Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Beijing and the Development of Dual Central Business Districts

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Beijing and the Development of Dual Central Business Districts

Article excerpt

Among the world's largest metropolises, Beijing is notable for its ancient roots and current transformations. Founded more than 3,000 years ago, the city has served as the national capital of China for at least eight centuries - during the last five feudal dynasties (Liao, Jin, Yuan, Ming, Qing) and, since 1949, for the People's Republic of China. Over the past decade the city's urban landscape has experienced dramatic changes. A research trip to Beijing in the summer of 1997 allowed me to investigate these changes. The choice of Beijing was not accidental: I grew up there and studied geography and urban planning for seven years at Beijing University before I came to the United States in 1989. It is the city to which I have always felt closest. Although I was well aware that Beijing was going through many changes, nothing prepared me for the sweeping transformations that had occurred since my previous visit, in 1992. The urban landscape and people's way o life differed so drastically that initially I was not sure this was where I had resided for twenty-four years. Even lifelong residents have similar feelings: One friend told me, "If I don't go to this section of town for several months, many of the streets and buildings can become unrecognizable."

This note tracks one aspect of urban development in Beijing, the emergence of a central business district (CBD). Before I left China in 1989 I led a group of graduate students in drawing up a developmental plan for one of Beijing's major retail centers, Xidan. This site, we thought, would probably grow from a retail center into a CBD of Beijing (Peng, Zhou, and Qi 1989). Although the memory remained fresh, it took me no time to realize how obsolete our conclusion had become eight years later. The location of Beijing's CBD, however, remains an interesting matter.

The CBD is the most visible landmark in many Western and Third World colonial cities. Even with the decline of central cities in many metropolitan areas throughout the united States, the unmistakable cluster of high-rises in the middle of a built-up urban area is as conspicuous as ever. Many high-level business services such as finance, advertising, and government continue to gravitate to CBDs, despite more-dispersed patterns of other sectors and so-called back offices, which conduct routine data and information processing instead of directly interacting with clients. But in Beijing visitors who want to find a visible CBD by scanning the landscape may face a challenge. Both as the capital of a feudal empire and as the epicenter of a centrally planned socialist economy, Beijing developed its enormous size and sophisticated urban structure without a CBD. This is changing, however, with advancing market reforms that have dramatically altered the urban structure and landscape of Beijing.

Yet the market reform has not transformed Beijing into just another capitalist city. The entangled relationship between state bureaucracy and market forces, including the notable complications of urban land markets, has produced a unique spatial configuration in Beijing, represented in part by its CBD. In Beijing there is a marked spatial divide between the international and trade-oriented eastern business center and the government- and finance-oriented western business center, almost symmetrically located on two sides of the old city [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. During my summer visit I interviewed numerous planners, scholars, real estate developers, entrepreneurs, and ordinary citizens in the city and collected information from various publications. This record note summarizes some of my findings about how and why the duality arose.


It is not difficult to understand why Beijing did not have a CBD. Throughout its feudal history, the city was always a political center of China. Government and bureaucracy were its main foundation, overshadowing even its economic importance. …

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