Beijing’s Urban Form Conundrum

Satellite images taken from Baidu Maps give a good impression of the segregation in Beijing's development

For all the capital’s draws as a center of history, culture and politics, and despite the palpable sense of energy that comes from being at the heart of a country on the rise, Beijing is not a particularly livable city. Pollution aside, the city has horrendous traffic, is almost entirely un-walkable, and has few neighborhoods that offer their own cohesive culture. In my view the problem is one of poor urban planning. Perhaps the most fundamental, and harmful, trend is how the city’s form of residential and business development creates heartless, non-cohesive communities in a symbiotic relationship with an overburdened transportation system.

The first thing to note about Beijing is the presence of single-use super blocks. In the wake of economic reforms and the marketization of the housing market Beijing underwent massive redevelopment and growth. The result was sprawl and the building of seemingly endless miles of high-rise apartments in some places, particularly to the north of the city, and endless miles of office parks in others.

Uniform housing blocks in the Hui Long Guan neighborhood to Beijing's north

In and of itself building lots of apartments should be a good thing, and most people’s actual living conditions improved. Perusing some academic papers shows that average home size, and the normal number of bedrooms and bathrooms all increased. In addition, new office blocks have meant more job opportunities and better facilities. And while all that is good, the particular form of these developments creates some serious problems.

A new office park and "innovation center" in the Northwest. Notice the lack of road connectivity.

First, is the big picture problem that residents invariably live far away from their place of work, meaning long commutes. Adding to people’s transportation burden is the fact that most of these residential compounds are almost always single-use, containing very few shops and restaurants, and almost always walled-off from the surrounding area with a limited number of, usually guarded, gates. In addition to hindering community social cohesion this means people have to walk long distances along barren streets just to get to local businesses. This makes for drab communities and stressful lives going back and forth between dull, disconnected places.

The impact on general quality of life from less accessibility and the segregating of people from uses is compounded by the negative impact on the city’s transportation system. Not only do people have to travel further to work, they have to travel further to accomplish just about any activity. This means more people using the transportation system more often going longer distances. Adding a further negative factor is that these developments are often intentionally cut-off from the city road-system which forces traffic through choke-points and onto a few major through roads, all further aggravating traffic.

This is an extreme example of how housing developments are isolated from the road network. It is completely cut-off on three sides and has only one entrance.

Taken together, this means a huge demand on the transportation system. It’s a style of development that relies on massive roads to accommodate ever growing volume, which Beijing has dully provided. Ironically, building more, bigger roads in many ways contributes to pressure on the transit system; big roads act as barriers, further cutting people off from potential destinations and forcing them onto the transit system.

Beijing's development pattern relies on big highways that often further cut-off neighborhoods. Notice how few roads cross the highway.

The result of course is Beijing’s notorious traffic, which has led the government to take well-publicized restrictive measures, including limiting the number of new license plates issued each month and enforcing a system of rotating no-travel days for Beijing drivers.

Probably the only thing keeping this system running is Beijing’s veritable army of buses. While Beijing has a pretty good subway system and the city is commendably working hard to expand it in a big way, buses are the work horse of the system, with somewhere close to 1,000 lines.

That’s Beijing’s fundamental problem, and, by extension, most Chinese cities’. It’s nothing new—it’s the American model of Atlanta, Houston, and LA to a tee—and my attitude toward it is basically a page out of the New Urbanism handbook that is the source of terms like livability and the vaunting of cities like Portland. Still, while the message seems to have been received in the US, Beijing is continuing down the path of dis-integrated, single-use, transit-heavy growth. Even as Chinese cities embrace more progressive planning ideas, like public bike-share in Hangzhou and official support for green building certification programs, the fundamental model hasn’t changed. I hope it will.

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