Monday, July 20, 2015

A Planned Chinese Supercity Hinging on Technology

A Kansas-sized supercity of 82,000 square miles and 130 million people, with Beijing at the center, is in the vanguard of economic reform, Liu Gang said from Nankai University in mid-2015.[1] Six times the size of New York City’s metropolitan area, the planned regional economy would require nothing short of a feat of urban planning. The economic synergy anticipated from the planned integration is the main benefit. The sheer scale alone presents its own challenges, however, and the complexity in coordinating the various shifts of people and services suggests that unintended excesses and shortages will demand immediate action. Even so, I contend that the application of technology will make or break the viability of the anticipated supercity.

The economic diversity within the region gives economic integration tremendous potential. Lui Gang explains that the supercity, named Jing-Jin-Ji, “reflects the senior leadership’s views on the need for integration, innovation and environmental protection.”[2] The plan calls for regional integration of Beijing’s research facilities and creative culture with Tianjin’s port-city economy. “Beijing is to focus on culture and technology. Tianjin will become a research base for manufacturing.”[3] In other words, the links from university and industrial research to manufacturing are to be tightened. Hebei province is also included—the relatively cheap land being fertile ground for relieving the environmentally-hostile population density in Beijing.

The project relies on constructing a subway and a high-speed rail, and connecting 18 dead-end highways to link the major cities, including Beijing, Yanjiao, Handan, Xingtai, Tangshan, and Zhengijakou. With speeds of 150 to 185 miles per hour, 37 minutes will get a commuter from Tianjin to Beijing (and vice versa) by rail.[4] The geographical scope of the supercity, or urban region, consistent with tight economic integration can thus expand, much as military technology extended the reach and thus territory of early-modern European kings. The Chinese urban-policymakers were essentially pinning their hopes on the shift of practical integrative scope—in particular, that the technology will make the energy needed to transport people over so large an area worthwhile. The true cost may be an externality if the carbon emissions increase substantially as a result. Yet even in this respect, communications technology, such as the ability to hold meetings in virtual reality, may make it possible for the planned supercity to reap the benefits of the added economic integration without warming the planet appreciably more.

[1] Ian Johnson, “Pain and Hope as China Molds Its Capital into New Supercity,” The New York Times, July 20, 2015.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.