Protecting the Ancient Alleys of Beijing

By Collins, Michael | Contemporary Review, January 2005 | Go to article overview
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Protecting the Ancient Alleys of Beijing


Collins, Michael, Contemporary Review


AS the modernisation of Beijing gathers pace, more and more of its unique ancient alleys (hutongs) and the adjoining four-sided enclosed courtyards that comprise them (siheyuan), in which traditionally most urban Chinese have used to live, are being torn down and replaced by office buildings, shopping centres, apartment complexes and newly widened roads. Thus Beijing risks losing its characteristic cityscape. The problem is how to balance city construction and hutong preservation.

For the 62.5 square kilometres of Old Beijing City, protection theoretically plays a central role. Unfortunately, the guideline made in the 1980s to control the height of new buildings has become virtually a dead letter. Moreover, gaps in China's law of real property have enabled commercial interests to persuade the authorities to allow the forcible relocation of residents to make way for new developments.

The conflict between the protection and development of Beijing City has lasted for a long time. After 1949, the capital was again set up in Beijing, and in the early 1950s, two competing plans were put forward for the development of the city. The focal point of debate was where the city centre should be. The first plan proposed that, for historical reasons, it should coincide with the centre of Old Beijing. The alternative was the Liang & Chen plan, which proposed that the centre be built somewhat to the west of the historic centre in order to protect it.

The Liang & Chen plan was put forward by Liang Sicheng of Qinghua University and Chen Zhanxiang (Charlie Cheng), head of the layout department of the Beijing Metropolis Plan Committee. This plan pointed out many difficulties and disadvantages in the original proposal. First, construction of the municipal centre inside the Old City would considerably increase the population of the rest of the city because the city centre residents would have to be evacuated and the density of the population in the Old City was very high. In fact, if new construction replaced the existing housing, approximately 130,000 houses would be destroyed and over 182,000 residents would have to relocate. Secondly, if a lot of modern buildings were constructed in the centre of Old Beijing City, they would completely change the layout of the hutongs and destroy their appearance. Moreover, if a lot of new buildings were constructed on the main streets, the flow and complexity of traffic would soon increase. At the same time, the long distances between different government offices and between working areas and living quarters would result in traffic congestion, overcrowding on public transport and excessive commutes.

In terms of cost, the Liang & Chen Plan was the more economical. It required expenditure only for new roads, sewerage and wiring for the new accommodations in the suburbs; new office buildings; housing areas for civil servants; and for planting new trees. In contrast, the first plan also involved expenditure for pulling down old houses, clearing up sites and transporting materials; purchasing properties; the relocation of residents to be evacuated; and housing in the suburbs both for relocated residents and civil servants. The Liang & Chen Plan had the additional advantage of providing for the sustainable development of the whole of Beijing City. At the time, however, Old Beijing City was seen as a symbol of feudalism and eventually the Liang & Chen Plan was shelved, resulting in the wholesale destruction of hutongs. The need for more secondary municipal buildings was indeed recognised in the Sanlihe Programme of 1952, but in the event this plan too was not carried out and more and more new highrise buildings were constructed in the Old City.

The condition of the hutongs was further affected during the 1950s and 60s by the new land and population policies. In 1958, many siheyuans were transferred to public ownership. Meanwhile the new population policy encouraged people to give birth to as many babies as possible and resulted in a great increase in the population of Beijing.

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