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In ancient times Beijing built towering
city walls that helped to prevent
undefendable sprawl. These days it
builds ring roads, stretching built-
up areas ever outward. Near Lang-
fang, a city halfway between the
capital and its giant neighbour, Tian-
jin, bulldozers dip their heads and
cement mixers churn, paving the next circular
expressway. When complete the 560-mile
Seventh Ring Road will surround Beijing at
such a distance that most of it will run through
the neighboring province of Hebei, to which
Langfang belongs, rather than the capital itself.
Parts of it are 108 miles from Beijing s cen-
tre.The Seventh Ring Road-really the sixth, but
for obscure reasons there is no First Ring Road,
is emblematic of modern Chinese cities: giant,
sprawling and dominated by cars. Even before
it is completed, in a year or two, and its use
is assessed, another, even longer orbital is
Like many of China s infrastructure projects,
the new road displays engineering prowess.
The country s successes in urban planning are
Breakneck urban growth has propelled
China s rise in the past three decades. Migration
from the countryside has helped expand the
urban population by 500 million, the biggest
movement of humanity the planet has seen
in such a short time. More than half the pop-
ulation is now urban. Some live in the base-
ments of apartment buildings or in shacks
built in courtyards, but Chinese cities mostly
have avoided the squalor of many develop-
The result of this urban growth is not only
that China has many large cities, more than
100 of which hold more than a million people,
but also that some are supersized. At the end
of last year the government at last acknowl-
edged the special nature of these, introducing
the term "megacity" to describe those whose
populations, including that of their satellite
towns, exceed 10 million. Of the 30 cities
worldwide that match this definition, six are
in China: Shanghai with 23 million, Beijing
with 19.5 million, Chongqing with 13 million,
Guangzhou with 12 million and Shenzhen and
Tianjin with 11 million apiece. A further 10
Chinese cities contain between 5 million and
10 million people, and at least one of these,
Wuhan, will pass 10 million within a decade.
China depends on its cities for economic
growth and innovation, but it is failing to make
the most of its largest conurbations. Medi-
um-sized agglomerations of 1.5 million to 6.5
million are outperforming bigger ones in terms
of environmental protection, economic devel-
opment, efficient use of resources and the
provision of welfare, according to McKinsey,
Meanwhile, in the bigger cities, residents
are beginning to question whether their quality
of life, which for many has improved by leaps
and bounds, will continue to do so. The giant
cities are polluted, pricey and congested. Aver-
age travel speed in Beijing is half that in New
York or Singapore.
Most of China s cities share the legacy of
a central-planning mindset in which all life
and work was centered on a single "work unit."
Cities were "built as producer centers rather
than consumer ones," said Tom Miller, author
of "China s Urban Billion: The Story Behind
the Biggest Migration in Human History" (Zed
Their planning focus was on industry, he
explained, not commerce, services or even
community. The work units are gone, but the
tradition of dehumanizing architecture persists.
Most new developments are built on giant
blocks 1,300 feet to 2,600 feet long.
China has swapped its socialist dream for
an American-style one of cars and sprawling
suburbs. The number of cars has increased
more than tenfold in the past decade, to 64
million. The combination of superblocks and
car-lust often adds up to a giant jam. Large
blocks mean fewer roads to disperse traffic.
Guidelines require a main urban road every
1,640 feet and an eight-lane road every 3,280
feet. In the case of Beijing, a ring-and-radial
system also was created, with the aim of pro-
viding speedy road access in and out of town,
bypassing city traffic and linking satellite towns.
Not a bad idea, except that workplaces have
remained concentrated in the center, so the
expressways funnel traffic into gridlock.
The ill-defined ownership
rights of farmers have
encouraged the sprawl.
Officials can expropriate
rural land easily and at
little cost. Doing so is far
cheaper than redeveloping
existing urban areas.
Industrial land is heavily subsidised, so factories
have remained in urban areas rather than move
to cheaper sites on city outskirts. The amount
of land classified as urban has more than dou-
bled since 2000, and indeed 40 per cent of
the nation s new urbanites became so when
cities engulfed their villages.
Sprawl has resulted in populations becoming
more thinly spread. China s megacities are
less dense than equivalents elsewhere in the
world. Guangzhou could contain another four
million people if it was as packed as Seoul,
and Shenzhen could be larger by five million.
Extending outward takes a toll: Slow commutes
from far-flung suburbs increase fuel con-
sumption and cut productivity.
Massive spending on infrastructure has
hugely improved connections within and
between cities, however. Since 1992 China has
spent 8.5 per cent of its national income on
infrastructure each year, far more than Europe s
and America s 2.6 per cent or India s 3.9 per
City residents still complain, though. Sub-
ways often are built as engineering projects,
said Sean Chiao of Aecom, an infrastructure
firm, with stops at set distances, rather than
where people want them to be. Buses, subways
and rail networks are poorly integrated because
separate agencies manage them.
Planners often ignore the needs of 200 mil-
lion or more residents who have no urban
hukou, the household-registration certificate
that is needed for access to public services.
Cities therefore have inadequate hospitals,
schools and affordable housing.
This year, however, the central government
has started to downplay the importance of
GDP growth in assessing the performance of
local officials. That should free them to spend
more money on making cities better places
to live, rather than on laying concrete.
Some cities now seek to limit car use. Beijing
is mulling a congestion zone. To limit pollution
and improve traffic flow, eight cities-including
all megacities except Chongqing-cap the num-
ber of new license-plates they issue. Several
cities ban some drivers one day a week. Metro
systems are fast multiplying, with Beijing alone
opening four new lines with 41 new stops in
More could be done. Parking in city centers
remains far too cheap, and laws should be
enforced to curb a habit of parking on sidewalks
or traffic islands. Buses could be made to use
the central lanes of broad boulevards. Bicycle
use should be encouraged by reintroducing
the once-ubiquitous cycle lanes.
The World Bank says that, at 54 per cent,
China s degree of urbanisation is still well
below the 70 per cent expected of a country
with its current income level per person. The
flood of migrants will continue: By 2030 Chi-
nese cities will contain more than one billion
A change of thinking will be needed to make
them better places to live in.
@2015 The Economist Newspaper Ltd. Distrib-
uted by the New York Times Syndicate
The great sprawl of China
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