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Capital Congestion: Beijing Deals with Overcrowding

As the capital of the nation with the world's fastest growing economy, Beijing has been a treasure trove of opportunities for international profit hunters, as well as for the vast number of Chinese who aspire to a better life. For these people, the economic charm of Beijing is attributed mainly to its status as the hub of the country's political power.

According to a ranking published in 2004 by the Institute of Policy and Management of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing is the third most habitable of 50 Chinese cities surveyed, coming right after Shenzhen and Guangzhou. This ranking is based on six criteria: present economic development, economic potential, social welfare network, environment, quality of life and daily living facilities.

Another livability survey conducted by Business Weekly and the Horizon Research Group and published in February 2005 was conducted using face-to-face interviews with 3,212 residents of ten cities: Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Wuhan, Chengdu, Shenyang, Xi'an, Jinan, Dalian and Xiamen.

One-fourth of the respondents who favored Beijing as the most habitable city attributed this to the city's advantages as the nation's capital. However, in terms of environment Beijing dropped to seventh place, and was ranked as the noisiest city with the poorest afforestation.

For Beijing's 15 million residents, the biggest complaints are about the exceedingly high traffic volume and high population density.

A recent online habitability survey conducted by www.beijing.gov.cn drew 9,080 voters in two months. Most complaints from these respondents were about the city's traffic and migrant population management. Those who live in the central city said Beijing suffered from "five too's": too many people, too much traffic, too costly housing, too high cost of living and too bad climate.

Most of these complaints are connected with the city's unusually high population density: 14,694 people per square kilometer in its urban areas, compared with 8,811 for New York, 8,071 for Paris and 4,554 for London.

Since 1949, Beijing's downtown area has expanded 4.9 times; in the same period, the inner-city population has nearly quadrupled.

Wu Liangyong, a professor at Tsinghua University's School of Architecture and academician at both the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and Chinese Academy of Engineering (CAE), attributes this phenomenon to the city's mode of urban planning and development.

The Beijing government drafted and implemented its first urban plan from 1950 to 1954 with the help of Soviet experts and based on Moscow's urban planning. This plan was based on the "spider city" model in which the central areas, surrounded by concentric ring roads, perform important employment functions in such sectors as administration, business and commerce, culture and education. Residential areas are mainly on the outskirts, with a growing number of satellite towns to provide housing for people working in the downtown areas.

The old city -- the area within the second ring road -- was the center of urban planning and development in the 1950s. It occupied an area of 600 square kilometers, was able to accommodate six million people, and had several satellite towns in the suburban areas. A transportation network consisting of the first, second, third and fourth ring roads linked by radial lines was incorporated in the 1954 draft.

The second round of urban planning started in 1958. For political reasons, there was a trend toward weakening the status and function of big cities and reducing the gap between urban and rural areas. During this period, the population in the central areas fell from 6 million to 3.5 million and the number of satellite towns swelled.

In 1993, the State Council approved the Beijing Urban Comprehensive Plan (1991–2010). Emphasis has since been placed on diluting the excessively concentrated downtown population and economy. Construction has been more focused on the suburban areas and the satellite towns, intended to be relatively independent of the inner-city area, are more carefully and strategically planned.

Traffic congestion inside the third ring road is the biggest headache to Beijing, with that area contributing more than 60 percent of the entire city's traffic volume. The area within the second ring road contributes a whopping 47 percent, meaning that 6 percent of the city's area creates nearly half of its traffic.

Previous planners failed to anticipate the tremendous growth that would take place in the capital. The Beijing Urban Comprehensive Plan (1991–2010), approved by the State Council in 1993, predicted that Beijing's population would be 15 million by 2010. But the actual population had reached 14.9 million by the end of 2004, six years ahead of schedule.

The annual population increase was 2.2 percent from 1990 to 2003. At this rate, Beijing's population will reach 21 million by 2020, posing a daunting task for the city's urban planners.

On January 12 this year, the State Council approved the Beijing Urban Comprehensive Plan (2004–2020).

Unlike its predecessors, which focused on the construction of economic centers, the plan for the first time incorporates concept of building a "habitable Beijing."

According to the new plan, the optimum total population is set to be around 18 million by 2020. This means massive population relocation.

The 2004–2020 plan incorporates such ideas as "developing new cities and several urban function centers" and "stringently limiting the scale of urban construction in the central areas."

According to the plan, 1.1 million of the people now living in the central areas -- nearly half of them in the old city -- will move outside the fourth ring road in the next 15 years. They will join the more than 3 million expected in the future to be lodged in the new satellite cities, which are designed to accommodate 3.5 million, and in the outskirt areas, which can handle 1.4 million people.

On March 24, the 19th Session of the Beijing Municipal People's Congress' 12th Standing Committee enacted a regulation designed to limit the population in the downtown areas and encourage more residents to move to the suburbs.

It is the first time Beijing has facilitated its urban planning through legislature. By 2020, only about 10 percent of the total population, or 1.9 million people, will be living in the downtown areas.

This time, Beijing is determined to carry on the saga of improving its habitability through to a desirable end.

(China.org.cn by Wind Gu April 4, 2005)


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