The growing wealthy class notwithstanding, there are clearly many whose needs are being ignored. If Beijing developers lowered their sights somewhat and addressed the needs of a heterogeneous and growing middle class, they might enjoy sustained growth and avoid the boom and bust cycles experienced in the United States.
In American cities, older buildings in prime locations are frequently upgraded to compete with new construction. But in Beijing, many upgradable structures are being razed to make way for more expensive buildings, needed or not. Offering tenants a greater choice of working environments would also provide a better indicator of true market conditions.
New Patterns of Land Use
Current efforts to create a single central business district (CBD) for downtown Beijing seem forced and indifferent to potential commercial nodes in and around the city. Development of multiple nodes of activity within Beijing could spur diverse construction, reduce traffic congestion, and provide specialized environments for businesses that benefit from proximity to one another.
Planners here could look to New York as an example of how a mature city can develop, with different districts for commercial, financial, and entertainment activities. The west side of Beijing, for example, offers many advantages to businesses in the financial sector; it could become the city's "Wall Street."
With all due respect for the venerable Chinese culture, there are other elements of urban growth in the United States that might be workable here as well. Although most American cities have a CBD, there is another trend toward multiple urban cores, as in Los Angeles.
Mixed use developments that include commercial businesses allow residents to live close to their jobs. This results in less city traffic and more serene, landscaped settings for these planned developments.
Those who may think I'm advocating urban sprawl should understand the severe and growing traffic problems being experienced by suburban Beijing residents. With limited mass transit and a congested freeway system leading into the central city, it would be more reasonable to develop so-called "edge cities," as described by author Joel Garreau. Beijing's ring road system, currently being extended to a sixth ring, could support this concept.
To some extent this trend is already occurring in Beijing. Mid-rise residential communities are springing up in the countryside, with clean air, beautiful scenery, and safe environments for families. Many new developments include schools and recreational and retail amenities, reminiscent of traditional American suburban development.
I see development of multiple nodes as a natural evolution of all great cities, but it is happening here much later. Although there may be much that is right about this current trend in Beijing, their haste to develop this "new frontier" does not address some serious problems.
Having experienced these problems in the United States, I feel I can offer some insight that may help avoid some adverse consequences. First, a nodal development trend should include the establishment of nearby jobs. The distance from many of these developments to downtown Beijing is too great, even with the new roads.
Businesses wishing to expand or relocate should be encouraged to consider nodal locations outside the CBD particularly if they are less polluting businesses such as research and development and high-tech and bio-tech laboratories. By paying careful attention to the master planning of these communities and respecting existing natural features and greenery, American-style low-density sprawl can be avoided, and workable, livable cities can result.
Lawrence A. Samuelson AIA, NCARB, NBAR is a real estate development consultant and registered architect. He is currently working in Beijing, specializing in designing commercial and residential buildings and master-planning large-scale communities. He holds patents in manufactured housing systems.