A UN statistic shows 50 % of the world’s population today lives in cities while a further growth of this number can be expected in the next years. However, the definition of city in this case is a “community with more than 5000 people” – which in my opinion is firstly a political question of definition, and secondly wouldn’t quite correspond with my idea of a city.
In China, we find 14 cities with more than 4 million inhabitants and a bigger number of more than a hundred cities between half a million and a million people. In total, about 300 million live in cities bigger than 200.000, a perecentage of about 25 % that we also find in other countries such as Germany (with only about 5 % of China’s population, though).
Numbers of a city’s overall density are often misleading and don’t show the reality for inhabitants. Skyscraper crammed Hongkong, for instance, has a density of about 6.500 people / km² while Paris has 20.000. Comparing the pictures you have in your mind implies something totally different. The reason for these numbers is that Hongkong consciously created extremely dense centers that can be connected ideally by the means of public transport and leave the rest of the land untouched.
The Chinese real estate market works totally different from ours and – not only because half of the world’s built volume is constructed there – is worth a consideration. We shouldn’t see it as an extension of a Western idea of “development”, but a totally distinct cultural context.
First of all, there is no property as we understand it. Every real estate you “own” is leased from local authorities for the period of 100 years (residential), 70 years (retail), or 30 years (hotels). The auctions in which this land is sold puts a lot of money into local authorities’ hands, that can be used for infrastructure or public buildings. This system has also shown to be prone to corruption – most of the many cases of executions in the country follow such cases.
Chinese religions never developed the idea of a life after death, so it is extremely important for them to pass something useful on to the next generation. Real estate is considered useful and more trustworthy than government-run banks, for instance. If possible it shouldn’t be just real estate, but landmarks. The speculation with real estate has lead to enourmous prices and the fact that and the living space of an estimated 200 million people is currently unoccupied.
The country’s rich history has shown that periods of about 50 years tend to be commited to a certain highest goal. Since 1993 it is believed to be the creation of material wealth, which will probably continue until the living space per capita of about 25 m² per capita have reached levels of around 45m².
The rising middle and upper classes are demanding 4-room-apartments to share with their parents and their child or children. Against western belief, the average Chinese woman has 1,5 children – not just one as we think.
For Beijing, a South/Southeast/East orientation of apartments is favorable due to the prevailing winds from North/Northwest/West that carry dust from the desert into the city and are the main reason for air pollution.
Big questions arise for China: How is going to organize its cities? Will it manage a certain social balance? How about ecological questions? What can we learn or teach? There would be a lot more to say, and a lot more that we cannot even slightly anticipate.
The above is based on a very interesting speech on Chinese Megacities by Dietmar Eberle, associate at Baumschlager Eberle. This originally Austrian firm has extensive experience working in China and set up an office in Hongkong.