Xi’s Lat­est Tar­get: The Great Sprawl of China

Cities ▶ A new ur­ban blue­print raises ques­tions about prop­erty rights ▶ “Get the pop­corn, this is go­ing to get in­ter­est­ing”

Bloomberg Businessweek (North America) - - Global Economics -

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

Chi­nese pol­i­cy­mak­ers want to re­duce air pol­lu­tion by in­creas­ing ur­ban den­sity

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