Urban Spatial Patterns and Infrastructure in Beijing

As the capital city of China, Beijing is not only the nation’s political, cultural, scientific and educational center, but also one of the leading growth machines in the country. The city has experienced double-digit growth in its gross domestic product (GDP) for at least the last decade, and government revenues have increased at rates between 18 and 30 percent in recent years. Real estate has been one of the most important sectors of economic growth since the mid-1990s, with public and private investment leading to improved urban infrastructure, intense demands for housing and increased land consumption. This rapid growth has fundamentally changed the physical pattern of the city, both in the existing built-up central areas and throughout the municipal region.

At this time of transformation from a planned economy to a market economy, Chinese urban planners are reviewing the existing planning methodology and urban systems. This article reports on efforts by the Beijing municipal government and its planning commission to control and manage urban growth during this transition and to plan for the future.

The Current Urban Pattern

Beijing is one of four municipalities in the People’s Republic of China with provincial-level status directly under the central government. Covering an area of 16,400 square kilometers (km), Beijing has under its jurisdiction 16 districts and two counties. It is the second largest city in China with a population of more than 14 million, including about 11 million permanent residents and several million temporary residents.

Geographically Beijing is located on the North China Plain, but economically it has been considered part of the coastal zone. Since the national economic development strategy of the 1980s, three major economic zones along the coast have been in the forefront of reforms: the Pearl River Delta including Hong Kong, Guangzhou and Shengzhen; the Yangtze River Delta including Shanghai; and the Bohai Bay area including Beijing and Tianjin. Comparing their economic development patterns, Bohai Bay remains behind the others in regional development and cooperation. Unbalanced development and the gap between urban and rural development are the major issues needing attention.

Although regional development has been included in the national economic strategy, previous and current urban planning has not addressed spatial patterns on a regional scale. Beijing’s current comprehensive plan, which was approved by the State Council in 1993, still reflects the influence of the former Soviet Union in the 1950s. Comprehensive planning is a major tool used by municipal and local governments to control, monitor or guide urban development in China as elsewhere. But, because of inefficient implementation policies and slow procedures for updating the plans, they have not kept up with the rapid development of recent decades. There are six distinct sectors in Beijing’s current plan (see Figure 1).

Historic City Core: The heart of Beijing is the 62 square km historic core, which has served as the capital city for nearly 800 years. With a population of 1.3 million, this historic area is being significantly transformed as modern urban functions put pressure on preservation efforts.

Central Built-up Area: Surrounding the historic core is the 300 square km city center that has been developed gradually the since 1950s. After the market for land use rights was established in the 1980s, this area has been redeveloped rapidly and in the process has changed the physical image and socioeconomic life of Beijing. Most industrial land has been converted into a central business district of commercial and residential neighborhoods. Meanwhile, development on the outer edge of this area has been expanded more than 25 percent within the last 10 years, and the population has increased to 5 million.

Inner Greenbelt: A planned greenbelt area of 300 square km was established in the city’s 1982 comprehensive plan, but the 1993 plan showed the area reduced to about 240 square km. The objective of the greenbelt was to define the edge of the central area and provide adjacent open space. Without appropriate implementation policies and funding, however, this greenbelt (including important agriculture land) has been continually encroached upon by urban development. At the end of 2002 about half of the planned open space was made available for residential development and now only about 100 square km of open space remains.

Scattered Districts: Ten scattered districts were created in the comprehensive plan of 1982 as inner suburban development areas. Some of them have benefited from large investments in housing, but they remain primarily bedroom communities lacking mixed-used development, employment opportunities, public transportation and other services. The planned population for each of these districts was about 200,000, but several districts on the north and northeastern edge have already reached 500,000.

Satellite Towns: In the outer suburban area 14 satellite towns were planned to be self-sufficient centers combining employment and housing functions. Several factors contributed to the initial failure of this plan, however: the city center and its expansion area continued to attract most of the investment because of its existing infrastructure and lower development costs; the new market economy could not control strong linkages between employment and housing; the public transportation system could not support the development of these satellite towns; and people demonstrated a cultural preference for living in the dense urban center.

In other words, the original planned polycentric pattern neglected the impact of market forces and sociocultural preferences. Significant urban development did not reach the satellite towns until the late 1990s, when the municipal government built radial highways and created some university and industrial zones. Nevertheless, the physical pattern of urbanization around Beijing remains monocentric in character.

The Ring and Radial Highway System: To support the city’s planned spatial structure, the concept of a ring and radial road system was created in the 1950s and strengthened in the 1982 and 1993 comprehensive plans. The system was considered to be an ideal transportation model to support the planned urban pattern. The 4th ring road would be the edge of the city center; the 5th ring road would link the 10 scattered districts; and the 6th ring road was designed as the intercity highway to connect some of the 14 satellite towns. The radial highways were planned to provide rapid access between the ring roads and to create traffic corridors between Beijing and other cities.

Impacts on Urban Spatial Structure and Planning

China’s rapid economic growth has provided more income for both municipal government and citizens, fundamentally shifting consumption patterns in a very short time. The demands for housing and automobiles, in particular, have exceeded all expectations. Numerous large redevelopment projects in the city center have replaced old industrial buildings and many traditional houses with large-scale commercial complexes, modern apartment buildings, and the road and highway systems. Generally, the planned polycentric pattern of equally sized satellite towns has not been a workable structure to manage the city’s rapid urban growth, and the 1993 comprehensive plan has not been able to guide rampant urbanization. Nevertheless, some planning and policy-making efforts have attempted to control physical growth and solve serious transportation problems.

Spatial Expansion and Growth Control: Under the two types of land ownership in China—state-owned urban land and collectively owned rural land—land use rights are separated from ownership. After the 1980s, urban land use rights could be transferred in the land market, making land the major resource by which local government could raise revenues to finance urban infrastructure and redevelopment. But, dependence on revenues from the leasing of state-owned land is not sustainable over the long term because all leasehold fees are collected once at the beginning of the lease term (generally 40 years for commercial property, 50 years for industrial property and 70 years for residential property). Without a large source of annual revenue from a property tax or other fees, local governments need to find more land to develop in order to generate new revenues. As a result, many local governments are motivated to create an oversupply of land, thus accelerating the acquisition of rural agricultural land.

In Beijing, an average of 20 square km of land was acquired for urban development annually between 1990 and 2000, but this figure reached 50 square km after 2000 and is expected to more than double during this decade. At this rate, to reach the municipal economic goal of tripling the GDP growth rate by 2010, there will be hardly any agricultural land left in the municipal area. Facing these challenges to sustainable urban development, the central and the municipal governments are initiating some urban planning efforts to control land consumption and redefine greenbelt areas.

To preserve the nation’s limited agriculture land resources, the central government in the 1980s set up an urban planning regulation of 100–120 square meters of urban land per person in a large city. For example, if Beijing’s comprehensive plan has an urban population forecast of 10 million in 2010, the city’s total urbanized land area should be controlled within 1,200 square km.

The population forecast is a crucial factor in determining urban land scale and controlling land consumption. However, after the national population policy became more flexible in accepting temporary urban residents in the 1990s, this population planning norm became much more difficult to attain in practice. There is no workable analytical method to review and evaluate urban population forecasts. As a result, it is difficult to control the oversupply of land by local governments, which can use their forecasts to enlarge their planned land development territory.

The inner greenbelt was not fully realized in the 1993 comprehensive plan, but it is still considered a workable planning approach for designating the urban edge. When construction of the 5th and 6th ring roads started in 2000, however, development of land around the roads began immediately, spreading primarily from the central city. In 2001 the Beijing municipal planning commission submitted a new “outer” greenbelt plan to the municipal government, defining nine large corridors connecting outer-suburban open spaces with inner-suburban green areas. The purpose is to define the boundaries for urban growth and to link the central city with the natural environment. However, there are more challenges for implementation: urbanization and urban development pressure within these green corridors affects hundreds of villages and nearly a million peasants; and it has been difficult to define the types of open space that are both ecologically sensitive and economically sustainable.

Transportation Planning: The transportation system planned in the early 1980s and modified in the early 1990s has been implemented; however, the road hierarchy system, consisting of urban highways, main motorways, sub-motorways and streets, did not anticipate such a rapid increase in the number of automobiles. Beijing is the leading city in China for automobile use, with an annual increase in car ownership of 15 to 20 percent. The city had one million vehicles in 1997, but the second million was added in only five years, from 1998 to 2003. Most people agree that the constant traffic jams are caused by the inappropriate transportation system and inadequate regulatory policies.

When the market demand for automobiles began to increase in the mid-1990s, the municipal government decided to speed up construction of the planned highways and motorways. Most of the public budget for infrastructure went into this road construction, and within three years the 4th and 5th and most of the 6th ring roads were completed. Transportation engineers insisted on completing the road system as planned, in spite of two commonly accepted arguments: dependence on the inner-city highway network caused more traffic congestion and negative impacts on the central urban fabric; and transportation planning without considering land use planning causes conflicts in the urban spatial structure.

Realizing that public transportation is a key solution to reducing traffic jams and managing the city more efficiently, the municipal government started to focus on building its subway and urban light-rail systems in 2001, after Beijing won its bid for the 2008 Olympic Games. The plan is to build four or five subway lines in the city center and four urban light-rail lines connecting to the suburban areas. To obtain sufficient funding for these very costly projects, the municipal government adopted a public-private partnership model to raise investment from the private sector. Although it is too early to tell how much these efforts may affect other aspects of urban development, it is clear that they cannot yield sustainable development without broader regional collaboration.

Beijing Urban Spatial Development Strategy Study

Several factors have prompted the City of Beijing to review its spatial structure on a regional scale.

  • The continued increase in the cost of development because of high land prices is reducing municipal economic competitiveness.
  • Rapid urban growth is spreading out to the fringe of the city center, requiring reforms in the current planned spatial structure.
  • The city center is considered to be too dense, causing extensive traffic congestion.
  • The redevelopment pressure on the historic city core is continually threatening its preservation, increasing the urgency to find new spatial resources to move the growth pressure out of the core.

Reforming the city’s physical spatial structure based on a consideration of the larger Bohai Bay region is fundamental to solving these problems. Furthermore, the major public tool to manage urban development, the existing comprehensive planning methodology, is being challenged by the market economy, which makes it more difficult to estimate future urban development demand.

Some Western urban researchers have pointed out problems in the Chinese comprehensive planning process, suggesting that it is too static; is too focused on physical and land use planning; neglects the costs of development and infrastructure; and takes too long for implementation and approval. Recognizing the increasing strength of market forces, planners and government officials constantly search for solutions to better balance their respective roles. The Beijing municipal government thus has started an urban spatial development strategy study outside the existing urban planning system to explore fundamental urban forms derived from market principles.

A Vision for the Future: As China’s capital city, Beijing is the nation’s political and cultural center. To raise its competitiveness and become a world city, however, Beijing needs to improve its built environment so it can host more national and international events in the areas of international trade and finance, education and tourism. Beijing’s spatial structure and infrastructure capacity also should support more urban functions using its regional industrial base and international transportation and port facilities. Population is a key element in measuring urban scale, but the more flexible national population policies since the late 1990s have made it difficult to provide accurate estimates. One critical step is to analyze the “carrying capacity” of environmental resources such as land and water, which can limit the city’s future growth and urban scale.

Urban Density: Density is another important issue in this study. Beijing’s population density of 150 persons/hectare (ha) in built-up areas (roughly within the 4th ring road) compares unfavorably with most other large cities in China: Shanghai–280 persons/ha; Tianjin–230 persons/ha; Guangzhou–360 persons/ha. Further reduction of density in the historic core is considered to be an important mission, however, because of the traffic congestion and the need to preserve the old city. Thus, the new plan is trying to encourage more people to move out toward the 4th ring road and suburban areas. The goal of reducing density in the historic core and between the 2nd and 4th ring roads does not match the city’s public transportation strategy, however. The traffic congestion and environmental problems in the built-up areas are not directly caused by density, but rather by existing transportation policies and systems, the lack of urban green spaces and the proliferation of urban super-blocks.

A New Polycentric Pattern: The old planned polycentric pattern failed to control urban growth from spreading out of the existing built-up center. After reviewing the reasons for this failure, several major principles can help to define a new spatial pattern: consider regional development and reinforce the physical links with the port city of Tianjin; define the area on a large scale with more attention to environmental protection; bring the market factors that affect urban structure into the planning process; and discard the former goal of creating equally sized satellite towns. The general concepts of the new polycentric pattern are to

  1. strengthen development along the existing north-south and east-west axes that run through the center of Beijing with strong cultural and social identity as the bones of the spatial structure;
  2. restrict the amount of development in the environmentally sensitive upland areas west and north of the central city;
  3. expand the scale of three existing satellite towns along the eastern edge of the city and provide public investment and finance to reinforce regional connections; and
  4. emphasize development in the corridor to Tianjin by building multiple transportation options.

Future Planning Practices

Developing a long-term urban plan is an enormous challenge for a city like Beijing, which is undergoing rapid urban development, growth and transformation with a very uncertain future. Several crucial questions regarding urban scale, density, spatial expansion and growth policies need further study and analysis.

Forecasting and controlling urban scale through planning is difficult for all urban planners and policy makers. Existing and potential natural resources serve to constrain future growth, and population is more controlled now by the market economy than by centrally planned policies of the past. Politically and economically, Beijing will continue to attract more investment, which needs more professionals, technicians and skilled workers, while it also has to deal with the pressure of unskilled migrants from rural areas. The limited amount of natural resources thus becomes a major element in planning, but it cannot be the only factor to help forecast the future scale of the city. Analysis of the full range of alternatives and their relevant policies should be prepared to address the most rapid and largest growth scenario imaginable.

A polycentric spatial structure might be a good solution for Beijing, but it needs more attention to the interdependencies of the central city and the new town centers. The old satellite town pattern failed because it focused on the development balance between existing local jurisdictions but neglected economic forces, physical relationships and environmental constraints on a regional scale. Several important elements help to define the new spatial pattern: the boundaries of the central urbanized area; the scale and location of the new town centers; and the relationships among these centers, Beijing, Tianjin and other mega-centers in the region. The efficient, rapid public transportation corridors between the city center and the sub-centers also are a critical element in making the polycentric model workable.

The fundamental purpose for launching the spatial development strategy study and updating the comprehensive planning process is to develop better policies to manage urban growth and balance land development and conservation with a long-term perspective. To reach that goal and to implement the new strategy will require legal tools and strong, comprehensive policies—a challenge for most Chinese cities under the existing policy-making system.

Preserving historic areas, agricultural land and environmentally sensitive areas is not compatible with the current hot economy and planned development. Preservation has never received much public funding support, a major reason for failed efforts in the past. The public sector now has sufficient resources and enough authority to balance development and preservation, but it needs to broaden the use of technical tools and incorporate more regional policies. Planning cannot be implemented only through planning regulations; it requires various authorities and professionals to work together on policies and programs that address planning, taxation, land use, environmental concerns and historic preservation.

The next five to 10 years will be a key period for the City of Beijing to create its new urban form. Local planners and decision makers should make a serious review of the last century of urban development history in U.S. cities. They have lessons to offer on both policy making and implementation regarding highways, suburbanization, shopping malls, the city beautiful movement and other urban issues. Current initiatives also are instructive: smart growth, regional growth control and management, mixed-use planning, density and design review. Globalization will bring more political and economic competition to the world’s largest cities, and Beijing must learn from past experiences and adapt to the new economic realities.


Yan Huang is deputy director of the Beijing Municipal Planning Commission. She was a visiting fellow at the Lincoln Institute and a Loeb Fellow at Harvard University Graduate School of Design in 2003–2004.

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