Commuters line up to enter the Tiantongyuan North Subway Station in Beijing at about 7:30 am. Located between the Fifth and Sixth Ring Roads, the station is crowded during the morning rush hour as local residents head to work downtown. Image: China Daily
The large amount of empty housing stock is well noted in China but less so the difficulties of those who do live in underpopulated areas. The “build it and they will come approach” has unsurprisingly failed again, with suburban districts empty even around the primary cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen. People need to live near jobs, schools and social facilities and until these are in place attracting residents is problematic. However, putting all these systems in place before there are residents is equally difficult. Nearly every edge-of-town residential development built in the last 10 years is ringed by streets of empty, generic retail property and any residents that do move in have to commute long distances back to urban centres for work, without suitable transport connections in place.
Of course these kind of failings have been common place in urban development planning all over the world for much of the 20th Century, so how is it that China could repeat these well documented mistakes of the past? To my mind it has been down to a lack of experience and plain old inertia. Project proponents and decision makers in both public and private sectors have been incredibly poorly informed of the long term issues of their development proposals, with few having any experience of what may have happened elsewhere in the past and not being qualified to grasp the huge complexities of massive scale planning. Most have as a result merely repeated the mistakes of the past, being the only reference to which they can relate. Those professionals on whom they have relied on for advice have been equally lacking in requisite experience but have been well positioned to benefit in advising. Development has been based on pretty pictures, the rush to cash in on the building boom and a lack of any time for deep thinking and co-ordination.
The government still intends to urbanise most of the rural population into mega cities by 2050, but this will just exacerbate the problems that are starting to appear from typical recent planning policies. Throughout history towns and cities have always developed where there is work available and have rapidly disappeared once it has gone.