Expansion and Exclusion - Beijing as an art piece

Expansion and exclusion

By Neville Mars

Beijing as an art piece.

This is a story about Beijing, not about the myth of Beijing. This is about the real city, a city that grows along predictable patterns, illustrating typical Chinese development. . The myth of the modern Beijing is fed by projects such as the Olympic Village, the CBD and 798. The mere fact of their existence hopes to elevate the city to the global economy and cultural forum, their accomplishments spilling over to the rest of the city, improving the urban reality as time goes by. But 798 for one, as an incubator for art, critical culture and grass-roots innovations is no more. 798 is dead. The cause, one can argue, is authorities taking charge of its once self-organizing community. Perhaps it is just generic gentrification. DIAF, 798’s art festival has spread across the city and so it should be. If the myth of Beijing is to be realized, it’s time to look beyond the dozen dream projects at the city as a whole.

Slow progress
The city is man’s greatest invention. At ten thousand years old, the city is the framework of human civilization, the breeding ground of our trade and culture. Throughout history emerging cities have been planned, structured and designed, only to be restructured and redesigned as they developed. Ancient cities adapted to new technologies (sometimes with ease, often with force) to incorporate train tracks, air and seaports, logistic centers, tunnels, bridges, CBDs, entire transportation hubs, brain-parks and eco-belts. Our homes have been stacked into skyscrapers, our roads wound into clever knots of perfect curvature. Buildings have become flexible, facades inter-active, factories converted into museums, shopping internalized and historic centers preserved. As cities grow bigger and wealthier they continue to grow smarter, with more advanced technologies orchestrating their complex traffic flow, safeguarding against calamities, streamlining operations and managing over-all social and environmental well being.

Today the city has drawn 3 billion people within its urban realm. This is the ultimate proof of its intelligent planning and continued success. Or is it? If we were to design the perfect city, would it look anything like New York, Tokyo, Paris, Cairo, Sao Paolo or indeed modern Beijing? Would it suffer from severe congestion and pollution? Could it be made to serve the needs of all its citizens, instead of just a happy few? Would it big or small? Would it grow along with the economy, or would it be fixed, forever frozen in its perfect shape and size?

If only we could dream up what the perfect city should be, if only it was the actual product of our imagination: the designed city. Instead, we are caught in an eternal struggle to keep pace with the city’s self-creating urge to upgrade, expand, enlarge and encroach. Cities around the world suffer from shrinkage, but not (yet) in China. Here, we continue to escape the city only to be swallowed up again. Decades behind, China is catching up fast; unfolding in a fashion not too different from the American Dream that once was. The centers slowly grow more sophisticated and smart; the new-fangled peripheries stretch out in a mix of mind-numbing suburban typologies.

The Dynamic City
Urban design is only about keeping pace with reality. Indeed, at the Chinese speed of development, the practice of planning often equates to post-planning – retroactively justifying the emerged conditions, of which Beijing is a case in point. In 1958, after Beijing’s first decade of explosive growth under the Communist regime, extensive plans were drawn up to curb the city’s expansion and decentralize its growth. No less than forty new satellite cities were planned and population targets set. It wasn’t successful: the number of citizens kept swelling; the satellites never came to be. Steadily the proposed number of satellites dropped to 23, then 14, and then 11. Today three, those based upon pre-existing neighboring towns, remain investment-worthy. Over the same time period the population of Beijing more than quadrupled. This legacy, the production of proposals overridden by reality the very day they are presented, lives on. Beijing illustrates that in a market-driven context it is difficult to steer urban development in any planned direction. The sum of all the meticulously designed blocks and neighborhoods, roads and parks amount to just another big flaccid creature.

To design cities from scratch is even harder. Throughout the ages nations on the boom have attempted to define a formula for the perfect city; first in static plans, then with growth models along axis and vistas or fingers and strips. In contemporary China the favorite formulas include sub-centers, satellites and split cities. But the new city, from Brasilia to Marne La Valleé, has had a surprisingly bad track record. In reality, the success of the city, of the urban condition, comes with its ability to evolve; this is what makes the Metropolis intelligent. For better or for worse the modern city is a self-regulating, responsive system of supply and demand, all of its parts integrated in its equation. Take one block out, a bigger one will grow. Cut a road, diversions will occur. Invest in an area and rents will increase. But this wholeness doesn’t make the city designed – even if it were, this design wouldn’t be intelligent. Admittedly this is a bitter pill to take for a city and a nation bent on redesigning in entirety its cityscapes in a matter of two decades.

We observe the metropolis closer than ever. We probe her, monitor, chart and measure her progress. Slowly but surely we can define the city’s unique genetic constitution. Researchers – mainly outside the architectural field – are becoming better at predicting how the city will grow. This research provides designers with the tools to plan work within the anticipated urban form, rather than in opposition to it. But this in truth still doesn’t take into account the city as a whole organism. We analyze its anatomy, and then design alterations street-by-street, block-by-block, unable to imagine every detail, unable to control the outcome and effect upon the larger entity. Yet, undoubtedly, tackling problems such as congestion must encompass the complete system, all operations. Different elements of the city are interdependent: the size of the urban grid determines building typologies, which in turn effect urban density, further undermining public transportation accessibility, dispersion of work and living spaces, and so on. Furthermore, the chain is not definitely a linear one – any change will effect the development of the whole system. Change all the conditions or maybe just a few and the city is reengineered a new creature, a new Beijing. So, one must ask, at what point are alterations so profound that the city’s fundamental core is altered, its genetic chain recoded?

Modifying the metropolis
The buzz and debate of the 90s has settled. We have come to terms with the untamable city. Yet the question remains: how do we structurally improve the morphing urban landscape? To deal either with existing urban tissue or to expand the city’s footprint each requires different tools. If the metropolis has a mind of its own, one needs precise tools that can gradually redirect development and create insertions the city won’t reject. Equally, new cities and satellites are not static entities. Their ongoing growth should be anticipated, orchestrated by a framework from the start. (The Manhattan grid springs to mind. Projected on an agricultural island with blatant hubris, it has experienced a structured evolution from farmland to a dense cosmopolitan center.) However, this logic doesn’t seem to apply to Chinese cities. Their transformation is achieved either by superimposing big plans right on top of the existing city, or by the split city model: attaching an entirely new district to the side, leaving the old part to fend for itself. This is in contrast to the West, where dense regulations and a heavy consensus have minimized the impact of planning. In Beijing both of these planning models occur simultaneously at a large scale. With brute force Beijing’s anatomy is fundamentally transformed. Streets are widened; apartment blocks and office towers of entirely new proportions inserted. An immensely coarse fabric replaces the once incredibly fine fabric. All the urban elements are bigger, but are also spread farther apart. This has structurally transformed Beijing and as a result it operates differently. The coarseness makes the city hostile to the pedestrian. This is amplified by inner-city highways that cut downtown areas into isolated neighborhoods surrounded by giant walls of infrastructure.

The modern image of Beijing hinges on these mega-avenues aligned by mega-buildings and stepping stone projects. From the air Beijing reads like a belt of modernity that encircles a historic center (still being eroded), all embedded in a broad zone of dormitory blocks. (These living quarters define the majority of the cityscape and as such are arguably the essence of the ‘real’ Beijing. Yet this expanse of the capital seems to fall between the cracks of the planning debate.) Beyond the Fifth Ring Beijing extends in thick fingers of suburban high-rise and a puzzling amalgamation of villa-parks and village factories looming in clouds around them. Yet none of these realities seem to tarnish the myth of Beijing. Even though the target audience is very diverse, the city’s official image is projected with astonishing effectiveness, attracting foreigners as potential tourists/corporate investors, turning the Chinese middle-class into first time home-owners, and pacifying the migrant labor force with the persistent dream of progress and urban contentment in the horizon.

Stepping-stone planning, the insertion of mass-scale cornerstone projects, plays a central role in this strategy. In a context so pressured for fast development, it’s an obvious tool enabling government to take total control. But these big leaps pose a double threat. Architectural projects have swollen to the point they have taken over the scale of urban planning, its role all but negated. Residential compounds have privatized their public space and internalized their road systems – their walled-in streets converge to release cars through a single gate onto the highway. Moreover these star projects draw attention and planning in, away from any efforts to look at the city as a continuous spatial network. Increasingly the schism between icons and generic Beijing widens. The myth moves further away from reality.

The manifestation of Exploding Beijing.
Remarkably both the surge of infrastructure and the progressive fragmentation of the urban fabric are augmented by the same over-arching campaign to curb Beijing’s congestion. Since the 1980s, the expansion of the footprint of Beijing (and flattening of its density curve) from a once compact capital to what is commonly known as the Beijing pancake, has dramatically accelerated. The urban mass has effectively been redistributed over a vast plane and dispersed into small insular patches. In conjunction with the explosion of Beijing’s urban mass, its inhabitants are relocating to the periphery. They consist partly of middle- and upper class citizens following the exodus to the suburbs and partly of the floating migrant population. Without urban citizenship rights, this population is relocated by force from the crammed hutongs of “Lao Beijing” to cheap, inaccessible suburban compounds. Unlike the American suburb this delivers a diverse periphery of high contrast, not in an endless carpet of single homes, but rather clear blotches of walled settlements, be it rich or poor. They orbit around the core in a near perfect gradient of increasingly small patches. Trace these and the footprint of the city no longer resembles any of its maps. Shaped like a star stretching 80 kilometers in either direction, its circumference – the curving edges bordering the countryside – extends over 6000 kilometers.

The manifestation of Commuting Beijing
By 2020, a staggering extension of the infrastructural network should be in place. The transition to an open market has mobilized China’s work force. Beijing leapfrogs from one urban structure to a vastly different other: from the cellular urban structure, the “danwei,” or single-unit structure, characterized by impeccable spatial alignment between work and living quarters leaping to the suburban enclave, a cellular structure based upon complete separation and isolation. As a result, the numbers of daily commutes follow suit with the congestion of all transport systems. Any attempt to curb the city’s growth or to achieve a new alignment (aiming for some form of dispersion or independent settlements such as urban villages) is at odds with the intrinsic nature of the city: to facilitate connections! The city is the spatial network that accelerates people’s chances to interact, trade and collaborate.

To keep pace with the number of commutes in private cars, road surface is continually expanded. To simply maintain car density at current levels would require the daily construction of a three-lane, 10-kilometer stretch of road to serve the 1,500 new cars. Simultaneously a track-based mass-transit system will be established, larger than any subway light-rail network currently existing in the world. This will make Beijing a unique infrastructural hybrid of a vast network of broad roads and long tracks.

These two ambitious transformations, one centrally planned and one more accidental, are radically altering the constitution of Beijing. An infrastructural hybrid sounds good enough, but how can it answer to the increasingly coarse and fragmented urban texture of Exploding Beijing? How can we scrutinize its myth? How can one assess Beijing’s expanding periphery, when maps can’t be made fast enough? Or simply put: How should the modern metropolis be evaluated?

In the daily realities of Beijing life one acknowledges that most of the city is out of reach. From any position the city casts a pattern of blind spots – places too inaccessible to treat as regular destinations. Maybe you have a nice apartment on the east Fourth Ring; this makes it impossible to visit your friends in Fengtai district other than on the weekends. It is simply too far, too cumbersome. If you can afford a cab, you’ll have to be prepared to spend the morning in traffic. Public transportation is inexpensive but even slower and very uncomfortable. For all its complexity the efficiency of the metropolis can be reduced to its accessibility – the effectiveness of the connections it produces. In other words, the means, travel time and distance define urban accessibility for commuters and consumers.

Beijing’s congestion, though still in its infancy, is generally regarded as the city’s biggest problem, followed directly by air pollution. But if we consider the recent overhaul – the rigorous redesigning of Beijing – congestion can only be regarded as a symptom of the problem. We need to consider the root cause of congestion: the increasing inaccessibility of the city.

Beijing’s famous ring roads, numbered 2 to 6, already have a combined surface-area substantially larger than the entire historic heart of the city. To simply add more road surface will not reduce congestion, nor increase accessibility. Beijing’s road coverage does not equal the average of the West, neither does its car-ownership. The coarse inhospitable texture of Beijing means that for many citizens, the stations of the planned network will remain too inaccessible to be a comfortable alternative to the car. Yet, in fact, Beijing traffic researchers estimate the bus will still remain the principal mode of transport. For decades to come, as much as 80% of public transportation journeys will be made by bus. This statistic is likely to be accurate, as more and more residential compounds are built far beyond the light rail network’s reach and as large numbers of unofficial citizens increase in the periphery’s temporary settlements.

Insertion and contraction

The title of this article, “Expansion and Exclusion” suggests a direct link between the spreading of Beijing’s footprint and social segregation. Opportunities are not equally distributed and are often out of reach. Spatial disconnections and gaps are contributing to the disparity of wealth. Car communities are fenced off, neighborhoods monotonous, and street life disappearing. Beijing’s arteries are designed solely for technocratic and political objectives – to streamline the throbbing traffic and for prestige and war. This is not public space. Official public space is formalized, equally fenced off and controlled, in mega-parks. Opportunities for chance encounters, the type of social interaction at the core of urban existence, need a certain trait of friction, a certain smallness, and thus are steadily lost. The vast amount of residual space, the nooks and crannies of mega-infrastructure is what remains for Beijing’s bottom strata to wander and sift through.

Can we put Beijing back together again? With the inner-city highways in place, a solution for the rebirth of a pedestrian-friendly city– to patch the city back together – is almost unthinkable, an impossibility. However observant of future growth patterns designs might be, a split city approach of new developments in the suburbs will openly aggravate the commuting times of the entire city. And so, infrastructure is the remaining tool to reengineer the metropolis. I propose a precise insertion, using only the surface above Beijing’s ring roads. But yes, it needs to be BIG. If this comes as a surprise, some nuance is in order. However unreliable, Big thinking surely is not lacking in China, nor is long-term planning. But for the most part China’s fondness for bigness amounts to crude architecture and brutal infrastructure. Our plea is for smaller building projects that give detail, diversity, and definition to the urban space and interact with the public domain.

We have developed a hybrid transit system that accelerates pedestrians to the speed of a train. The D-rail combines travelators (flat escalators) with Maglev (magnetic levitation train) technology. The D-rail runs as a single continuous carriage around the city, its head connecting to its tail. There are no stations, it never stops, and you never have to wait. Commuters can get on board at any point on the loop. This pedestrian fast-lane hovers in a glass tube over Beijing’s Ring Roads; a small one on the Third Ring and a larger stacked D-rail on top of the Fourth Ring Road, comprising retail, a rooftop park and arms stretching out to surrounding cityscape. The D-rail makes the highway space the pedestrian zone, re-linking neighborhoods, utilizing the urban no-man’s land. It is a big attempt to bridge Beijing’s gaps, a giant gesture to connect, diversify and dramatically shrink the urban network.

The role of the D-rail is to absorb the millions of citizens living outside of the Fourth Ring commuting to and through the center every day. Public buses, the real mass-movers of today and tomorrow are already congesting the streets of downtown Beijing as they amass from the larger region within the center. The D-rail halts regional buses on the Fourth Ring to offer immediate transportation to any point along the ring and further with dedicated transportation to the city center. Every three minutes the D-rail decelerates, the doors open all along its 64 kilometers-long magnetic track. People transfer to local travel belts moving at the same speed, choosing escalators up to the rooftop park or down into the retail decks. Beijing’s massive Fourth Ring Road becomes a prime destination.

The hub is the heart
Infrastructure is the way to modify the modern metropolis, but how can one accommodate the 5 to 10 million additional residents expected in the capital over the next two decades? If any urban extension further aggravates transport, can we contain Beijing, and curb its brutal urge to grow?

In absolute terms there is no need for Beijing to expand more then 30 meters outwards for its 2020 population to live comfortably. This minor expansion along its 6000-kilometer perimeter of bits and pieces would provide sufficient new living space. However we can assume a city has its own tendencies, and in Beijing these are exacerbated by policies and bogus, speculative investments. The total surface of development zones expected by 2030 will fill the entire rural plane between Beijing and Tianjin.

The only natural way to curb Beijing’s expansion is by stimulating its growth according to its anticipated round footprint – not outwards, but by coaxing growth inwards along the backbone of mass transportation, along the D-rail. Within the Third, Fourth and Fifth Ring Roads densities should not decrease but increase. People should not be moved out of the historic center, but rather the commuter-dependent office buildings relocated, beginning with Beijing’s four hundred car-swamped government buildings and institutes. Moving urban function out of the center is the most effective way to curb peak congestion. Their new location: the Fourth Ring Road. Their new mode of transport: the D-rail.

Planning the relocation of the administrative center is not new. In fact, it has a history not unlike Beijing’s satellites. Only, when Liang Sicheng presented his plans for a new city center, in an attempt to create modern space without disrupting the fine hutong fabric, he was blacklisted.

The time may finally be ripe. The Fourth Ring is already a booming belt of modern apartment compounds, Zhoungguancun and the CBD. The D-rail would be the catalyst to connect all of these scattered points, a transport hub and retail loop supported by millions of daily commuters. With a linear park on its roof decks it’s positioned right where Beijing’s first green belt was once intended. The relocated government offices, museums, schools and institutes complete the network of connection, the critical mass needed to make a truly diverse new center of the capital.

Imagine walking through the Circle Center with the option to travel anywhere else in the city almost instantly. Unrestricted, uninhibited, you wander from shops to bars, through the lobby of a hotel, past the offices of a bank or business, always comfortably inside and always free. This is the experience of a public pedestrian network connecting the buildings to an efficient pedestrian realm. Yet, this is nothing new for China; Hong Kong has a beautiful pedestrian passage in place. But the Circle Center with the D-rail at its core could be something of a different order and appropriate to Beijing’s impressive reality. It will revive Beijing with a double by-pass and a new lung in order to grow a vibrant new heart!




城市是人类文明最伟大的创举。经过一万年,历经兴衰的城市俨然成为人类文明的框架,是文化与商业的温床。历史上的城市被规划、改造、再规划、再改造…… 城市总有它存在与发展的理由。今天,新技术的应用、新概念的引入让承载着不同历史的城市千姿百态。轨道交通、空港河港、后勤中心、隧道、高架桥、中心商务区、交通节点、科技园以及生态保护带等等带来了传统城市的新生(有时轻而易举、有时武力相加)。我们的家叠加而成了摩天大楼,道路扭结成完美的螺旋,工厂变成博物馆,建筑富于弹性,立面变得互动,购物活动室内化,历史街区被保护……随着城市空间的拓展和财富的增长,它们也越来越聪明,高科技被应用于复杂的交通指挥与灾害预防,关照社会与环境的福祉。





















北京著名的环路,从二环到六环的总占地面积比紫禁城还大。简单地增加道路面积并不能缓解交通拥堵或增加可达性。北京的道路覆盖率并不及西方的平均水平,私家车的人均拥有量也不及。然而北京粗放式的城市结构意味着交通网络的节点极不可达,相对于舒适的私人汽车来说全无可比性。然而学者预测,公共汽车仍将是未来的主要交通方式。在数十年内, 80%的出行仍将依赖公共汽车。这一预测相当可信,因为越来越多的居住区在轨道交通还未到达的地方拔地而起,而大量的流动人口也将聚集在城市的边缘地带。

Posted by neville mars / 8.9 years ago / 28329 hits