Beijing unveils vision for ‘downsized’, liveable city with cleaner air

City authorities cap the population at 23 million from 2020 and promise air quality will reach ‘advanced international standards’ by 2050

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 September, 2017, 10:03pm
UPDATED : Friday, 29 September, 2017, 11:21pm

Beijing is to be “downsized” and its population capped as the government tries to turn China’s sprawling, overcrowded capital into a liveable, international city with cleaner air.

The government promises air quality in the city – which is often shrouded in smog – will “reach advanced international standards by 2050” under a plan released on Friday that it wants to use as the model for other Chinese mega cities.

It did not give details for how it would improve the city’s notoriously polluted air.

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The move to map out the future of the city of 21.7 million stems from President Xi Jinping’s high-profile tour of the capital in 2014, when he raised the question of how it could ensure its development was sustainable.

The plan also caps Beijing’s population at 23 million from 2020 onwards – an increase of 6 per cent from last year’s figure.

That would be achieved by reducing the size of the inner-city population, Cai Qi, the Communist Party chief of Beijing, said on Friday, without giving further details.

And after decades of pulling down historic buildings to make way for development – a practice dating back to the early days of the communist regime in the 1950s – preserving cultural heritage has been given priority under the plan.

“The old city cannot be demolished any more,” reads the 60,000-word plan, which designates an area within Beijing’s second ring road where any remaining historic buildings are to be preserved.

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The government also wants to “upgrade the capital city function” of Beijing to make it better equipped to host state-level events – by doing away with land use it considers inappropriate, such as building housing for those on low incomes.

“Beijing is the centre for national politics, culture, international exchange and technological innovation,” the State Council, China’s cabinet, said in a statement after it approved the plan on Thursday.

It went on to describe the Beijing of the future as “a great nation’s capital under the great revival of the Chinese race” and “an internationally first-rate, harmonious and liveable” city.

The plan also calls for the city’s less built-up southern area to be given support for development, while the 2,921 sq km city is to be reduced in size to 2,760 sq km by 2035 – making it “the first city in China to be downsized”, according to Cai.

Reducing the size of the city is a response to Xi’s call to further develop two areas adjacent to Beijing – the city of Tianjin and Hebei province. Some land use considered irrelevant to Beijing’s role as the capital city will be gradually relocated to these two places, and to the new Xiongan district being built in Hebei.

“This is a new approach to include the development of Tianjin and Hebei in a policy that’s meant to focus on Beijing,” said Wu Weijia, an architecture professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

Wang Kai, deputy director of the China Academy of Urban Planning and Design, said the inclusion of Xiongan in the plan “provides for a spatial structure that on the one hand resolves the problems to do with Beijing’s capacity, while on the other pushes regional development”.

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But Song Zhuangzhuang, a Beijing-based artist with a focus on the old city landscape, was not convinced, saying the plan meant little for the preservation of Beijing’s cultural heritage, such as its famous centuries-old alleyways.

“There are not many hutong left untouched in the past few decades,” Song said, adding there were painful lessons to be learned in Beijing’s attempts to “revitalise” the city’s old neighbourhoods – many of which have been destroyed.

One low-income worker, surnamed Wang, said she was worried about what the plan means for her future in the city. “I’m not sure if the government intends to crack down on housing for people like me,” she said. “But if I can’t live near the city centre, how can I find work in Beijing easily?”