Category Archives: Urbanism

The design of public space to make a city walkable, livable and joyful

Urban Regeneration in Shanghai: Tips ‘n Tricks from ULI

Last week ULI Asia Pacific released its report (pdf download) on urban regeneration principles for Shanghai, with an afternoon forum and cocktail party.

ULI Ten Principles Shanghai cover

Most of the principles – design for people, conserve cultural heritage, “vitalize” public spaces, etc. – are pretty general and will not be news to anyone who has been following smart growth ideas for the last decade or so. But of course a lot of government officials  and developers don’t fall into that category, and I hope they may find this a mind-opening read. The report itself is readable and attractive; the numerous case studies from China and around the world, including several that are not on the most seen list, are particularly welcome.

The forum was short but more than usually interesting for events of its kind, as there was a good mix of experienced developers and forward-thinking city planners. There was a particularly good (in my opinion) discussion on whether existing codes inhibit good regeneration projects and what should be done about them.

To me the most notable thing about the report is that urban regeneration as a practice is steadily gaining notice and diversifying from the simple slum clearance role it has traditionally played in China. It’s not surprising that ULI has chosen to champion regeneration, as it’s a stronghold of international firms that are not competing for large-scale new “neighborhoods” being built wholesale at the urban fringes. But there is more than that going on – the number of good urban regeneration projects in all of China used to be countable on one hand, but now there is a dizzying range, and large cities have multiple examples of different types. I see a complementary market evolution going on, in which customer preferences (for rough-hewn workshop space and twee little tea rooms, for example) are changing just as fast as the industry is.

The next step is to provide more specifics at the project level, and more financing and policy support at the macro level. I’d like to see this get built into the “new-style urbanization” planning which is going on nationally and in cities, and I believe this is happening.

Ghost Stories

The media loves China’s ghost cities!

September 21, 2013: China’s Ghost Cities… Are Multiplying

September 24, 2013: China’s Ghost Cities May Not Be So Spooky

September 25, 2013: China’s Ghost Cities Not So Ghostly After All?

May 16, 2014 China’s Ghost Cities to Get Spookier

May 18, 2014 Who’s Afraid of China’s Ghost Towns?

June 10, 2014 China’s Most Famous Ghost City Got Even Worse in the Last Four Years

…although people seem a bit confused about exactly how, er, spooky they are. If you’ve been to one of them, the answer is easy: very spooky. Walking around a giant new development, full of fresh concrete but devoid of traffic and people, is strangely unsettling. But this is one instance in which your gut instinct that something is very wrong, might be wrong.

Aerial of Kangbashi district, Ordos 鄂尔多斯市康巴什新区鸟瞰图(Google maps, 2014)
Aerial of Kangbashi district, Ordos 鄂尔多斯市康巴什新区鸟瞰图  You can see that while it may not be the ghost city it was (compare photo from 2009 at top of post), it’s not exactly bustling. (Google maps, 2014)

These places definitely exist. The question is, how many ghost cities are just new areas that will gradually fill in and take on life, and how many are colossal monuments to waste and fraud? The good news is that two recent studies have added a new level of rigor to the reporting, which previously has tended to be a more or less informed version of, “Wow, there are no people here!” The bad news is that even with the new data, it’s still not clear how big a problem ghost cities really are for China’s economy.

The two reports provide badly needed primary research on the conundrum of China’s real estate markets. The first, from real estate brokers CLSA in Hong Kong, looked at over 800,000 units in 12 cities. I haven’t been able to find the original report, but CNBC reports:

It estimates China’s vacancy rate at around 15 percent of property completed in the past five years… Among housing over five years old, units smaller than 90 square meters (968 square feet) and tier-one housing, the occupancy rate exceeds 88 percent, CLSA said…

While China’s vacancy rates may appear high compared with international standards, such as the average 10 percent rate in the U.S., oversupply is uneven, CLSA said. Tier-one cities’ vacancy rate is just 10 percent, while the rate is around 16 percent or higher in tier-three cities, it noted.

These results are further evidence that the Tier 1  markets of Beijing, Shanghai and the Pearl River Delta are in a completely different situation from smaller cities. CLSA’s Nicole Wong was quoted in other articles above saying that they see the primary danger of “ghost cities” as coming from tier three cities with much weaker overall demand. The overall picture it paints is that the ghost cities problem is real, but confined to specific smaller city markets.

Unfortunately the China Household Finance Survey at the Southwestern University of Finance and Economics is not nearly as reassuring. In a June 10 speech in Beijing Survey leader Li Gan estimated that the survey, which canvassed 8,400 households from 2011-2013, found much higher vacancy rates: 22.4% for all urban housing, and very troubling 23.3% for affordable housing. If so, there are serious problems in the housing development industry which can’t be explained away by focusing on particular sub-markets.

Like everyone else, I’d like to know which of these two pictures is the right one. Is China is wasting billions of yuan in investments that nobody can use, and amassing huge levels of debt in the process? Or will the additional 10 million new urban residents expected by 2020 make all of this moot? Or both?

“Are there slums in China?”

I’m active on the Q&A social media site Quora, where I often take on questions on urban planning and economics, transportation, technology and China. From time to time I will share answers here.

Answer by Don Johnson:

Yes, but not nearly as many as in other large developing countries.

Huge areas of informally built housing on the edges of cities that aren’t served by utilities or public services, like you see in India, Brazil and Africa, basically don’t exist in China. However, there areas in many Chinese cities called “城中村,” meaning villages in the city, which are slums: very crowded, very poor infrastructure (single water taps serving hundreds of people, no sewage treatment,) few or no parks, open spaces, schools or hospitals. They are almost completely populated by migrant workers.

These places are former villages that have been swallowed up by expanding cities. The former villagers usually live elsewhere in the city and are now landlords, renting out their old houses to migrant workers who need a very cheap place to stay. One big difference between these areas and typical developing world slums is that most people that live in them are employed, and don’t consider themselves permanent residents. They also don’t have the culture that slum areas in other countries have despite their poverty – more like temporary very cheap worker housing.

Many Chinese cities have made it a priority to demolish “villages in the city” and rebuild the areas with better quality. The problem is that this eliminates badly needed low-cost housing for migrant workers; replacement housing usually is more expensive, even if affordable housing is included.

Former village area in Ningbo

View Answer on Quora

Virtual worlds are birthed by real cities

How Burrowing Owls Lead To Vomiting Anarchists (Or SF’s Housing Crisis Explained)

I just read this very long and absolutely brilliant article (from which the above photo is lifted) on the housing crisis in San Francisco, in TechCrunch of all places. It’s completely worth it from the housing policy, governance, or simply good journalism angles, but it also had this very interesting bit to say about the intersection of tech and cities:

But the big wave [of Silicon Valley activity] of the last decade has been social networking. And every notable consumer web or mobile product of this wave has been seeded through critical mass in the “analog” world. Facebook had university campuses. Snapchat had Southern California high schools. Foursquare had Lower Manhattan. Twitter had San Francisco. These products favor social density.

An even newer generation of startups addresses distinctly urban questions. Airbnb exists because in 2007, San Francisco didn’t have enough hotel capacity to house visitors in town for an industrial design conference. Uber exists because the city’s taxi market was under-supplied with drivers and smartphones offered a new way of summoning transportation on demand. Then there are very young startups like Campus, which is like a venture-backed communal living movementLeap Transit, which is trying to shake up scheduled transport, or any of the companies out of Tumml, an urban ventures incubator.

People have been trying to figure out the connection between the virtual and physical worlds since at least Bill Mitchell’s 1996 book City of Bits, and this link between particular social media and particular physical environments is one I haven’t seen before. We already know great cities can be tremendously different – Paris and Seattle? Tokyo and Edinburgh? – but it’s interesting to think about how different kinds of cities might birth different kinds of social media. Perhaps physical places leave shadows on the web, after all.