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China Is Falling Out of Love With Skyscrapers

China Is Falling Out of Love With Skyscrapers

Monday, 18 July, 2022 - 04:45

Nothing ruins a Chinese neighborhood like a vacant skyscraper owned by a bankrupt real estate developer. But Hefei, the capital of Anhui Province, has something worse: the first floors of a building intended to be one of the world's tallest. Its owner, cash-strapped China Evergrande Group, has suspended construction while it tries to avoid a default that would shake China's economy.

Even if Evergrande manages to dig itself out of its financial hole, the physical one will remain. Earlier this week, China's chief economic planning agency announced that it was severely restricting the construction of tall buildings to improve urban environments, while China's housing agency ordered developers to focus on low-rise residences. These are monumental shifts for China, which long prioritized the construction of tall buildings at the expense of safety, livability and affordable housing.

If the government follows through on its promises, the 518-meter (1,669-foot) Hefei tower will never rise. But a more livable urban China will.

In 1982, the tallest building in China was Shanghai’s 24-story Park Hotel, completed in 1934. It's an art deco gem, but the country's ambitious developers and political leaders viewed it — and China's other low-rise urban landscapes — as a symbol of China's backwardness as an investment destination.

So they decided to change perceptions. In 1992, Shanghai opened a competition to design a central business district worthy of its ambition to become a global financial hub on par with London and New York. The plan included the development of three immense skyscrapers in a tight cluster. The last of these to be built, the 632-meter (2,073-foot) Shanghai Tower, was completed in 2015 and is the world's second-tallest building.

Shanghai's modern skyline came to symbolize China's rise. Other cities took the hint. China now has 2,928 buildings taller than 150 meters (492 feet), 953 higher than 200 meters (656 feet) and an astonishing 102 skyscrapers above 300 meters (984 feet). In all three classes, it leads the world. In addition, it is home to countless 20-story residential high-rises.

The benefits were far-reaching. China's booming economy required office space; as wealth was generated, a middle class needed homes. Along the way, China's construction industry became a key contributor to the country's growth.

Urban problems grew, too. Shanghai's central business district looks impressive from a distance, but its skyscraper-first design creates lifeless streets. The same is true in hundreds of other pedestrian-unfriendly Chinese cities and towns. The wide boulevards and forests of high-rises make Chinese cities indistinguishable.

It's not just the neighborhoods that are unpleasant. In recent weeks, Chinese media outlets have published several articles pointing out pocketbook and quality-of-life issues associated with living in tall buildings, including the poor quality of high-rise constriction, fire safety concerns (most Chinese fire departments aren't equipped to handle a high-rise fire) noise complaints and water pressure issues. Some articles go so far as to suggest that China's soon-to-be-shrinking population will make matters worse, emptying out buildings just as they need owners to contribute to upkeep.

Peking University researchers have also determined that the residential high-rises are doomed to long-term depreciation and decay. Most are built on land leased from the government for 70-year terms, meaning that the incentive to spend money on upkeep will decline. In time — the scholars suggested 30 years — a shiny new high-rise is likely to become a slum.

Concerns about Chinese high-rise life date back years, and are shared by official China. A “ghost city” phenomenon from the early 2010s prompted authorities to worry about excess real estate construction and speculation. The concerns weren't just economic. Last July, two months after a signature, 72-story skyscraper in Shenzhen spontaneously shook, China's economic planners banned further construction of buildings over 500 meters and severely restricted construction over 250 meters.

Safety and overcapacity aren’t the only concerns. On Monday, China's top economic planning agency released an ambitious urbanization plan designed to “optimize” city life. It covers everything from park design to the banning of “weird” foreign architectural influences. Notably, it also reiterates the government's previous restrictions on super tall skyscrapers.

Then, on Wednesday, housing regulators issued new rules on building low-carbon cities, towns and villages. China's big cities will be de-emphasized in favor of suburbs connected by improved mass-transit and where at least 70% of the housing must be six stories or less (built using low-carbon construction materials and methods, and outfitted with low-carbon appliances). In addition, neighborhoods were told to have “narrow roads, dense road networks and small blocks,” as well as walking and cycling paths so that residents need not travel more than 15 minutes from home for most daily requirements and activities.

That's a monumental shift in how China builds and governs its cities. If followed, it will mean that cities are built to attract residents, not investors. Automobiles and high-rise buildings — products subsidized to boost growth — will be de-emphasized in favor of amenities that may not earn immediate revenues, but would enhance city life. That's a blueprint for a more human-scaled China.

It's also a blueprint for a Chinese construction industry that needs to adjust to slower growth. That won't be quick or easy. But as China's towering skylines falter under growing financial burdens, China's developers have no choice but to go small.


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