebration of creations of the past. What is the meaning of monuments, when you are actually able to make them? What is the meaning of art, when you are able to create it? What is the meaning of theater, when you actually a protagonist yourself everyday?

Ole Bouman, directeur NAI, Rotterdam, 9.3.2012Ole Bouman, Curator and Creative Director of the Biennale

AM: The Biennale takes place across the Mainland China/Hong Kong border. As a Bi-City event, how does the Biennale reflect the sometimes contentious yet symbiotic relationship between the two very different cities of Hong Kong and Shenzhen?

OB: This year I find this relationship different from previous years. Shenzhen got back to using the Biennale as an urban catalyst. It is enormously ambitious but not as a goal in itself. In Hong Kong the biennale also “performs” in a certain way, but more as filter of urban dynamics than as an agent, as far as I can see. On the other hand, in Hong Kong already this filter is enough for serious protests against it.

AM: In Shenzhen’s aspiration to become a global metropolis, several prominent Western architects such as Steven Holl, Rem Koolhaas and BIG have had an opportunity to leave their mark on the city. Moving into the future, do you see Shenzhen continuing to invite architects from the West to design its marquee buildings or will we see more homegrown, Shenzhen-based architects contributing to the urban fabric of the city?

OB: I don’t believe the architects you refer to “leave their mark on the city”. Maybe they do “on the skyline” of a specific neighborhood. But Shenzhen is already way too developed to be reduced to architecture. The urban dynamics are excruciating. The city is exactly doing what a city should be doing in the first place: to work as an emancipation machine, to help people make a living. I am convinced that architects can play a very important role in facilitating this process and I also think that local architects are very able to do so as well.

Many thanks to Mr. Bouman for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions for us. For more information about the 2013 Bi-City Biennale of Urbansim/Architecture please visit the following link: http://en.szhkbiennale.org/

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The 7.0-earthquake in Ya’an, Sichuan Province this past April once again brought up the topic of construction quality in China. Images of crumbled buildings also reminded the world of the devastation that overcame the very same region 5 years ago when more than 70,000 people perished in the 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake.

Amazingly, the loss of life in the Ya’an quake was markedly smaller at only 200 (granted, so was the severity of the quake, but 7.0 is magnitude still a very significant tremor). Ideally, the goal of seismic building safety is to minimize casualties, thus April’s earthquake proved that China is stepping it up in the right direction.

I have a unique perspective on the issue having spent 2 years living and working in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan. And given my position working on the inside of China’s construction boom, industry colleagues and acquaintances outside China frequently inquired about the country’s building safety standards.

The reality is that the discussion of building safety in China is complex. Back in architecture school, our structural engineering professor liked to remind us that “earthquakes don’t kill people, structurally deficient buildings do”. This tends to true, both in Sichuan and other seismically active regions around the world. And while China is generally known for questionable regulations and safety standards, Chinese building codes definitely do not allow any sort of leeway with structural safety.

That being said, it is important to note that an architect and structural engineer can design a building to be structurally sound but the final product will only be as good as the quality of construction, which is ultimately the responsibility of the general contractor. Provided the contractor follows architectural and structural drawings as designed, there should be no concern over seismic safety. Yet the process is never that simple.

By Western standards, construction administration in China is a rather opaque process for a designer. Final decisions during construction are made by owner and contractor without much input from the architect. This can cause issues with oversight, especially with the more unscrupulous contractors and owners who “skim off the top” by switching out building materials for inferior product at the last moment and pocket the difference in price.

While this is an unfortunate practice, the consequences are much less severe when applied to finish materials versus structural materials. Virtually all of the buildings that collapsed in both Sichuan earthquakes were a result of unreinforced masonry construction, meaning that builders stacked bricks or concrete blocks without using sufficient (or any) steel reinforcing bar (rebar). Furthermore, most of these buildings were located in rural towns where they were probably built by individuals not formally trained in construction techniques. This isn’t an excuse, but rather a reflection of a country that is still developing.

Further highlighting the urban/rural gap in China is the fact that in both Sichuan earthquakes, Chengdu proper suffered minimal damage comparatively to its surrounding countryside. And with the mad frenzy of construction going on in the city, never once did I see a cause for concern with the structural reliability of city’s new buildings. In fact, the new high-rise buildings rising in Chengdu’s core fared well in April’s earthquake.

So while there is still improvement to be made in construction processes and techniques, especially in the more rural areas of China, my feeling is that safety standards are only getting better. The architecture and engineering professions in China, as well as government authorities, take seismic safety very seriously and do not lack the know-how in designing and building safe buildings.

The 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake was a wake up call, but given how far China has come in terms of development, there is a very good chance that this will have been the last catastrophic seismic event in country.

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