Beijing from above, confusing much? (Inside of Beijing Planning Museum)
As a geography student, urban planning consistently pops up during my degree course- it’s a (surprisingly) interesting topic, involving big questions about where, why and how we want to live our lives. Which is why perhaps I was drawn to this blog on Chinasmack.com with the title ‘Google Earth used by Chinese Netizens to discuss urban planning’ in which the author claims that (shown by google earth images) Chinese cities, including Beijing, are chaotic and backward compared to even some African cities. As any family who’ve spent any time in Beijing knows, getting around this fair city can be very stressful, but is it all bad?
The subsequent debate is characteristically vitriolic and not-a-bit racist ‘what’s so good about organized [cities]in foreign countries, yet they are still not developed. Besides you are comparing Africa to China, you must be an online spy!!!’. Plus several of the commentators are quite right when they say that you cannot compare cities by screenshots on Google earth. But the topic does raise an interesting debate: Is Beijing planning really better or worse than other cities, and if so why/why not?
Here’s my two pence:
The key to the argument used in the blog seems to be on the relative merits of the ‘grid-iron’ planning layout: Addis Ababa is grid-iron, Guangzhou is not. Does this mean the former is better designed? Not necessarily. Beijing’s block approach to the main roads has both good and bad points. On the one hand the city is conveniently divided up for political purposes, the local government use this pretty efficiently with representatives in each of the areas, and it can help to establish neighbourhoods where areas are delimited by roads. It is also relatively simple to orientate yourself in the city using the road names, and heavy duty transport in and out of the city can do so along the major axis roads and round ring roads (of which there are many). On the flip side by forcing people onto a few major roads, as the number of road users increase these roads become increasingly congested. Plus if an accident happens on them then it can cause chaos (I think we’ve all seen that, especially on the Airport express), this problem is excacerbated with increasing traffic.
But aside from the roads, for a city of 13 million people the city is prety well developed. There are a number of large parks around the city; Chaoyang, Ritan, Jingshan, Tiantan etc, all of which are pumping out oxygen. Meanwhile the underground has expanded, and now covers more of the central city (outside of the 5th ring road it admittedly gets more chaotic). Manhattan and Washington DC in the USA also operate a similar grid system and that has not been a major problem for them.
So to cut to the point, the problem with Beijings planning is not so much with its layout, as the sudden and drastic change to its population. There are now more cars on the road than ever before (1,200 new cars a day in fact) and the old grid system, which has slowly been implemented sover the past 40-50 years just can’t keep up with those numbers. It is this which makes Beijing so stressful to get around by car and which (partly) causes the equally demoralising air pollution.
Beijing’s planning problem therefore was not seeing the rise of Beijingers. It is not the first city in the world to have fallen into this trap.
P.S On an altogether different note, Patrick Swayze of Dirty Dancing, Ghost fame (and to a lesser extend Point Break) died last week; ‘nobody puts Baby in a corner’.. How Sad.