Monday, May 13, 2013

Danwei: Smart Growth Before it Was Cool?

Land Use Characteristics in Beijing
Land use patterns in Beijing differ from most Western urban patterns and their characteristic central business districts (CBDs) of high employment density surrounded by rings of residential and mixed-use zones.*  Instead of this bulls-eye pattern, Beijing’s land use is more uniformly mixed-use in an array that seems the very epitome of Smart Growth planning that we struggle to re-create in America today.  So the city should be a walkable, low-car utopia - right?

Danwei Organization
Beijing's land use reflects its early-1900s socialist ideals in the way its residential, financial, commercial, and open space are dispersed throughout the city area.  In part this is due to the danwei work organization system that was prevalent during China’s heavily socialist pre-reform period.  The danwei is socioeconomic unit consists of a place of work (such as a factory) that is partnered with nearby residential space for its workers and their families, as well as the public resources to support worker family including open space, public schools, cultural centers, and commercial/retail spaces. Danwei land use organization created countless subunits of semi-independent communities where one could easily walk to reach all their day-to-day amenities and destinations.

Although market forces are starting to overlay this pattern, this historic system laid the framework for a city that generally has a low employment density despite its extremely high population density.  For comparison, the employment density of Beijing’s most job-dense area in 2004 was only about 13-15,000 jobs per square kilometer; in cities like New York, Tokyo, and Chicago were nearly three times as high despite having a fraction of Beijing’s population [1]. 

Changes in Social Organization
This system of organization worked very well prior to the 1980s when people generally lived in the same danwei where they worked, and bicycling and walking were the most common means of transportation.  But three important changes have undermined the low-carbon, people-powered transportation efficiency of the danwei in recent decades.  First, many manufacturing centers and factories have relocated to the outskirts of the city.  Danwei no longer have the employment anchors they once guaranteed.  Secondly, job mobility has greatly expanded for Chinese workers.  A worker may now obtain a job on the other side of the city as easily as in their danwei.  And finally, the exponential rise in car ownership coupled with these changes means that millions of workers are daily travelling to disperse locations across the city. 

Transportation Implications
This creates an interesting traffic situation for Beijing.  As Ding and Zhao point out, a city with a strong CBD may have a greater ability to regulate and control congestions when people want to travel to the same destination at approximately the same time every day [1].  Measures like HOV lanes, congestion pricing, tolls, and high parking costs are easy to implement when traffic flow is concentrated on a select few facilities.  The dispersed nature of Beijing employment makes work-based transportation much harder to control.  It also makes a traditional wheel-and-spoke transit network less effective.

As we’ve seen from the massive congestion issues and astronomical popularity of private vehicles in Beijing, even Smart Growth-esque land use patterns do not guarantee low-car lifestyles or an end to traffic problems. Limited personal choice in job location and transportation was instrumental in the early success of the mixed-use danwei model, but as choice has grown so has Beijing’s familiarity with auto dependence and congestion.  Planners may want to consider the Beijing example in promoting and implementing Smart Growth development and recognize that a strongly defined CBD may be as essential to low-car urban areas as walking-distance grocery stores and ground floor retail.

*(American cities have de-centralized significantly over the past fifty years; however, most major urban areas still retain a “downtown” where employment activity was historically concentrated.

1.) Ding, Chengri, and Xingshuo Zhao. "Assessment of urban spatial-growth patterns in China during rapid urbanization." Chinese Economy 44.1 (2011): 46-71.

2.) Ding, Chengri. "Policy and planning challenges to promote efficient urban spatial development during the emerging rapid transformation in China."Sustainability 1.3 (2009): 384-408.

1 comment:

  1. Rebecca, thanks for posting this!

    It's very interesting to see somewhere that has such a drastically different urban pattern. It certainly gives one pause seeing that the trends that have played out here are continuing there, and reinforces the idea that congestion and other negative externalities are fundamentally connected with cars. I think you make a good point that CBDs concentrate congestion which may make it more feasible to manage, even if there's more of it.

    I was wondering two things as I read this:
    1) Is there any remaining government intervention in the danwei structure or management, or is it mostly market-based now.
    2) Even if they're commuting outside the danwei, do residents keep most of their trips local?



Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.