Beijing's architectural history can be traced back to 3000 years ago, and it has been the capital of China for more than 800 years. Before the founding of Shanghai, Beijing had built great city walls on the fertile land crisscrossed with rivers and lakes, south of Inner Mongolia grasslands. Now the city has prosperous streets and people from various parts of the globe who speak different languages; it is also an important hub that connects to the heartland of China, the vast mountainous areas and forests of the Northwest and the Northeast.
Throughout thousands of unpeaceful years, Beijing was known to be a deadly-still place frequently invaded by the nomadic hordes; its historical importance has never faded away despite the changes of dynasties. Beijing's geographical location determines its logic of development, and promotes its recovery and rise. Beijing continues prosperous and illustrious development, yet in 2015, there are signs of great changes.
This starts from the integration of Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei, industrial transfer and the shifting of the administrative center. Even before that, there were a number of signs of the urban problems faced by Beijing; chief among this is the notorious air pollution which came to be widely known as "Beijing Fog". Inside the capital, it is not unheard of voices of discontent, for the 30 million populations now face an uncertain future.
The shifting of the administrative center will not pose major problems other than the unscientific Fengshui consideration, as it is common for cities in China to shift their administrative centers. What really affects Beijing are industries, education, hospitals and business centers, as well as the limitation of population growth, which are closely tied with the tens of thousands of families in Beijing. Under Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei integration, some of these will need to move out. Beijing has again fallen into the historical spiral, and now, it has to face what it once avoided.
Why cry over spilt milk?
From a frontier city nearby grassland to a world-class metropolitan with 1,200 daily flights, Beijing has experienced rapid urbanization, and borne the brunt of harsh criticism and heavy pressures. If Beijing were still unable to have a scientific reflection on its current adverse situation, then this is truly apathetic. Although the city with 30 million populations has long history of development, there is hardly any serious scientific reflection on this issue. There are many people that are capable of commenting and criticizing but fewer scholars that are capable and willing to do technical reflection and conclusion.
Being an urban scholar bred and born in Beijing, I have no choice but to take on the task to scientifically examine and analyze the logic of the city development in Beijing and to conclude the ten biggest mistakes made during the city development for further discussion.
The First Mistake: Lack of Correct Understanding on the Influence of Politics over the City
Looking back at the development history of Beijing, the most frequently used excuses by the decision makers and the city planning department is that there has been too much political influence over Beijing's development. This implies that politics is the root cause of the city's problems and that the decision makers are of no fault. Indeed, Beijing has always been subjected to political influence. What happened to Liang Sicheng is well known, firstly there was influence from Soviet-style planning followed by Cultural Revolution and subsequently the reform and opening up policy and the keen pursue of "four modernization".
However, Beijing should not exaggerate the influence of politics nor use this as a scapegoat for the mistakes in urban planning. In year 2000, Beijing's GDP was merely RMB 316.1 billion and in 2014, it reached RMB 2.13 trillion. No matter how big the influence of politics was in the past, the "influence" was merely on the scale of RMB 316.1 billion which was only around 15% of today's GDP. Therefore, the subsequent problem is the real problem which is also the biggest problem. Instead of categorizing this as a problem arising from political influence, one should concede that the problem arises from laissez-faire approach adopted by the decision makers. The urban sprawl of Beijing was encouraged by the free imagination of the so-called scholars and officials.
If you must say politics have influenced the development of Beijing, then the influence stems from local politics, not central politics. This is one of the mistakes that Beijing should reflect on.
The Second Mistake: Public Transportation System Comes Too Late
The public transportation systems in Beijing, be it subway or bus system, are superior to the rest of the cities in China. However, such proud but groundless comparison has obvious defects since the comparison is made to other cities, instead of the speed and the need of Beijing's urbanization. Taking Beijing's subway for example, its construction period can be separated by year 2000. Before 2000, the subway served only the military and it was actually controlled by the military. By the end of 1980s, the subway had only one ring-line. The "Fuba Line" was not in service until the end of 1999. The real subway boom came after 2000. At that time, Beijing grabbed the chance of rapid development since it had won the right to host 2008 Olympic Games. The population in Beijing already reached the astonishing 13.81 million in 2000. Although the subway develops rapidly, it still can't meet the demand of urbanization. Thus, the public transportation system comes too late.
It should be noted that the problem of Beijing's public transportation system is not only about the construction speed and the scale of its subway system. Serious problems also exist in its design. There are serious flaws with Beijing subway system's design. Its centripetal force is obvious. Standing in front of the subway map of Beijing, one can clearly see that the city has only one core area. The lines become more concentrated as it approaches the core area. Such design is in total conflict with the possible solution for Beijing's urban problems. It considers only the transportation of the population. It fails to take into consideration the influence of the subway on the spatial structure of the city. Thus, two problems have remained. Firstly, the tidal movements of people – the subways are packed like sardines during peak hours. Secondly, the core area in the city has been clearly marked rendering it extremely difficult to change the spatial structure of the city, which also means the massive waste of the investment on subway.
Public transportation usually is a composite system – rail transit isn't merely about subway. Earlier in 2000, ANBOUND suggested Beijing Government to introduce the high efficient, low cost tram system. Besides, ANBOUND has also made suggestion on the reform of the taxi system. But until now, despite the severe disruption to the operation of the legitimate taxis caused by the taxi-hailing application, there is still no effective policy in place. This shows the slow response from the government policy. The delay of the policy makers in responding to the needs of the city's public transportation system leads to the extremely dense population and congested traffic, exacerbating the city's problems. The city's operation is near collapse, or its essence may have actually collapsed. This is the second mistake that Beijing should reflect on.
The Third Mistake: Industries Transfer is Too Late
Beijing is sandwiched between Hebei province and Tianjin. Any industrial or spatial changes in Beijing will inevitably be influenced and constrained by Hebei province and Tianjin. The drinking water in Beijing comes from Hebei province, the air which comes from Hebei province and Tianjin. If the residents of Beijing want to improve their living standards, they have to pay the price and contribute towards the development of Hebei province and Tianjin. Otherwise, any mistake during the development process in Hebei province and Tianjin could cause ecological catastrophe and affect Beijing directly. This is an obvious issue which Beijing has yet to fully comprehend. Beijing should contribute financially to improve the ecological environment in Hebei province. Such financial contribution is unavoidable but Beijing never did.
In relation to industrial development, Beijing has been putting too much emphasis on county planning and neglect regional planning for a long time. Only if greater emphasis had been placed on regional planning while restricting planning at county level, then there would not be such a problem. Now that the central government has required Beijing to transfer its industrial activities to Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region, Beijing is in a spin. If Beijing had worked harder on its regional planning, the industrial transfer and upgrading would have been smoother and the market will be more effective. Thus, the industrial transfer is too late. This is the third mistake in Beijing's development.
The Fourth Mistake: The Laisse-faire Approach in Spatial Design
If the spatial development of a city corresponds with the growth of population and consumption, it will reflect the scale of the economic aggregate of the city. As a scholar of urban studies, I have once criticized Edward Glaeser, a professor at Harvard University for the views he proposed in his book "Triumph of the City". In terms of the development of a city, mere theoretical discussion aiming at attracting audience is meaningless. All cities are restricted by its natural condition and social condition, just like how your neighbors restrict your behavior. A city's problem can't be solved by its spatial expansion. Even if such theoretical target does exist in reality, the process to realize this target will be intolerable.
Beijing used to have vision on its spatial design. There was discussion on the construction of satellite town in the past. Unfortunately, it didn't produce any positive effect. The main reason is that both the theorist and practitioner of spatial design lack the profound understanding on the spatial design concept, which is critical to a city. They merely created a shell without substance. In fact, such generalization, without proper understanding has caused many problems. For example, in the last century, I had pointed out in an urban study that according to my research on other cities, when constructing a Central Business District (CBD) in a city, the CBD core should not be too large. If a city's CBD is too big, it will have fatal influences on the city's spatial framework.
However, from the CBD in Financial Street in Xicheng district to the CBD in Chaoyang district, the CBDs are pursuing flat expansion, competing to be the largest scale in the world. The negative influences have shown up clearly now. The heavy traffic and high price level in Beijing are closely connected with the faulty design.
In fact, Beijing has been adopting the laisse-faire approach when designing its spatial framework, a mistake that has never been altered or remedied. This is the fourth serious mistake in Beijing's development.
The Fifth Mistake: Ignorance of Ageing Problem & Mercurial Population Policy
Since its emergence, city is a large settlement of population. Without the population, the city will be in peril. In any city, population creates consumption, consumption brings market, and then market underpins the industrial and economic development. Therefore, the inseparable connection between city and population reflects that a city's development or fall depends on its population. Beijing's mercurial population policy has been criticized for swinging chaotically between restriction and encouragement. Such mercurial policy has proven to be detrimental to urban development.
In the past, Beijing witnessed massive population outflow due to the central government's call for the educated youth to go to countryside. The reason was simple – the government couldn't afford the population. However, subsequently there was a huge influx of population from the countryside to the city, causing the government to implement family planning policy. Following the rise of urbanization, the population that previously lived in Beijing's outskirts and other parts of China flooded into Beijing rapidly, resulting in the tremendous increase in total population from 10 million to 20 million over a short period of time, and went up to its maximum capacity of 30 million people.
In July 2015, the Standing Committee of Beijing Municipal People's Congress has finally set up the population policy and decided to restrict Beijing from further growth, and to reduce the permanent resident population by 15% in 5 years.
However, there is a problem. If the administrative power constrains the population growth, the economic order in the city would certainly be affected. In light of the ageing dilemma in Beijing, the impact of such policy on economy could be stronger. As early as 2012, the population over 60 years accounted for nearly 20% of the total population, much higher than the national average of 13.26%. After urbanization, Beijing's aging pressure has been relieved to some degree because of the inflow of young population from other parts of China. So if the migration of young population was suspended, Beijing's aging dilemma would emerge again and increase the living cost drastically.
The mercurial population policy and population ageing issue have disrupted the Beijing's urban life and economic order. The ups and downs of the city could become more obvious. There could be more fluctuation in the economy. It is a bottleneck for both population and pace of the development. Beijing should have adopted measures to tame and stabilize population growth. However, in practice, the policy has failed to maintain a slow-but-steady growth in population. This is the fifth serious mistake made during Beijing's urbanization.
The Sixth Mistake: Dare not and could not Introduce Price Control
The greatest challenge to a city or a megacity lies in its operation and administration. On this part, Beijing seems to do a better job than Shanghai. After all, man-made catastrophes such as Shanghai Bund stampede have never occurred in Beijing. Nevertheless, both Beijing and Shanghai have their fair share of problems in relation to the operation and administration of the city, just like any other megacities. Generally, price control appears to be the most effective way to allocate a city's resources.
Unfortunately, since the image of Beijing as the capital is at stake, Beijing has to adopt administration-oriented practices instead. The policy on motor vehicles is one of the examples. Initially, Beijing adopted the liberal approach in a bid to encourage motor industry. However, when traffic situation in the city went out of hand, the policy switched to a restrictive approach by restricting the purchase of motor vehicles instead of adopting the market-oriented measures of selling license plates by auction. This clearly reflects the unprofessional and immature public policy research in Beijing.
The list of such examples could go on. The traffic allowance that could be used to alleviate the traffic congestion has not been adopted. In order to ease the traffic during the peak hours, ANBOUND has tabled a proposal to Beijing government to gradually abolish the current taxi management system and to encourage market innovation. Unfortunately, the Beijing government failed to comprehend the rationale of our proposal and consequently failed to recognize the problem. When faced with the rise of the unfamiliar taxi-hailing apps, the Beijing government hurried to protect the outdated system by using its administrative power. Ignoring the problem, staying in its comfort zone – the myth that administrative power could solve all problems and the refusal to use price control is the sixth mistake made by Beijing.
The Seventh Mistake: The City's Development Pace Was Too Fast
Chinese has an old saying: haste makes waste. When summing up China's urban economic development experience in the past few years, I have repeatedly pointed out that "China's urban dilemmas come down to its development pace." If you review it rationally, you will clearly see that almost all troubles relate to the blind pursue of development pace.
According to the geographic information on the city, during the period of Republic of China, Beijing's built-up area was merely 48 square kilometers. In 1970s, it expanded to less than 200 square kilometers. While in 2012, the built-up area went up to 1289.3 square kilometers from 488 square kilometers in 2000. Needless to say, the data clearly paint a picture on what happened to Beijing when the urbanization took place after 2000.
The rapid expansion generates an extensive growth pattern that is often hidden. It reveals itself when we notice the missing parts. For example, in the late of 1990s, I led ANBOUND's research team to conduct field research in several foreign cities. When I came back, I advocated the government to build urban forest to improve the city's climes and environment while enhancing the value of city's land and assets. When I learnt that Beijing's administrative agencies had little knowledge on the concept, I then explained the significance of the urban forest in suppressing dusts, addressing heating effect, improving urban landscape and enhancing land value on various occasions and publications. It is pity that the academics and government officials interpreted "urban forest" as landscapes and grassland, and chose to prevaricate by arguing that green area counts too. More than a decade has lapsed, now with the PM2.5 shadow hangs over everyone; perhaps, there are more people who understand the concept of "urban forest".
The overly fast development pace always disrupt the city's order. As the saying goes: a dish of carrot hastily cooked may still has soil not cleaned off it. The government is unable to cope with the river pollution, the rising living cost, the chaotic spatial framework, the gridlock traffic, and the struggling industries. In fact, a heavy rain can make the urban system collapse, revealing the acute problems of the city. This is the seventh mistake in Beijing's development.
The Eighth Mistake: The Loss of Urban Heritage
Beijing has a long history, however, save and except for the few overcrowded hutongs and the very few "Beijing symbols" scattered around, Beijing is just an "ordinary modern city" without any obvious historical character. In addition to major construction and demolition in the past, which destroyed the city walls and memorial arch, the recent urbanization is taking up too much historical space in the inner city. Many Beijing-style buildings were demolished, damaging the texture and landscape of this city.
History and culture are the most valuable assets of a city, which is why they are called "cultural property". In any city, every protected cultural asset and its surrounding land and buildings will appreciate drastically, reflecting the value of cultural property. For example, although Shanghai's Xintiandi is not very well designed in terms of its historical and cultural elements, the presence of these elements makes it a great success and huge influence. Beijing had lost too many historical treasures in exchange for the short-lived "modern scene" which is full of urban problems. This is the eighth serious mistakes made by Beijing.
The Ninth Mistake: Americanization of the City.
Each city has its spatial scale, reflecting and representing its very own style. Be it Shikumen residence or Siheyuan residence, they each have their own unique spatial scales and styles. The problem with Beijing lies with its blind Americanization. With the large city space of 16,000 square kilometers, Beijing expanded horizontality regardless of the consequences. Beijing wantonly followed the American's spatial scale by building wide roads, large parking lots as well as high-rise building and adopted suburbanized commercial layout with large but impractical commercial blocks.
The American-style urban planning had materialized through the hands of China's top planning authority as the government officials were eager for development. Having first adopted the experience from the Soviet Union and subsequently changed to American style, Beijing has gradually lost its historical style, and people are forced to live in a high-carbon environment, spend a lot of time on commuting every day, and life becomes unbearable boring. This is Beijing's ninth serious mistake.
The Tenth Mistake: The Ill-designed Capital City.
Anyone who lives in Beijing for some time would soon notice the problems and defects of the city. For decades, a series of urban planning approved by the construction department of the State Council has only made things worse. As a dual-function city, apart from being a big city, Beijing has to function as a capital, which makes Beijing different from other cities. For a long time, Beijing has been considered more as an ordinary "city" but less as a "capital". As a result, Beijing has too many defects to effectively satisfy the need of the "big politics" in discharging its roles as a big country's "capital".
We have to concede, throughout China's architect community, there is no local equivalent of Oscar Niemeyer, a Brazilian designer that "understood politics". For a very long period of time, the Beijing's political leaders had little understanding on architecture and they failed to appreciate the importance of urban aesthetics and likewise the Beijing's architects failed to grasp the politics. The difference in ideology have sparked the conflict and worsened the problems on urban development. As a result, though Beijing is an enormous city, its "capital element" was confined to a block less than one square kilometer (Tiananmen), making it the tenth serious mistake in Beijing's development.
Of course, these "ten mistakes" are far from sufficient to describe all the problems troubling this thousand-year-old city, there are still much more yet to be discussed. For Beijing, even with the great compassion of Buddha, the real life problems of the ordinary people could not be solved. When faced with problems, "ordinary people" usually "take a stand". When it comes to Beijing's development, it is certainly true Beijing has achieved something and likewise it had encountered many problems. At the very least, the Beijing's experience can be a great and profound lesson to this round "urbanization movement" around the globe – the human race should realize what the most valuable thing is during urbanization.
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