Moving 2 Million People for Beijing’s Urban Reset

Nearly 2 million Beijing residents will be moved to the city’s outlying districts from the center by 2020 as part of a massive urban revamp designed to better control people, traffic, and smog.

The movers include up to 1 million government workers covered by an initiative to relocate city government offices from downtown to the Tongzhou District about 20 kilometers east. Most city agencies will be affected by the relocations, which got underway this year and should be done by 2017.

Businesses have also been forced to move out of congested parts of the city. Between early 2014 and June, for example, the city closed 121 markets of various kinds, including those with small vendors selling clothing, fruit, and vegetables. Land left vacant will be revamped for urban construction.

Behind these moves is a government push to rein in population growth, traffic congestion, and air pollution, Beijing’s Communist Party Secretary, Guo Jinlong, said at a July 11 press conference.

The relocation scheme also fits a central government directive issued in April calling for city planners to coordinate Beijing’s development with urban growth plans for the nearby city of Tianjin and smaller cities in neighboring Hebei province.

Beijing has complied with the directive by imposing limits on new buildings, according to Huang Yan, director of Beijing’s urban planning. He said the latest plan put a cap on new construction in order to protect the environment.

“Areas that should not be developed will be strictly managed,” said Huang.

Sources close to the Beijing government said that urban planners started mapping out the new initiative in March 2014. A formal proposal was submitted to the State Council three months later, with measures aimed at improving land-use efficiency while better protecting the environment and farm areas.

Until recently, Beijing’s development was following the course set out in a 2004 plan that experts now consider outdated. Calls for changes echoed public complaints about the city’s inability to meet the needs of a fast-growing population.

According to official data, Beijing’s population grew to 19.6 million in 2010 from 13.8 million in 2000. Officials estimate the current figure is 21 million.

Some experts argue that the current urban woes can be blamed on mistakes made more than a decade ago by local officials who miscalculated the city’s future population growth. A 2004 blueprint, for example, estimated the capital’s population would reach 18 million by 2020. That milestone was reached before 2010.

Satellites and Hubs

A big winner in the current relocation scheme is Tongzhou, where the housing market has been booming this year. Sales jumped 7.5 percent to 9.5 billion yuan from January to May compared to the same period in 2014, according to the district’s statistics department.

To keep prices from rising too high and too fast, the city government imposed home-buying limits in August. The restrictions followed a warning against runaway property development and speculation in Beijing issued by Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli on July 24.

Despite the limits, Tongzhou’s future seems secure. Zhao Hong, Deputy Director of the Beijing Academy of Social Sciences, said Tongzhou is serving as “a testing ground for coordinating the development of Beijing, Tianjin, and Hebei.”

The decision to transfer government offices to Tongzhou marked a major shift for Beijing’s urban planning after years of idle talk over decentralizing the city.

Although the capital’s first modern city plan was issued in 1958, it was not until 1983 that a complete approach emerged. The plan was based on the idea of developing the capital city as a cultural as well as political center. In the years that followed, the city slowly phased out factories, many of which were built in the 1950s and 1960s.

A plan unveiled in 1993 called for decentralizing to alleviate congestion by building 14 satellite cities, including Tongzhou. But at that time the area’s transportation system was weak, according to planning experts, and the satellite plan didn’t go far.

In 2001, the infrastructure picture started to improve. The city government started investing heavily in roads, bridges, and subways. Much of this work was later pegged to preparations for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

Still, not as many residents moved to satellites as officials hoped. And transportation problems lingered, as those who did move increasingly relied on cars to commute to and from downtown offices, clogging roads, said Zhou Zhengyu, Director of the capital’s transportation commission.

A 15-year blueprint released in 2004 emphasized a multiple-hub development plan with downtown Beijing at the center. The hubs were to include Tongzhou, the northeastern Shunyi District, and Yizhuang District in the south.

But the hubs grew more slowly than expected. Between 2008 and 2012, according to government data, Tongzhou added 252,000 residents but only 28,000 jobs.

Policy Factor

The satellite plan might have succeeded if the government had set aside more land for building transportation systems, said Yuan Mu, Director of the Urban Planning and Design Institute at Tsinghua University.

Moreover, Zhao said, the plan did not receive strong policy support. As a result, developers steered away from outlying areas to focus on investments and projects in the city center.

According to a 2013 Beijing Municipal Institute of City Planning and Design report, 60 percent of the city’s population and 73 percent of total economic growth is concentrated inside the Fifth Ring Road, a highway that encircles about 700 square kilometers of urban development.

Lu Yan, Director of the city’s reform and development commission, said 71 percent of all business activities and 72 percent of all jobs are in the city’s center. As a result, he said, Beijing has reached “the upper limits” in terms of population density, transportation limits, and environmental capacity.

Yuan said drafting a 20-year development plan for a Chinese city usually takes five to seven years due to the complexity of administrative procedures. But in just a few years a city can “expand quickly,” he said. “So by the time a plan is approved, it’s outdated.”

Also hobbling the process is the fact that individual agencies under a city government umbrella have the power to approve construction plans, even when they clash with an urban development plan, said Yin Huiliang, Director of Research at the Chinese Academy of Urban Planning and Design.

A prerequisite for more efficient urban planning in China, Yuan said, is that policymakers adopt a new attitude by switching from regulation to management, and letting the public participate in development discussions. Any plan made by government officials alone without consensus support from society may be flawed.

A starting point for change could be policies that reward officials based on economic development in their jurisdictions. Lower officials may be more willing to follow the Beijing government’s plan if the personnel assessments are adjusted, said Yin.

“For instance, officials whose districts are designated for environmental reserves should not be assessed according to GDP growth,” said Yin. The urban planning issue can thus be seen as “a test of government public governance capacity.”

Zhao said Beijing’s latest plan will test the willpower of city officials and their subordinates at district levels. They’ll ultimately have to decide whether they really want balanced urban development.