China pushes for greater urban density to clear the air
A new urban blueprint raises questions about property rights “Get the popcorn, this is going to get interesting”
For years, Beijing resident Ji Ping has put up with the city’s smog, traffic, and high prices, but this could be the last straw. A government plan threatens to pull down the walls of her gated community and maybe even drive a public road through its manicured gardens. “There are already so many things I’m not happy about here,” she says. “The environment, the smog. Many of my friends have left already. Now I’m thinking about leaving, too.”
Her apartment is in Greenlake Place, a condo spread over an area almost twice the size of Yankee Stadium. It’s typical of the millions of colossal residential projects that China built during the property boom of the past 20 years—a vast walled tract of gardens and lakes, studded with giant tower blocks and patrolled by private security. The government views these oases as a waste of space, contributing to urban sprawl, traffic, and air pollution.
An urbanization blueprint announced in February aims to open up the compounds, increasing density to cut commuting distances and make way for the millions of people moving to the cities every year. With as many as 90 percent of city dwellers’ homes in these types of complexes, the stage is set for a major faceoff between President Xi Jinping’s government and the middle-class homeowners who paid premium prices for their privacy.
“Get the popcorn, this is going to get interesting,” says Carl Minzner, a professor at Fordham’s law school in New York who specializes in Chinese law and governance. “If Xi Jinping wanted to pick an issue that would intensely irritate the vested urban middle class and at the same time resonate deeply with all of those left out by China’s go-go years, he couldn’t pick a better one than this.”
For years, China has favored a Soviet-inspired urban planning system, with multilane boulevards lined with compound after compound, extending deep into the suburbs. As China’s cities grew, developers built these gated communities farther and farther away from city centers, often with few amenities such as restaurants and schools in the neighborhood. That’s left residents a long car ride away from basic services. The new plan emphasizes densely populated neighborhoods connected by public transit, with shops and offices close by to create more efficient cities with less traffic and exhaust.
Building compact cities around mass transit systems in China could stop as much as 800 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions by 2030, according to the Energy Foundation, a San Francisco nonprofit that promotes clean energy. That’s more than the combined annual emissions of Australia and Italy. With 100 million more people set to move to China’s metropolises by 2020, the government is running out of time to find a solution. “Consumption and services-based growth in China is going to be led by cities,” says Karlis Smits, an economist with the World Bank in Beijing. “If you don’t get cities right, you undermine China’s next economic rebalancing.”
The current layout of gated blocks forces traffic onto a handful of main roads usually clogged with vehicles. The northern part of Beijing has an average of 14 street intersections per square kilometer, compared with 211 in Tokyo’s Ginza district and 133 in Paris, according to a 2013 study cited by the World Bank. As sprawl has taken over, average population density—measured in people per square kilometer—in China’s cities has dropped more than 25 percent in the past decade, the World Bank said in its 2014 urbanization report. If Guangzhou, in the southern province of Guangdong, had the same population density as Seoul, it could accommodate 4.2 million more residents, while Shenzhen could fit an additional 5.3 million, the bank said.
There have already been protests over land clearances. After the urbanization plan triggered a storm of complaints from middle-class residents on social media, the government softened its tone, emphasizing that implementation would be gradual and residents’ legal rights would be respected. “There could be a lot more of that,” says Austin Williams, an architecture professor at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Suzhou. “The grand plans of the Chinese state might be scuppered on the basis of the social reality that they are dealing with.”
For Ji, walking in the gardens of Greenlake, there are more fundamental
concerns. “If we open these compounds, lower-quality people would come in and steal the flowers and throw garbage all over the place,” she says. “And if cars come through the garden, they’ll be honking their horns all the time. It will totally disturb the peace.”
The bottom line China’s gated suburbs are being threatened by an urbanization plan to increase population density and reduce traffic and smog.