Living Space and Parking Space in China

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The perennial question in China's history "Got Space?" resurfaces again in two areas of current boomtown growth, living space and parking space.

Thomas Powell

Got space? This seems to be a perennial question in China across its long history. Space for agriculture has always been in great demand; even the smallest truck patch is carefully cultivated. The question resurfaces again in two areas of current boomtown growth, living space and parking space.

I. Living Space:

By now, everybody has seen glossy photos of Shanghai’s amazing skyline. We we’re fortunate to visit on the same muggy June weekend of the new Disney World grand opening. But the pomp and ceremony of Mickey and friends was a minor side show amidst the architectural wonders created by a cadre of world class architects clambering one over the other to break out of the modernist glass box.

In the high-rise race, New York goes for vertical height with the World Trade Center complex and the Hudson Rail Yards development, but most new and proposed NYC towers such as 432 Park Ave. and One57 recycle visually stale vertical formulas. By contrast, Shanghai’s lofty new towers which are significantly less tall, nevertheless, pirouette, undulate, bend glass, wear funny hats, and shake their booty with vaulting structure and imaginative lighting. Their foundations are built upon “floating platforms” designed to prevent settling and ride out earthquakes. Shanghai is truly the world’s new architectural gem leading the Asian Renaissance. The imagination and grace of post-Modern architecture has found a patron home as Shanghai has entered the architectural world class of Palenque and Venice.

Despite this grandeur, the most stunning development in the built environment of Shanghai (and all China) is the phenomenal extent of the high rise apartment building boom. It is a visual shock to see block after block after block of residential towers. Twenty to thirty story identical apartment buildings rise in clusters of a dozen to thirty towers. These apartment developments cover many acres. Some high-rise structures share a common floating foundation. Other clusters have interlocking floating foundations like the root systems of a forest. Bedrock is buried a long ways down beneath centuries of annual sediments in the meandering Yangtze River delta. The most economical way to stack living quarters on a mud flat, it seems, is to float them. The boat city of sampans clogging Suzhou Creek is long gone; floating towers are the new housing norm.

Shanghai is surrounded by dozens of floating mega-developments. The train ride up the Yangtze flood plane to Nanjing (about 200 miles) sprouts apartment mega clusters on both sides of the tracks. In an odd metaphorical way, these new high-rise apartment developments resemble orchard geometry. A satellite photo from above would reveal the fractal pattern.

The conformity of concrete towers and their overwhelming sameness leaves an Orwellian distaste in the Western palate. Are these vertical honeycombs evidence of forced land closure? Are they future tenements easily cantoned against civil unrest? The vast national apartment building boom throughout China is a project of a scale hard to conceive from outside of China. The relocation of so great a percentage of its population of former peasants off the land into vertical warehouses and into wage labor occupations will transform China in ways which cannot be fully anticipated by current social planners.

The social concerns will play out as China politically evolves. At present however, rural land flight has been occurring in China at a staggering rate during four decades of rapid economic growth. Internal migration fueled by a transformed manufacturing economy has fed the demand for urban worker housing. In turn, traditional family living arrangements have been upended. The apartment building boom is China’s planned response to its enormous need for mass housing and improved living conditions. Apartments have running water, hot water, flush toilets, air-conditioning and space heating appliances, refrigerators and microwaves, cable and internet hook ups, balconies with sliding glass doors, elevators, connections to bus and subway lines—all the amenities never conceived of in rural living. Modern apartments offer the lure of material comfort.

In many regards China’s housing boom shares significant similarities with the suburban housing boom in the US over the past few decades. The high rise apartment blocks of China and US single-family suburban sprawl are both structured by the dynamics of pro-growth economy, by urban/suburban design theory, and notably by the idealized social narrative of housing which is marketed consciously and subliminally to the consumer. The consumer desire for an idealized living space in both Chinese and US housing markets is very real. However, the form it takes in each country is a socially manufactured quantity.

Another parallel is that both housing booms as engines of economic growth have caused horrendous destruction to their respective environments. Construction on such industrial scale burns enormous quantities of fossil fuels and generates mountainous debris. Vegetation is ripped out, topsoil churned up, and the arable earth paved under concrete and asphalt. The global environmental impact is felt through international market demand for imported fuel, steel, rare metals, plastics, chemicals, timber and concrete. Housing construction is touted by market savants as great engines of economic prosperity, but the long-term costs to the planetary environment of human overpopulation are never reckoned into their equations. The reduction of all earth to commodity (which includes the banishment of sacred space into the ether) is the perennial and fatal flaw of all capitalist pro-growth economic theory.

But there are also huge differences between the two housing booms in very basic economic terms. China’s vertical housing coupled with public transportation is a lot more efficient as a grand-scale population warehousing model than the US suburban, car-dependent sprawl. Also, China’s housing need has been much greater for a much longer time period with its billion plus population and the distance it needed to modernize from past living conditions. Lastly, Wall Street pundits have regularly been predicting the eminent collapse of “China’s housing bubble” which has not happened much to their dismay. China’s housing boom has neither bubbled nor burst, while the US housing market tanked in 2008 igniting the global economic recession.

In China, the housing sector like other economic sectors is highly regulated by the government. The apartment construction boom has been undertaken through state owned enterprises (SOE) which are for-profit businesses that retain a public policy component. These entities are not so different conceptually or structurally from American utility companies with guaranteed profits for monopoly services. Initially, SOE in the mining and heavy industry sectors built soviet style block housing for their own workforce and families and in this effort acquired large-scale construction development expertise. In this process they also amassed cash reserves and significant access to bank credit. The government recruited this expertise by permitting the industrial SOE to expand into for-profit apartment block construction. Housing development has grown to around 14% domestic GDP annually which makes it a huge economic growth engine.

The supply of new apartment units built by developers and the consumer demand for housing varies greatly by local market. Tier 1 cities have higher demand than Tier 2, 3, and 4 cities. Both national and local supply is controlled by government regulators who adjust bank interest rates to developers making it profitable to build in one city this year but not in another. Bank interest rates to home buyers can similarly be adjusted. The amount of down payment required by the purchaser and other loan qualification criteria is controlled from above, and in this way the government can tighten markets in Tier 1 cities while loosening markets in Tier 3 and 4 cities to encourage relocation and population disbursement. In this managed fashion China has had a forty year housing construction boom without a market crash.

However, not all buyer qualifications are economic which creates room for dissent and criticism. Individuals are generally not allowed to purchase homes solely for oneself. The qualifying party is the family or the extended family, and families cannot purchase multiple homes for a rental business. However, on the whole the housing industry in China has worked as a model of planned economy. According to some sources, China now has the world’s highest family home ownership rate of 90%, and amongst the world’s highest in per capita accrued private savings.

The irony is that this method of using interest rates on loans to control money supply (apartment purchases) in the targeted housing market is an applied monetary policy derived from the liberal economic theory of the rabidly anti-socialist economist, Friedrich Hayek, for which he received the Nobel Prize. Hayek argued that interest rate and money supply form a feedback loop that when properly juggled allows the central bank to control inflation and eliminate economic boom and bust cycles. The Federal Reserve Bank has been using Hayek’s formula to stabilize rapid market fluctuations since the days of Paul Volcker with mixed results, but It seems the Chinese economists have become Hayek’s best students.

The eminent burst of the Chinese housing bubble is not going to happen in the catastrophic manner predicted by Wall Street pundits. Chinese regulators exercise far greater control over banks and SOE speculators than their counterparts in the US. Yet many of the high-rise developments we saw were still under construction. If the social goal of universal family home ownership is close to realization, how many more apartment units need to be built? How much more living space is required? When will there be full occupancy? Clearly at some point there will need to be a dramatic slowdown in the apartment construction industry. So the very real problem facing China’s planners is where in the domestic economy do you redirect this huge capital generating machine? Where is China to move the labor force and capital currently tied up in the housing sector? This is a serious economic quandary.

II. Parking Space:

One possible new venture to park its wealth is the rapidly growing domestic automobile industry. In the last decade, China has overtaken the EU to become the world leader in per unit vehicle production. It has overtaken the combined US and Japan annual per vehicle production as well. There are more than a dozen Chinese SOE auto manufactures which produce autos, vans, SUVs, buses, trucks, and farm equipment. Additionally, there are many other collaborative ventures with foreign manufactures such as Volkswagen, GM, Ford, Fiat, and Toyota. Collaborative ventures require by law a 51% majority ownership interest by the Chinese partner. Most automobile production has gone into feeding the domestic market, but in 2014 China exported over 800,000 vehicles, and that export market will continue to grow.

One of the biggest concerns of other global automobile brands beyond direct competition from Chinese carmakers has been the theft of patented intellectual property. Patent laws protect the privatization of knowledge for profit in capitalist markets. Fiat, GM, and Daimler have sued Chinese automakers in Chinese courts for copyright and patent infringement of complex design components, including theft of an entire car design. Despite overwhelming evidence, Chinese courts have shielded SOE from international patent claims on technicalities of Chinese laws. Toyota has declined to produce the Prius in China over concerns of intellectual property theft. The power struggles within capitalism are ever ongoing.

But our practical concern is just how much space does one automobile require, and how much sense does it make for China to rush headlong with a pro-growth policy to produce and consume automobiles as the stop-gap high-end consumer product to replace the waning housing market? First, is the automotive industry being groomed to be the new reservoir of domestic capital generation? If this is the go-to economic strategy of China’s planners, it comes with serious warts. Horizontal car culture and vertical mass housing are not structurally compatible forms of social organization. There are obvious problematic areas I witnessed on my recent visit to China.

The vast automobile manufacturing capacity in China has tooled up within one decade which is a staggering reality. Vehicles are being produced and moved onto the roadways in enormous numbers. The initial capacity of the national roadways to absorb new cars is great in a territory as immense as China because there isn’t decades of aging inventory taking up space. But this capacity is already being taxed in urban areas. The first huge problem China faces in fostering the domestic auto market is the obvious lack of infrastructure for moving vehicles around the built environment. This shortage includes roadbeds, freeways, bridges, parking structures, gasoline stations, fuel storage depots, refineries, vehicle sales lots, repair shops, and junk yards. This necessary infrastructure is completely undersized for the projected industry and market growth, and the number of vehicles officials wish to put on the road by 2030. Meanwhile, the congestion on major streets of Beijing at rush hour is already daunting, and there are far fewer cars per capita in Beijing than any big American city.

The design of freeway interchanges, onramps and overpasses are incredibly convoluted. Ramps and bridges appear as addenda plugged in as circumstances require rather than following any comprehensive design. The bus ride from central Beijing to the airport is an example of modern traffic engineering conceived to efficiently move thousands of individual units superimposed upon infrastructure and traffic patterns of antiquity with the resultant congestion. The amount of real estate required by freeway theory has not been truly appreciated. The lack of driving rules besides traffic signals and driving on the right side of the road is interesting. The one Chinese road etiquette which prevails among all pedestrians, bicyclists, motor scooters, cars, taxies, pedicabs, busses, trucks and vendors is the constant jostling to get to the front of the line. This navigation style is cultural and assumed as normal. An analogy in the West might be Grand Central Station where passengers constantly jostle, weave, and funnel through narrow turnstiles to be cut off or to dart around slow traffic in a shared, highly motivated but impersonal chaos of moving bodies. That style of traffic flow works with nimble human crowds, but its efficiency plummets on city streets, crosswalks and side walks shared between pedestrians and vehicles. We were caught in a couple of interwoven traffic knots at intersections of complete gridlock, everybody pressing to get forward. Adding many more cars into this mix won’t work without changing the road etiquette. It will be interesting to see how this social challenge resolves.

The decision by China’s planners to “car up” seems to ignore the discussion of how much physical space a motor vehicle actually requires. While passenger cars typically have four seats, in the US and other car countries, most vehicle trips transport only the driver. An average pedestrian walking takes up two to three square feet of surface area while an average car takes up eighty to a hundred square feet, or forty or fify times the pedestrian’s footprint. When a former pedestrian becomes a vehicle commuter, two parking spaces are required for that vehicle, one at home, and the other at the worksite. Both sites become paved over earth regardless if the car is sitting upon it or not, twice the footprint land of the car has become “occupied”. If the vehicle is used for daily errands such as shopping and chauffeuring children, parking places will need to be created at the businesses and schools for these visits. This becomes further occupied land regardless if the business is open or not. The existing built environment of Chinese cities has little space for accommodation. Public sidewalks and playgrounds have become requisitioned for private vehicle parking.

The compatibility of humans with automobiles in China is far less favorable than in American horizontal culture. The lack of roadbeds, parking space, and support infrastructure is the first monumental obstacle. The reinvention of road etiquette in China to accommodate more cars will be interesting to observe as this is a fundamental ideological issue challenging centuries of ingrained routine human behavior. The bigger and more immediate problem China faces in developing a car centered economy, however, will be the competition for public funding. With the infrastructure investment already made in mass housing and public mass transportation, does China really have the national will and the accumulated wealth to build a separate, parallel, publicly funded, private transportation system? And what about bicycle culture which is healthy for people and used to be so prevalent throughout China?

The public investment in apartment living space which China has made in the past two decades will transform Chinese civilization into the future. A cluster of thirty, thirty-story buildings makes its own city of several thousand residents. The apartment building boom in China is an historical, massive, planned land clearance. But it appears to have been produced by enticement; it has not been accomplished in the more typical brutal manner of the Scottish Clearances. It is a leap forward in the ongoing class restructuring of peasant to proletariat in 21st Century China. Some will call it social engineering, others no doubt will call it land reform.

How China’s planners intend to integrate the massive influx of new automobiles into the built environment seems vague and not well thought out. Where are the new apartment dwellers to park their cars? China needs a great new social and economic challenge to redirect its massive construction machinery, but plugging in car culture as the go-to replacement does not seem to be the best alternative.

Thomas Powell is a sculptor who lives in Northern California and writes on issues of aesthetics and politics. Photo from Thomas Powell archives.

Copyright © Thomas Powell. All rights reserved.

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