China: second spin

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Pacific rim hopping, Los Angeles to Beijing. This time, I find myself needing personal transportation in both places. My agenda for China is to see more of the new towns I learned about on the first jaunt through east Asia. A diagram exposing urban expansion around China’s largest coastal agglomerations helps to direct my journey.

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Courtesy of National Geographic and the Data Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences

Part of Beijing’s latest plan for expansion (to accommodate 5.7 million people) includes the planning and development of 11 new towns, or satellite cities, at its periphery. I looked to the research being done by Crimson and MovingCites at the annex industrial towns of Mentougou and Pingguoyuan located towards the mountainous terrain to Beijing’s west.

BEIJING, Jun 18, 2009 (SinoCast Daily Business Beat via COMTEX) — 11 new towns in Beijing, capital of China, have reserved more than 200 projects, with a total investment of over CNY 400 billion, revealed Liang Yi, head of the programming unit of the city development and reform bureau.

Pursuant to the plan, Shunyi new town, Tongzhou new town, and Yizhuang new town are regarded as three key new towns among the 11.

The dense smog/fog, compounded by an incoming winter front, forces a temporary highway closure into the mountains. My knowledgeable guide, JinLing, recommends we head east. Destination: Tongzhou and Yanjiao.

The approach road into Yanjiao is lined with billboards showcasing luxury residential accommodations and the logos of a handful of the region’s most prominent developers. Soon, this route will be lined with towers as far as the vista disappears into the smog. It’s easy to imagine. And in fact, becomes a reality a few kilometers down-road. Our journey lasts all day. We stop by the sales center (spec home) of the “Oriental Hawaii” and price a few units. This development includes mixed-use towers and a subdivision of single-family housing in a style mocking the cookie-cutter models of American suburbs. These units cost only a fraction of what units in the center of Beijing cost…..naturally. We tour the model house mock-up on site and choose the style of interior that most suites our taste. “This one is for the modern couple,” says JinLing as I point out the mirror on the ceiling of the Master Bedroom Suite.

I ask myself how self-sufficient these new developments will be. City planners have outlined transportation services to all 11 new towns, but some developments seem more car-reliant than others. It is interesting to see residents creating their own public and commercial spaces where there is either a lack of planned space or where the built fabric and its relationship to the street – one place where the Chinese are used to doing business – is designed at an inappropriately large scale. How will these ground-up (very culturally Chinese) initiatives manifest in the subdivision a few blocks away?

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Another type of new city springs up at the edge of the in-progress new city: the worker’s low-rise concrete city. Fueled here by an inordanant amount of outdoor pool-halls. This is the entrance road into the model home, by the way. Surprisingly, the workers’ quarters are not hidden here like they are in most places (ie. Dubai). I can see the rows of bunkbeds through the small windows from the dusty street.

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