Beijing Blanket Statements (aka I Spy with My Little Eye)


Nihao from Beijing everyone!  Sorry for the lateness on this first post but since I arrived last Monday I’ve been trying to wrap my head around the wonderful, beautiful mess that is Beijing.  After a week  and a half of trekking around the city though I feel like I have a better handle on what I’m seeing and wanted to give everyone a glimpse of what it’s like here.  With the blog’s readership in mind I’ve broken down what type of planning related issues I’m seeing by the MURP program fields of study.  Just FYI; as opposed to Colin’s well researched, eloquent and extremely informative post, mine is based mostly on what I’m spying with my little eye and some very superficial research.  So if you know any of the blanket statements I make to be a little off or downright incorrect, please feel free to correct me.  Let’s get started.

Land Use

My understanding of the land use system here is that there are two types of land ownership; state owned urban land and collectively owned rural lands.  Regardless, land use rights are separate from ownership and are granted via a lease; usually 40 years for commercial property, 50 years for industrial property and 70 years for residential properties.  With China’s transformation from a centrally planned to a market-based economy in the 80’s these rights quickly became a hot commodity that could be transferred in the land market and utilized by local governments to raise revenues and finance infrastructure.   Because this revenue was not consistent though (all fees are collected at the beginning of the lease) local governments have been compelled to constantly seek new land to develop.  This transition along with the insane jump in population and a reluctance to develop in the historic city center has resulted in a rather spread out and sprawling city.  Bearing in mind that China’s most agriculturally productive lands coincide almost precisely with its most densely populated areas, you can begin to see why this is such a pressing issue.  Adding onto this dilemma is the fact that much of the development that is occurring on the periphery of the city is illegally constructed , of low quality and far from Beijing’s economic hub.


I came to Beijing with zero knowledge about its transportation network.  So I was completely unprepared for the two hours I sat in traffic on the ride from the airport to my hotel. Owning a vehicle here is like winning the lottery and this enthusiasm and excitement for the car shows in the congested streets and the persistent smog.  I was also completely unprepared for the level of entitlement that seems to come along with owning a car.  Not to knock on Beijing Transportation Planners or anything but pedestrian safety is pretty abhorrent here.  Cars often drive and park on the sidewalks, sidewalks will abruptly end or are blocked by construction sites dumping you into moving traffic and even pedestrian signals are not necessarily a signal to cross but more to let cars turning right or left know it’s their turn to go.  It’s annoying to say the least.

Driving and parking on the sidewalks….jerks…

On the other hand, transit is pretty bomb here.  The subway is pretty extensive and you almost never have to wait more than 5-10 minutes for a bus.  Whether there’s room on it or not though is another question.   Finally, the bike culture here is pretty impressive.  All you ‘strong and fearless’ PDX riders don’t hold a candle to Beijing cyclists.  They can simultaneously smoke a cigarette, talk on the cell phone and eat their breakfast all while weaving in and out of a stream of entitled, reckless Audi owners.  And they’re probably doing this with 3 kids and a bag of groceries in haul.  Seriouzly.  They got skillz.


Much to the chagrin of foreign ministry officials Liu Weiman and Wang Shu’ai, the air quality here is really that bad. There’s some obvious disagreement between the People’s Republic and the U.S. as to what qualifies as poor air quality and how exactly this should be measured.  The two use completely different methods of measuring particulate matter and the U.S. Embassy has given Beijing an ‘Unhealthy’ rating almost every day for the last week I’ve been here while the Ministry of Environmental Protection of the PRC has been giving it daily ‘good’ or even ‘very good’ ratings.  Along with this, Beijing is also dealing with some pretty serious water quality and supply issues. I won’t go into this too much as this will be the focus of my research over the summer and a topic that I want to discuss in more detail later, but I will say that the water table is lowering at a frightening rate due to excessive groundwater exploitation and the city has had to invest heavily in diversion projects to provide Beijing residents with the water they need. Much more to come on this though..

Regional Economic Development

What was once an economic hot mess(that’s right) before 1978 has become the world’s second largest economy behind the U.S. and some project China’s economy will be the largest in the world by 2030. Beijing is no different and is also developing at the same break-neck pace as other cities on China’s eastern coast. Just within a quick five minute walk of our hotel I counted 14 different sites undergoing construction.  Wherever you go the walls are plastered with posters of a sleek looking development with what I would guess is the equivalent of ‘Coming Soon’ written in Mandarin.   In the richy-rich parts of the city that are seeing tons of investment it’s not uncommon to see construction crews operating well into the night.

Currently, China and Beijing both operate under the guidance of the 12th 5 year plan.  To me, the plan looks promising in that it looks beyond China’s export and real-estate industries and is instead focusing on increasing domestic consumer demand and raising incomes.  The plan also emphasises ‘higher quality growth’ that seeks to address the extensive pollution, intensive energy use and resource depletion occuring as a result of the rapid development over the last 30 years.  Finally, the concept of ‘inclusive growth’  that aims to decrease some of the vast disparities in wealth is really important in addressing some of the issues I will mention in the Community Development section.  My one concern with this is the obvious effect these increased labor costs may have on the Chinese labor force.  I don’t know if this is the case in Chongqing or Shenzen, but in Beijing every place of business is incredibly overstaffed.  The grocery and department stores have a person (sometimes two) waiting to assist you at every aisle and kiosk, every state building and hotel has a small army of front desk staff and doormen and I have never seen so many security gate guards in all my life.  I worry about what will happen to these workers with the implementation of this new plan.

Community Development

Despite the seemingly great abundance of jobs here there are definitely some obvious issues with poverty.  The most obvious example of this is the migrant worker housing at the ever present construction sites throughout the city. The living conditions for these workers are pretty terrible and saddening .  I’ve seen three different types of makeshift housing to accommodate these workers.  Most often they are living in what looks like shipping containers that have been altered to have multiple ‘floors’.  The other type of housing that is pretty common and the most luxurious of the three is some pretty horrible looking pre-fabricated, temporary multi-family  units.  At least these have walls and windows though.  And finally the worst seems to be just a large tent with sheets of plywood laid across cinder blocks.  If you peek inside you can see that some have bedding laid on top and mosquito nets hung from the ceiling and once in awhile a little crock pot or coal burning stove.

The most luxurious migrant worker housing

Housing here is a complex and confusing topic that I have yet to delve into  but suffice to say that affordability and adequate stock are huge concerns.  In general it seems that while the Chinese government has made impressive progress toward addressing the severe shortage of housing experienced in the most rapidly growing cities, this expanding stock has been accompanied by a rapid increase in housing prices making it difficult for low and middle income class households to own and further aggrevating the migrant worker housing issue. This trend has been particularly drastic in Beijing and Shanghai where average commodity housing prices rose by about 300% between 2000 and 2010 and home prices are currently about 14 times the average annual household disposable income. With China’s urban population expected to climb from approximately 50% to 70% or 80% (about 300-400 million additional people moving to cities)in the next two decades the demand for adequate housing will continue to be a salient issue for Chinese planners.


That’s all I got for now.  I look forward to exploring these issues in greater depth and sharing my findings with you all.




One thought on “Beijing Blanket Statements (aka I Spy with My Little Eye)

  1. Really thorough and well researched post Shavon! Housing prices are a very big issue here Chongching as well. In the city center older buildings housing the city’s poorest residents sit next to amazing skyscrapers and high end fashion malls. With the lease values for this land at unprecedented highs, the question is what happens to those people if the old buildings they inhabit are redeveloped? The hope is that a solution can be found to allow them to stay in their communities, but there seems to be few examples for how this can be achieved, both in China and in the West.


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