Earlier today I read an article by Daniel Garst about Bejing’s awkward population distribution that reminded me of a journal article about the general shape of socialist cities that I read a while back. Garst talks about Beijing being a “circus tent” when it comes to density, with population density increasing as you travel away from the city center, in contrast to the “pyramid” style of most cities, with high densities in the center and lower densities around the periphery (see chart for a visual representation).
This immediately made me think of an article by Alain Bertraud and Bertrand Renaud called “Socialist Cities without Land Markets,” where they describe exactly this phenomenon, and explain it as a failure of administrative urban planning. Here’s an excerpt:
As their economy and their population grow, cities expand through the progressive addition of concentric rings, similar to the growth of trees in successive seasons. New rings are added to the periphery as the city grows. With each ring, land use reflects the combined effects of demography, technology, and the economy at the time when the ring was developed. Wile this organic incremental growth is common to all cities, in a market city changing land prices exert their pressure simultaneously in all areas of the city, not just at the periphery. Land prices exert a powerful influence to recycle already developed land in the inner rings when the type and intensity of the existing use is too different from the land’s optimum economic use. Thus, changing land values bring a built-in urban dynamism as ceaseless variations in land prices put a constant pressure on the current uses of land and trigger changes to new activities and/or densities.
Under the administrative-command economy, the absence of land prices eliminated the main incentive to redevelop built-up areas by removing site value considerations from the investment decisions since the nationalization of land in 1917 [in the Soviet Union]. Without price signals to reveal the opportunity cost of land in alternative uses, it was administratively simpler to respond to current land demand pressure by developing at the periphery than to redevelop well-located areas with obsolete land uses. While the city expanded outward, land use in already developed areas remained unchanged and there was very little land recycling. This process explains the persistence and uniformity of housing types in successive rings around Moscow, with each type being usually named according to the period when it was built. Thus, driving from the center of Moscow, one passes through rings of Stalin, Khrushchev, and then Brezhnev flats.
This socialist land allocation process leads to land that differs from market economies. This land use has three features that imply urban inefficiency on a very large scale, which we will describe in turn. First, the population density gradient has a perverse slope that rises as one moves away from the city center. Second, very large industrial areas occupied by land-intensive, obsolescent industries in prime areas of the city. Third, households are concentrated in the periphery. Residential densities are increasing toward the periphery while “historically” low densities are found in central areas. This pattern tends to increase community requirements, transport costs, and pollution because it requires higher energy expenditures. At the same time the effects of this type of urban planning are not compensated by the provision of better amenities such as large housing unit sizes of a better environment that is the normal trade-off for increasing commuting distance in a market economy.
In Beijing, these ” ‘historically’ low densities” are the one-story hutong/siheyuan neighborhoods. Because they were not gradually redeveloped during China’s heavily communist period, their densities are woefully inadequate for China’s growth, and thus the city is presented with the dilemma that Garst describes – how to rationalize development without destroying the city’s historical character? His solution seems to be creating self-contained “edge cities,” but that makes you wonder why bother developing Beijing at all if you’re going to create neighborhoods that are inaccessible to the traditional core anyway. The only way edge cities have worked is with intense automobile connectivity, which Garst doesn’t want, either.
Unfortunately for Garst, who calls redevelopment of the hutong neighborhoods “not really a practical solution,” it’s likely to be the only way to make Beijing workable. Of course the market city trajectory is preferably – gradual redevelopment, so that the architectural loss is not so immediate and some vestiges of the past can be preserved in graceful ways. But just because Beijing did not have this luxury doesn’t mean it should remain a hostage to its original form, forever doomed by long commutes and low mobility.
I should note that I’d also be very interested to see the population gradient for a few US metro areas. Although I’m sure it’s not as warped as Moscow’s, I’d bet that it’s not quite as steep as other market cities. Obviously America is not a socialist country and its land use policy is significantly more market-oriented than the USSR’s, but I suspect that NIMBY and anti-density forces hamper this organic redevelopment to the degree that it would be visible in a density gradient. Anybody know where I could find a few?