China’s urban fever

The building boom may be good for the country’s GDP, writes Jiang Yi, but it wastes valuable resources. To truly modernise, he argues, construction needs to be controlled.

China’s economic growth has been accompanied by an unprecedented surge in urban construction. In the mid-1990s, the World Bank predicted that building area in China’s cities would double in a decade. Yet the reality exceeds even that figure. One survey found that urban building area actually doubled in a mere five years, from 7.7 billion square metres in 2000 to almost 15 billion square metres in 2004. This growth outstrips that of the urban population, and hence the average living area per person is also rapidly increasing.

If this continues, where will it leave us? The following possibilities are described in China’s 11th Five-Year Plan and development plans up to 2020.

– Continue adding an extra 2 billion square metres of urban building area annually. By 2020, an additional 30 billion square metres will have been constructed, giving a total of 45 billion square metres and a per-capita average of 54 square metres.

– Continue building 2 billion square metres of building area annually, with half of this being in new areas. By 2020, an additional 15 billion square metres of urban floor area will have been constructed, giving a total of 30 billion square metres and a per capita average of 36 square metres.

– Build an additional 0.7 to 1 billion square metres annually. By 2020 an additional 10 billion square metres will have been constructed, with a total of 25 billion square metres and a per capita average of 30 square metres.

The rapid growth in urban construction has greatly improved the conditions of the residential, office and public spaces in which urban residents live. It has also spurred growth in the steel, non-ferrous metals and construction materials sectors. However, we cannot help but worry about the problems this over-rapid expansion may bring.

Urban expansion has swallowed huge quantities of cultivated land. From 1998 to 2005, China’s cities expanded by 50%. Some eastern coastal cities already suffer from a land shortage, with no space for new building. Urban construction inevitably requires new roads, green areas and so on. If we assume a floor-area ratio of 0.7 to 1, then 10 billion square metres of new floor area will require 14 billion square metres of land. If 20 billion square metres are constructed on cultivated land, it will reduce China’s total cultivated land by 2.4%.

In 2005 China’s steel industry consumed power equivalent to 250 million tonnes of coal, 70% of which was for construction-related production. Production of concrete accounted for a further 100 million tonnes of coal, 50% of which was for construction. Another 100 million tonnes of coal was used in the production of non-ferrous metals and other construction materials. The equivalent of 300 million tonnes of coal was used powering the production of materials for urban construction, 15% of China’s total commercial power generation. In a sense, the higher-than-GDP growth in power consumption over the last three years is due to over-rapid urban and infrastructure construction.

Urban construction cannot continue at its present speed. If it is allowed to reach its limit and suddenly halted, then factories will close and equipment will lie idle, causing social problems. Alternatively, a slowing of construction will reduce the demand for building materials, greatly diminish the potential future problems and meet the needs of sustainable development. This will cause problems for GDP and employment today, but the key is to resolve these matters through the value-added service sector. We must not create long-term dangers for the sake of short-term growth.

Power consumed during regular use of a building accounts for 80% or more of its total lifetime consumption. In the operation of urban buildings, consumption consists of winter heating for those in northern areas, non-heat-related power use in residential and general public buildings, and consumption by large public buildings — accounting for 20 to 22% of total public power consumption. Such consumption by buildings is related to their size, and as they increase in number, so does their power use. If China’s urban buildings double in number, power consumption may well increase by an ever greater amount. In the United States, Japan and Europe, building-power consumption has risen from between 20 and 25% to almost 40% as these regions become focused on finance and technology.

As China’s stock of urban buildings has doubled in five years, the percentage of new buildings is high and few of them are in current need of repair. Therefore, maintenance costs do not make up a significant part of overall construction investment. However, as time passes these costs will gradually become more apparent. Statistics show that in the United Kingdom in 1980, repair costs accounted for two-thirds of total civil-engineering spending. The average for developed countries is about 50%.

Over the last two decades, China’s building-quality control has been weak and building lifespans have been short. Now, the huge number of new buildings will begin to need costly repairs at approximately the same time. This may even impact upon sustainable social and economic development.

The development of American society was founded on the consumption of global resources, and its high level of living space per person demonstrates the country’s profligate use of materials and energy. Western Europe’s post-war construction took place in the 1950s, when the US already controlled much of the world’s resources; building area per capita stabilised at about 60% of the US figure. Development in Asia took place in the late 1950s and 1960s, when the first hints of resource shortages were appearing — and so these countries tended to conserve resources. However, a relative lack of living space did not prevent economic growth or improved living standards.

In comparison with more developed parts of Asia, China’s building area per capita is by no means low. Even if 15 million rural residents move to the cities each year, only 500 million to 600 million square metres of new construction will be required to avoid falling behind the Asian average. If that figure rises to 1 billion square metres, then by 2025 we will reach western European levels. At 2 billion square metres, we would surpass America’s current standard by 2030. But will our reserves of land, resources and power, and our environmental circumstances, allow us to pursue these standards? More living space will incur huge power, environmental and maintenance costs – without guaranteeing greater efficiency or living standards. This high-cost, low-return choice is not one that China should make.  

A conserving society is our only option for modernisation, and controlling construction is an important characteristic of a conserving society.

One of the strategic goals of the 11th Five-Year Plan is to reduce the power consumed per RMB 10,000 of GDP by 20%. If urban construction can be reduced from its current 1 billion square metres per year to between 600 million and 800 million square metres, market demand for construction materials will fall by two-thirds and the power consumed in construction of those materials (including steel) will fall from 20% of the current total to 10%. That would bring us half-way to meeting that strategic goal.

Current urban construction is already adequate for social, economic and living needs. To continue blindly expanding construction for the sake of GDP growth and fail to restructure production will result in the wasting of resources and power – a dangerous choice completely at odds with our aims of sustainable growth. The construction of large, luxurious homes should be stopped, with the average size of a household limited to 90 square metres or less. New construction should be limited, falling from the current total of over 1 billion square meters annually to 600 million square metres within five years.

Rational control of urban construction is essential for the sustainable development of China’s cities.


Jiang Yi, professor at Tsinghua University and Academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, is an expert on building and environmental engineering. He is noted for his research on power-saving buildings and ecological construction.

Also about urbanisation on chinadialogue: Toward sustainable urbanisation in China

Homepage photo by Natalie Behring