Chapter 6: A Perspective

Urban renewal not only changes the physical form of the urban environment, but also transforms the image of the city, the way in which it is perceived and experienced, and the psychological and emo tional relationships between humans and urban places (Holcomb & Beauregard, 1981, p.51). This aspect of renewal is not adequately recognized by the authorities of Beijing. Through the observation and analysis in previous chapters, a clear scenario on the process of the housing renewal program so far is presented. We have seen the negative impacts of this program, mainly on the issues of city historical preservation and original residents re-accommodation. The greatest barrier here is a lack of under standing.

Two basic misconceptions underlying the current practice are as follows: First, as a vernacular housing typology and a conveyer of the traditional dwelling culture, the value of the courtyard houses is not sufficiently appreciated. Second, the ramifications of large scale displacement are not recognized. Displacement is not seen as a problem, instead it is viewed as the price that must be paid for urban renewal, which is assumed to result in a general improvement of living conditions for all at the end. The damage to the original residents in being deprived of their familiar environment, even when rec ognized, is thought more than balanced by the benefits of their new settlements. The previous chapters have shown how untrue these two assumptions are. To have a more comprehensive and sensitive approach for urban renewal, modifying these misconceptions is a necessity to a healthy urban renewal program.

To the image of a city, according to Lynch: " longevity and evanescence gain savor in each other's presence " (Lynch, 1980, pp.38-39). Brand stresses that in a city, the present needs a past to grow on (Brand, 1994, p.102). People around the world have become more and more appreciative of the trace of history in their cities. As Brand observed in the United States, " Preservation is now seen as being the forefront of urban regeneration, often accomplishing what the urban renewal program twenty years ago so dismally failed to do." (Brand, 1994, p.89).

For Beijing to avoid this remorse, historical preservation must be a priority in city Master Plan and, especially in urban renewal. Historical preservation should be the starting point to search for a more sensitive and more integrated strategy in urban renewal. To do so, there needs to be a consensus among the government and the population, on the vision for the future of the city. In that image, municipal Beijing should be a unique modern metropolis glowing with historical patina and traditional culture.

Historical preservation will maintain heterogeneity in urban form; the Old City keeps its traditional layout and architecture, while the new districts manifest modern concept in spatial composition and building technology. The Old City, being the core and the cultural center of the whole municipality and the country, gives Beijing its unique characteristics and identity.

Even strictly from an economic point of view, historical preservation makes a lot of sense. In the 1990s, Bejing's urban economic structure has been transforming from mainly manufacturing to ter tiary industry. Among others, tourism is becoming increasingly important, which is maybe the fastest growing world wide. As Garreau observed in New York City, tourism is the number one industry in the city - ahead of financial services - and it is also the fastest growing (Garreau, 1991, p.58). Beijing, the ancient capital, its historical cultural legacy as well as its political and economical importance, all contribute to its immense appeal.

Tourism attraction largely depends on the unique character of a city, in which the residential districts are very important components. The traditional neighborhoods, the housing form and its inhabitants, are all important parts of a city's historical and cultural legacy. By the same token, rehabilitation of the old living quarters could be seen as a kind of investment in the city's "aesthetic infrastructure", which is deemed to be as essential to city health as utilities, sewerage or transportation network, and this investment will be well rewarded by the expansion of tourism and long-term vitality of the city (Brand, 1994, p.102).

Stressing historical preservation does not mean that the ongoing urban renewal should be curbed. Indeed, the implementation of such a program is a must. As Chapter Three has shown, the urban infrastructure and the living environment have all deteriorated to a dismal condition. The question is how to conduct such a massive undertaking. In Beijing, urban renewal should proceed under the guidance of urban historical preservation. Historical preservation and new development do not need to be mutually exclusive. In essence, they both strive to achieve a brighter future for the city.

In fact, even without considering historical preservation, the present prevailing trend could hardly be continued. The current practice is largely a combination of the bulldozer approach 1 for slum clearance and gentrification in North America, characterized by large scale demolition - reconstruction plus a high percentage of displacement. The popularity of this approach is based on two conditions:

(1). The powerful consumers in the housing market. Which are mainly government institutions and other privileged state-own work units. They have the fund allocated by state government to invest on housing, and generally they can pay whatever the market asks (He Hongyu, 1992). This low price -elasticity character of the main consumers had distorted the market prices upwardly and therefore provided the possibility of high profitability in renewal projects.

(2). The location advantages of recent renewal parcels. As described above, these parcels enjoy very central locations, and are adjacent to main arteries, have easier access to urban infrastructure pipelines, and often also have lower population density before renewal. All these advantages secure the profitability of the projects, either implied in a higher shadow value of the land, or in the lower redevelopment costs.

But both of these two underlying pre-conditions for the prevailing trend can hardly be sustained when housing reform and urban renewal evolve to the further stages. Because:

(1) The goal of housing reform, is to decentralize the housing burden to individual households. The responsibility of government institution or other state-own work units to house their employees will be reduced. When the existing budget allocation system changes or their demands reach a limit, then the present powerful and low price-elasticity consumers will disappear. The housing market can no longer consume so much of this expensive housing in renewal parcels.

(2). As the renewal program moves to the next stage, it will reach the less profitable parcels. As described in the scope of the renewal program in Chapter Three, there are still a lot of dilapidated parcels in the city hinterland, some of them are small in size and are scattered in large residential districts. There are also many parcels located in the city fringe. For the parcels in city center, they generally: A). have higher population density, which means more acquisition and relocation cost; B). have no direct access to high capacity urban infrastructure, so the cost of improving the basic utilities is higher; C). are not adjacent to main arteries, so the potential land value is lower. And for the smaller parcels, large-scale redevelopment is no longer suitable. As for the parcels in the city fringe, the high percentage of private ownership2 implies a higher relocation cost while the low land value limits the potential market price (Wei & Huang, 1991). All these parcels need higher initial investment but do not promise higher return.

The present model rests on a precarious financial mechanism which can only be sustained as long as it remains attractive to the developers. When high profitability is no longer possible, developers will go invest elsewhere to more lucrative projects and the housing renewal will be halted. To guarantee the viability of urban renewal, the financial resources must be diversified as to allow the residents and financial institutions more active involvement into the financing system. Indeed, some renewal projects have already employed some creative solutions.

(1). Cross-subsidy.

One possibility is as Xiaohoucang project did that by dedicating some of the redevelopment land to commercial usage and using the profit from the much higher commercial selling price to subsidize the rehabilitation of original residents. The other way is intro-subsidy, as Lü suggested in the Chaonei project, let the commercial redevelopment subsidize the adjacent residential redevelopment ( Lü Junhua, 1994, I).

(2). Housing cooperative

This is a non-profit housing organization, initiated by some local residents and their work units, with the help from local and district government. Its function is managing the whole renewal process in the area, in terms of financing, design and distribution. The first phase of Ju-er hutong tried this approach. Due to lack of experience, the organization did not handle the process proficiently. Recently, there appeared some more autonomous housing cooperatives, like Baizhifang Housing Cooperative in Xuanwu district, in which 1,160 households in the renewal area joined the organization. The cooperative col lected money from the original residents, their work units and other resources including the pre-sale of some commodity housing and commercial space after renewal (Tang Ying, 1994). The housing coop erative could successfully involve residents and work units in the renewal process, thereby diversify ing the financing resources. More importantly, the cooperative enhanced the neighborhood connection and guaranteed the affordability of renewal housing for most families.

(3). Mortgage

Considerable amount of research has been carried out and many trial programs are now underway on the development of a housing mortgage system. Experts from the World Bank thought affordability could be advanced by accelerating moves toward lower down payments (reducing the loan-value ratio from 50 percent to 80 percent), and longer repayment periods for mortgages (from present 10-15 years to 20 years) (World Bank, 1992, p.xxi). This long-term loan will benefit the whole society in helping restructure the consuming pattern of people, promote home ownership and stabilize the economy.

(4). Home ownership

Each family owning its own dwelling is the utmost goal of housing reform. Only when people become home owners, can they earnestly take care of their houses and the external environment. Investing in real estate is a tradition of Chinese people which is still very much alive in rural areas. To this end, home ownership can most effectively diversify the financing resource. To promote home ownership, the government must grant people more control power on their homesteads, such as the freedom of transaction.

Meanwhile, the government needs to change its role in the renewal process, to become a mediator, to coordinate and direct the program. Government should not expect financial profit from the program, especially from the housing regeneration parcels. Many critics argue that urban infrastructure can be funded by some long-term taxation such as land use tax, property tax and general income tax (He Hongyu, 1993), which depends on the further reform of the whole social economic system. However we should note that the successful implementation of urban renewal itself has already been the government's largest gain. Thus the government should not expect any other instant revenue because urban renewal has provided the urban economy an immense potential.

Inspired by the Housing Development Commission in Singapore and Hong Kong, many experts have suggested to erect a similar independent institution to manage the issues pertaining to new develop ment and regeneration projects city wide (Shao, 1993). This commission will devise policies, manage urban land, provide relocation housing stocks, and enforce regulations through the redevelopment process. Some modification on the present management system will be needed, such as change the allocation of land to public bidding for commercial redevelopment. In so doing, the government will be responsible for the relocation of the original residents, land appropriation, utilities installation and urban roads pavement. While the developers will be responsible for design and construction under the designated land use, height limit and FAR cap. This way, each sector will have a well-defined role and responsibility, thus stopping the endless bargaining between the developers and the government, and consequently reducing corruption. As for the housing rehabilitation parcels, the commission can help the residents and their work units organize housing cooperatives. When needed, it would even provide some financial aid for the infrastructure improvement. The commission can also manage the cross -subsidy from commercial development to residential rehabilitation.

If, as the author has proposed above, historical preservation is a priority in urban renewal, then besides diversifying financing resources, the government also needs to modify some regulations to assist the fulfillment of this goal, such as:

(1). Readjust the land use planning.

Be cautious in converting too much residential land to commercial and public usage, and avoid widen ing the urban road excessively, both of which actions are detrimental to historical preservation and the urban ecological environment. Too many commercial and office buildings concentrating in the city center will only worsen the traffic congestion even if the roads are widened. On the other hand, when rezoning land use, consider the compatible mixed use and avoid excessive segregation of different uses.

(2). To scale down the size of the redevelopment parcels.

Small scale approach has many advantages in historical preservation. It can preserve the existing urban tissue and circulation network, it can preserve the human scale and avoid drastic changes of the spatial environment, it can leave more courtyard houses intact and make the new buildings more appropri ately merge into the old context. More trees could be kept and, very importantly, inappropriate trial results could be corrected in the next phase without doing irreversible harm. The large parcels could be developed in phases under one detailed planning guideline. Ju-er hutong provides a very good experience in this respect. However, technical problems involving infrastructure development in small parcels need to be resolved more ingeniously3.

(3). To readjust the height limit.

To designate more areas in the 12 meters zone, since four-story high building mass is more suitable to the preservation of the city image and traditional housing form. This change asks for re-evaluation of the land value and re-adjustment of land-use structure.

(4). To pay more attention to social ramifications.

In urban renewal program, the emphasis on physical rebuilding need to be supplemented by a great concern for social impacts, especially on the existing neighborhoods and residents. Even in some area where displacement is inevitable, the government (not the developer) should provide the original resi dents options in the relocation and other conveniences, to help them resettle in new areas smoothly and minimize discomfort both psychologically and physiologically.

To summarize, the pre-condition of a more balanced and sensitive approach for urban renewal is for the government to recognize the importance of historical preservation to the future image of the city. Then the modified regulations could assure a better fulfillment to this end and the diversified financial resources guarantee the viability of this approach. Only when roots of the city are adequately appreci ated and respected, could the city has a more healthy future and urban renewal be a more successful undertaking.

1 The "bulldozer" approach to renewal has been roundly condemned. Large scale rebuilding is alleged to de-humanized the city and de -individualize its dwellers (Grebler, 1964, p.128).

2According to Wei & Huang, the percentage of private ownership in city fringe was much higher than that of central area, the average was 40% comparing with the 16.8% in central area (Wei & Huang, 1991).

3 Bringing new infrastructure in an old city had been demonstrated by Rome and Paris in the last century and nowadays there are still some traditional towns and cities in Europe doing 'selective surgery" to upgrade the city.

Back to top