Backward and Forward in Time: Urban Rehabilitation in the Xicheng District of Beijing

Today, unlike earlier periods when the proverbial \”urban bulldozer\” was encouraged to move through dilapidated innercity areas with a certain alacrity, making way for new modern projects, urban redevelopment has become a far more complex undertaking. Sustaining and promoting economic development and the \”highest and best use\” of urban property must now include conservation and even preservation of historically or culturally significant areas and actively take on the social dimensions of population displacement and provision of local livelihoods. While commonplace in Europe and America, this more complex view is also being applied in cities in the East Asian region, like Beijing,China – albeit against a background of rapid and otherwise wholesale modernization. There, in the historic innercity, issues involved in urban redevelopment have become severely exacerbated by decades of official neglect, excessive overcrowding, blight, an appalling lack of basic services, and substantial informal settlement. According to one report in 1991, some 38 percent of families living in the West City District of inner Beijing (Xicheng) had serious housing problems, with almost 10 percent of them dwelling in living space of less than 2 square meters per person. Moreover, of the single-story housing common throughout the innercity, 48 percent (10.19 million square meters) was classified as structurally unsuitable or unsafe – much of it provided through informal \”self-help\” building practices. Although these circumstances have begun to change recently, under concerted municipal action – housing renewal areas and neighborhood rehabilitation programs – the situation is still far from uniformly satisfactory, with many of the innercity\’s roughly 1.7 million people (excluding floating populations) living in less than 10 square meters per person and often in the appalling dwelling conditions depicted in earlier surveys. In stark contrast to these scenes of urban blight and deteriorating housing conditions, the inner-city of Beijing has also become rife with substantial commercial investment, accompanied by massive new building projects and infrastructure improvements. Indeed, during the past two decades the service or \”tertiary sector\” has expanded significantly, now accounting for more that 54 percent of the city\’s Gross Domestic Product, up from well below 20 percent, making it the highest among China\’s major cities, and further illustrating the rate and degree to which modernization has been occurring. One consequence, however, has been a skyrocketing of land rent in Beijing\’s fledgling property market, involving, at times, wholesale speculation and official (as well as unofficial) acquiescence. In spite of attempts by the municipal government to concentrate substantial amounts of this new development in more or less coherent commercial centers, pressures and pent-up demands for massive new redevelopment can still be felt. Finally, historic conservation and preservation have recently loomed large on Chinese municipal agendas, as elsewhere in East Asia, in Beijing not the least because of the realization, in at least some official quarters, that one of the very essences of the city is intimately bound up with lane life, the hutongs and the low-lying, intricate fabric of local neighborhoods. In l982 the State Council – China\’s governing body – designated Beijing as an \”important cultural city,\” and indeed, many literary works, both old and contemporary, that use Beijing as a setting, are suffused with copious descriptions of life amid the horizontal walls and adjacent low-lying courtyards of the hutongs, where time often seems to have stood still for an interminable period. Ironically, perhaps, it has been the very lack of modernization, up until recently, that has saved extensive areas of this incomparable cultural environment from almost sure destruction – their sheer dilapidation notwithstanding. Today, when preserv