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China’s urban fever

The building boom may be good for the country’s GDP, writes Jiang Yi, but it wastes valuable resources. To truly modernise, he argues, construction needs to be controlled.

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China’s economic growth has been accompanied by an unprecedented surge in urban construction. In the mid-1990s, the World Bank predicted that building area in China’s cities would double in a decade. Yet the reality exceeds even that figure. One survey found that urban building area actually doubled in a mere five years, from 7.7 billion square metres in 2000 to almost 15 billion square metres in 2004. This growth outstrips that of the urban population, and hence the average living area per person is also rapidly increasing.

If this continues, where will it leave us? The following possibilities are described in China’s 11th Five-Year Plan and development plans up to 2020.

- Continue adding an extra 2 billion square metres of urban building area annually. By 2020, an additional 30 billion square metres will have been constructed, giving a total of 45 billion square metres and a per-capita average of 54 square metres.

- Continue building 2 billion square metres of building area annually, with half of this being in new areas. By 2020, an additional 15 billion square metres of urban floor area will have been constructed, giving a total of 30 billion square metres and a per capita average of 36 square metres.

- Build an additional 0.7 to 1 billion square metres annually. By 2020 an additional 10 billion square metres will have been constructed, with a total of 25 billion square metres and a per capita average of 30 square metres.

The rapid growth in urban construction has greatly improved the conditions of the residential, office and public spaces in which urban residents live. It has also spurred growth in the steel, non-ferrous metals and construction materials sectors. However, we cannot help but worry about the problems this over-rapid expansion may bring.

Urban expansion has swallowed huge quantities of cultivated land. From 1998 to 2005, China’s cities expanded by 50%. Some eastern coastal cities already suffer from a land shortage, with no space for new building. Urban construction inevitably requires new roads, green areas and so on. If we assume a floor-area ratio of 0.7 to 1, then 10 billion square metres of new floor area will require 14 billion square metres of land. If 20 billion square metres are constructed on cultivated land, it will reduce China’s total cultivated land by 2.4%.

In 2005 China’s steel industry consumed power equivalent to 250 million tonnes of coal, 70% of which was for construction-related production. Production of concrete accounted for a further 100 million tonnes of coal, 50% of which was for construction. Another 100 million tonnes of coal was used in the production of non-ferrous metals and other construction materials. The equivalent of 300 million tonnes of coal was used powering the production of materials for urban construction, 15% of China’s total commercial power generation. In a sense, the higher-than-GDP growth in power consumption over the last three years is due to over-rapid urban and infrastructure construction.

Urban construction cannot continue at its present speed. If it is allowed to reach its limit and suddenly halted, then factories will close and equipment will lie idle, causing social problems. Alternatively, a slowing of construction will reduce the demand for building materials, greatly diminish the potential future problems and meet the needs of sustainable development. This will cause problems for GDP and employment today, but the key is to resolve these matters through the value-added service sector. We must not create long-term dangers for the sake of short-term growth.

Power consumed during regular use of a building accounts for 80% or more of its total lifetime consumption. In the operation of urban buildings, consumption consists of winter heating for those in northern areas, non-heat-related power use in residential and general public buildings, and consumption by large public buildings -- accounting for 20 to 22% of total public power consumption. Such consumption by buildings is related to their size, and as they increase in number, so does their power use. If China’s urban buildings double in number, power consumption may well increase by an ever greater amount. In the United States, Japan and Europe, building-power consumption has risen from between 20 and 25% to almost 40% as these regions become focused on finance and technology.

As China’s stock of urban buildings has doubled in five years, the percentage of new buildings is high and few of them are in current need of repair. Therefore, maintenance costs do not make up a significant part of overall construction investment. However, as time passes these costs will gradually become more apparent. Statistics show that in the United Kingdom in 1980, repair costs accounted for two-thirds of total civil-engineering spending. The average for developed countries is about 50%.

Over the last two decades, China’s building-quality control has been weak and building lifespans have been short. Now, the huge number of new buildings will begin to need costly repairs at approximately the same time. This may even impact upon sustainable social and economic development.

The development of American society was founded on the consumption of global resources, and its high level of living space per person demonstrates the country’s profligate use of materials and energy. Western Europe’s post-war construction took place in the 1950s, when the US already controlled much of the world’s resources; building area per capita stabilised at about 60% of the US figure. Development in Asia took place in the late 1950s and 1960s, when the first hints of resource shortages were appearing -- and so these countries tended to conserve resources. However, a relative lack of living space did not prevent economic growth or improved living standards.

In comparison with more developed parts of Asia, China’s building area per capita is by no means low. Even if 15 million rural residents move to the cities each year, only 500 million to 600 million square metres of new construction will be required to avoid falling behind the Asian average. If that figure rises to 1 billion square metres, then by 2025 we will reach western European levels. At 2 billion square metres, we would surpass America’s current standard by 2030. But will our reserves of land, resources and power, and our environmental circumstances, allow us to pursue these standards? More living space will incur huge power, environmental and maintenance costs – without guaranteeing greater efficiency or living standards. This high-cost, low-return choice is not one that China should make.  

A conserving society is our only option for modernisation, and controlling construction is an important characteristic of a conserving society.

One of the strategic goals of the 11th Five-Year Plan is to reduce the power consumed per RMB 10,000 of GDP by 20%. If urban construction can be reduced from its current 1 billion square metres per year to between 600 million and 800 million square metres, market demand for construction materials will fall by two-thirds and the power consumed in construction of those materials (including steel) will fall from 20% of the current total to 10%. That would bring us half-way to meeting that strategic goal.

Current urban construction is already adequate for social, economic and living needs. To continue blindly expanding construction for the sake of GDP growth and fail to restructure production will result in the wasting of resources and power – a dangerous choice completely at odds with our aims of sustainable growth. The construction of large, luxurious homes should be stopped, with the average size of a household limited to 90 square metres or less. New construction should be limited, falling from the current total of over 1 billion square meters annually to 600 million square metres within five years.

Rational control of urban construction is essential for the sustainable development of China’s cities.

 

Jiang Yi, professor at Tsinghua University and Academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, is an expert on building and environmental engineering. He is noted for his research on power-saving buildings and ecological construction.

Also about urbanisation on chinadialogue: Toward sustainable urbanisation in China

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评论 comments

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

改变消费观和缩小城乡差距来控制城建

中国人口多,所以即便大家都富裕了,恐怕也不能像西方社会一样有足够的土地来让很人都住进别墅。 所以,还需要改变消费方式,特别是富人们。

农村人口入城加速了城市化发展。中国需要极大缩小城乡差别,从而来稳定人口流动,并促进人口向郊区转移。如今,中国大城市的污染如此严重,如果郊区有好的发展,谁不愿意生活和住在好环境中。那么,郊区定会很有吸引力的。

所以,控制城建是一个社会发展的大问题。

Changing consumption attitudes and reducing the rural-urban divide to control urban construction

China’s population is very large. Therefore, even if everyone was affluent, I’m afraid we would not be able to all live in villas like people in western societies. Hence, a change of consumption patterns is still needed, especially of the rich. The speed at which the rural population is entering cities is accelerating. China needs an enormous reduction in rural-urban disparities in order to bring about a stabilisation of the floating population, in combination to faster displacement of people to the suburbs. Actually, the pollution in China’s cities is so grave that if the suburbs were well-built, who would not want to live and work in a nice environment? In that case, the suburbs would certainly become much more attractive. Hence, controlling urban construction is a serious issue of social development.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

一项复杂的问题

这篇文章很有意思, 然而, 它并没有强调所潜在的问题。对于上述的评论, 我表示赞同,那就是说不只是解决建设方面当前的问题, 而且还要看待由大量来自郊区新移民的涌入而导致城市与乡村之间贫富的差距。这是一项复杂的问题并且需要中国领导层巨大的努力。不幸的是, 这远远超出了城市建设自身的问题,而中国领导层所接触一些最巨大的挑战就是将必须面对社会政策问题。

A complex problem

This is a very interesting article, which however, does not highlight the underlying issue at hand. I agree with the above comment, that not only the immediate problem of construction needs to be addressed, but also the influx of large numbers of rural immigrants as a result of an ever-widening rural-urban divide. This is a very complex issue, which requires an enormous effort on behalf of the Chinese leadership. This, unfortunately goes far beyond the problem of urban construction itself, and touches upon some of the greatest challenges the Chinese leadership will have to face in terms of social policy.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

生为中国人

生为中国人,我们必须蜷缩着生活。每个人都住大房子,中国将遍地是高楼。每个人都开汽车,所有的路都将成为停车厂。十三亿人口,你让中国怎么办呢?

Being Chinese

Being Chinese, we must contract our lifestyles. If every Chinese stays in a big house, high rise buildings will be scattered everywhere. If everyone drives cars, the roads will all become car parks. With a population of 1.3 billion, what else can China do?

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

中国的问题

中国的问题并不是土地不够多,而是不够合理利用。十三亿人口,我不清楚其中到底有多少中产阶级;但是我知道在日本,是号称有一亿中流的,就是说在日本一点三亿人口中,有一亿属于中产阶级,然而在日本这个小岛国,并没有看到如同中国一般的拥挤,而中国,能卖得起汽车和大房的中国人应该不到一亿吧?所以,不要把问题归结与中国的人口,而更多地把思考的方向放到政府管理和提高公民素质上来。
-Aturen

China's problem

China's problem is not that land is too scarce, but that it is not reasonably used. The population is 1.3 billion, out of which I'm not sure how many are really middle class, but I know that in Japan they claim 100 million in the middle class. That is to say, in Japan from a population of 300 million, there are 100 million who belong to the middle class. And yet in Japan, a small island nation, one does not see the same kind of crowding as in China, and in China those who can buy cars and big houses don't quite reach 100 million? Therefore, it is not so much about returning to the problem of China's population, but more about taking the direction of thinking towards government management and elevating the character of citizens. -Aturen

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

回复:中国的问题

Aturen, 谢谢的你评论。日本的人口已接近一亿两千七百万。请参阅:: https://cia.gov/cia//publications/factbook/geos/ja.html

Re: China's problem

Thanks for your comment, Aturen.

The population of Japan is approximately 127 million.

Take a look at: https://cia.gov/cia//publications/factbook/geos/ja.html

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

china indeed need to care more about rural

it the people living in rural areas do not have a relatively good life, they absolutely want to enter cities.

中国确实需要更关心农民

如果生活在农村的人们没有相对较好的生活,他们当然会想进城谋取更好的生活。

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

土地不能都盖房

评论4说的有理,但我更同意评论3,农村人口进城、城市化等诸多资源、环境和社会问题之所以巨大到天文数字程度,归根结底在于天文数字的中国人口。
日本的典型4口之家,一般居住面积才70多平米,而中国所谓中产阶层3口之家现在都在100平米!中国土地再多,但可耕地有多少?而且盖房和住房的能源从何而来?粮食蔬菜到哪里去种?青藏高原、塔克拉玛干大沙漠、还是西北戈壁滩?

You cannot construct houses on all of China's land

Comment 4 makes a reasonable point. Yet I agree even more with Comment 3: the reason why the social, environmental, and resource problems of China are so enormous can be led back to the sheer enormity of China's population. Japan's classic four-person household generally lives in an area of 70 square meters; yet China's so-called "middle class", three-person household now lives in an area of 100 square meters! China's land is also large, yet how much of it can be tilled? And where will the resource capabilities come from to build and live in houses? Where will grains and vegetables be planted? On the high plateaus of Qinghai and Tibet, the Taklamakan desert, or the Gobi dunes in the northwest?

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

关键是政策如何向中国中低产阶级倾斜

很同意文章的观点,中国很多地方政府正在盲目地以增加城市建设规模作为GDP增长的主要渠道。发展城市建设,确实带到了多方面的经济发展。于是,中国就可以拿数字向世界说话。
中国到处大兴土木,改房建房,似乎拥有13亿人口之多的中国的人民,其房屋问题就可以得到解决。但是,事实却是,真正需要房屋的劳动人民永远都处在缺房的状态,他们当中的一大部分要倾其一生的劳动才有可能有房可居。而那些富人们,却可以同时拥有几处豪宅。而浪费资源的罪魁祸首就是这样的富人们。他们从劳动人民的手中掠夺资源,然后换个形式让这些劳动人民以超出十倍的价格来买,买不起,资源也就轻而易举地装在了这些富人们的口袋。
政府的天真想法就这样纵容了戴着伪善面具的交易,似乎赢得了国际地位,却浪费了资源,使穷苦大众流离失所。
希望政府采取有效的强硬措施,多向中低产阶级倾斜,来控制这种盲目的城市建设进程!
Juliet

What's crucial in China is pro-lower-middle-class policies.

I can't agree more with this article. Local governments in China are increasing urban constructions blindly as a way to secure GDP growth. It indeed brought about economic developments in many ways, making it possible for China to talk to the world with numbers.

China has construction projects everywhere, rebuilding existing buildings or starting new ones from scratch. It seems to be an effective way to solve the housing problem of its 1.3 billion population. However, in fact, those who need housing badly will still remain in need, probably forever. Most of them can never afford a place to live without spending the income of their whole life. While the rich, on the contrary, always own several luxurous houses simultaneously and they are the main forces of wasteful consumption of resources in China. They are robbing resources from the working class, processing them a bit and reselling them back to the working class at a price ten times higher. If the people can't afford it, they will easily be entitled to the consumption of those resources.

The naive thoughts of the government are supporting those hypocritical trades. They seemingly contribute to the upgrade of China's status in the global community, but are actually wasting resources and deteriorating the living standards of the poor. Hope the government can adopt some strong and effective policies, making them pro lower and middle class, to get the blind expension of ruban constructions under control!

Juliet