During its long boom, Chinese cities demolished an area the size of Mauritius every year

Progress in action. Image: Wade Shepard.

Like an artist painting on a canvas, entire new cities, sprawling new districts, and colossal infrastructural projects are spreading across China in a development boom that’s been unprecedented in human history.

Since the beginning of the economic boom, 16,000km of high-speed rail lines have been created; the largest highway network in the world had been laid; 800 skyscrapers have been erected; and over 129m new homes have been built. China is consuming over 50 per cent of the concrete, 35 per cent of the steel, and 30 per cent of the coal supplies in the world.

But where there is a story of construction, there is a story of demolition, too. There are often entire neighbourhoods, towns, and villages standing in the path of this rampant development – and before anything can be built the land must first be cleared.


To these ends, mass land grabs, forced evictions, and wholesale demolition have become almost ubiquitous across the urbanising spheres of a rapidly changing China. At the height of the country’s development bonanza, a time when nearly every city in the country was expanding exponentially, upwards of 2,000km2, roughly the size of the island nation of Mauritius, was being expropriated across the country each year. According to research firm GK Dragonomics, China demolished 16 percent of its housing stock between 2005 and 2010.

To venture out into the urban outskirts of this country is to frolic in the relics of demolition. Here you will see once vibrant neighbourhoods, towns, and villages that have been reduced to chunks of concrete and shards of ceramic tiles.

You can look through these remains like a temporally displaced archaeologist, and see the vestiges of modern life stopped dead it its tracks – a corner of a bathroom left standing, a jagged section of wall that still has calendars and family photos stuck to it, a door laying askance upon the ground with religious ornamentation still attached. These places look as though they were run through a blender and poured out evenly over the land, rolling seas of rubble extending out to the horizon, sometimes for miles.

The sheer scale of these demolished areas is almost beyond comprehension. According to a report by Charlie Q.L. Xue et al., from the City University of Hong Kong, new towns in China typically range between 50 to 350km2, potentially larger than Inner London. These urban expansion projects in China are often the size of substantial cities in and of themselves.

Chenggong is a new city being built as a suburb of Kunming. To give you a sense of its scale, here it is, super-imposed on London. Image: Warner Brown/Google/MapFrappe.

Warner Brown, a China-based writer and urban researcher, found himself taken aback in Baotou when he set out to explore a section of the city that he was researching via satellite imagery. The area of interest was a large-scale, sprawling, traditional style neighbourhood of one story houses – but by the time he arrived the entire place was gone.

“My first response was total discombobulation,” he later stated. “I knew there was supposed to be a sprawling neighbourhood there, but instead there was dust and rubble nearly as far as I could see. It was absolutely quiet except for the occasional rumble of a lone car or motorbike passing through the desolate plain.”

In just a year’s time Baotou had evicted 5,000 people and demolished an entire neighbourhood that’s a good chunk of the size of downtown San Francisco for yet another redevelopment project.

Chenggong again, this time super-imposed on San Francisco. Image: Warner Brown/Google/MapFrappe.

In the early 2000s, the bosses of Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province, sought to expand their city. What they did was almost incomprehensible outside of the context of China: they added on a 150km2 new district, a new area larger than the entire preexisting city (133km2).

“In the normal sense of development, such a large scale plan is difficult to understand,” wrote Charlie Q.L. Xue, et al. in a case study on the new district. “From the official document, the intention of planning Zhengdong was to ‘build a national central city’ and put Zhengzhou in a focal position in Central China.”


Leading key urbanisation initiatives is a prime mechanism for government officials to get promoted within the Communist Party. This is often done through the initiation of large scale new development areas, such as new towns, districts, or sub-cities – the bigger, the gaudier, the more grandiose, the better.

A shining testament to this is Li Keqiang, the main driver behind the creation of Zhengdong New District. He is now the Premier of China, number two on the Communist Party’s depth chart, trailing only President Xi Jinping himself.

“Tearing something down adds to GDP, just as building something anew,” China-based travel writer Michael Meyer explains. “And the only way to advance in the Party hierarchy is to show results, which means developing the new, not preserving the old.”

Another prime reason for China’s excessive urbanisation drive is starkly financial: local governments in China make massive amounts of money selling land. According to the World Bank, China’s cities must fend for 80 percent of their expenses while only receiving 40 percent of the country’s tax revenue, and this deficit is often made up through land sales.

And the spoils are huge. According to China’s Ministry of Finance, profits from land sales made $438bn for local governments in 2012 alone. It is not unheard of for cities to sell expropriated rural land for up to 40 times more than they pay for it.

As landsales account for up to 40 per cent of some municipalities’ total revenue, the impetus for cities to continuously push their boundaries is often a matter of solvency. In many ways, urbanisation in China has taken on the attributes of a runaway train.

And what the heck, here's Chenggong super-imposed on New York City. Image: Warner Brown/Google/MapFrappe.

For a country that can boast 4,000 years of history there is a conspicuous lack of antiquity in the cityscapes of modern China. Outside of restored and clearly designated tourist areas and a select number of famous locales, China has been rapidly sanitising itself of its architectural legacy. Even cities that have been continuously inhabited for thousands of years often only show their age with a random pagoda or an ornate neighbourhood gateway that, for some reason, wasn’t smashed to bits like everything else.

“Before I lived in the hutong [a particular type of historic district], I would argue for the preservation of historic neighbourhoods on architectural and aesthetic grounds,” Michael Meyer explains. “After living and teaching in Beijing's oldest neighbourhood, however, I came to see their value as civic. They incubate good citizenship, absorb immigrants, reward small businesses and entrepreneurs, and provide children with a safe, social environment in which to grow.”

Forced demolitions have become so common across the country that it has become a common quip on Chinese social media to transliterate the English name of the country as chai na, which means “in the process of demolishing”. Nonetheless, the country’s mainstream media rarely covers stories about even the largest mass demolitions, and this is for more reasons than the routine muzzling of censors: it’s something that’s just so common that it no longer even qualifies as news.

“There’s so much demolition,” said Yan Lianke, a well-known Chinese author who experienced this demolition first hand when his entire neighbourhood in Beijing was completely destroyed. “If all the demolitions were reported, maybe there wouldn’t be enough space in all the newspapers, television and radio stations in China.”

Wade Shepard is the author of "Ghost Cities of China".

 
 
 
 

Ducks and the City: how birds thrive in urban spaces

A mandarin duck, possibly a distant relative of New York’s Hot Duck. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

New York may be well known one of the most diverse, cosmopolitan places on Earth, but the arrival of one East Asian migrant in October 2018 still managed to surprise and delight the city. One lonely male mandarin duck – a gorgeous rust-red duck streaked with white and blue, native to Japan, Korea and East China – somehow found its way to Central Park and settled down on one of the ponds among the mallards and wood ducks to become the media sensation “Hot Duck”. Although not strictly wild in the birdspotting sense as it likely escaped from someone’s collection, the duck lives as free as, well, a bird among the skyscrapers of Manhattan.

A few months later, the mandarin’s native territory was graced by a rare visitor of its own when a European robin ended up in the heart of Beijing. Having shown up just when Britain was falling deeper into political crisis, Chinese birdspotters nicknamed it “Brexit refugee” and raced in from across the country to see what Brits would probably consider an incredibly ordinary bird.

A rash of unusual birds have hit the headlines after landing in cities lately – other recent examples include Melbourne’s “Goth Duck” (a tufted duck, a mainly northern European species never before seen in Australia) and the eagle owl that divebombed bald men in Exeter – but when they do, it’s always their rarity that makes them newsworthy, along with the incongruity of seeing a beautiful wild animal among concrete and litter. Normally cities aren’t home to anything more interesting than a dirty pigeon or a bloodthirsty seagull.

Right?

Moving in

Popular myth says London’s first ring-necked parakeets were released in Carnaby Street by Jimi Hendrix. It’s probably not true, but it’s one hell of a story. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and nor was any other city. Thousands of years ago, wild birds discovered new opportunities on the edges of the first villages. Today the house sparrow is ubiquitous in just about every urban area in the world, but before the first house was built it lived in the dry grasslands of the Middle East, picking seeds out of the sandy soil. Then humans came along and started farming wheat; and whenever a grain fell from a mill or blew from a market stand, a sparrow was there to pick it up. As the technology of farming spread around the world, sparrows came along, too.

Other birds didn’t come by choice but were dragged in by humans. Thousands of rock doves, plump grey-striped birds that nest on cliffs, were caged up and brought into the new cities for their eggs, meat and uncanny ability to find their way home. Naturally, a few of these escaped, but quickly discovered that the walls of buildings were just as good for nesting as natural cliffs. The familiar pigeon was born.

More recently, many species of ducks and geese found a home in cities for the same reason, as have pets-gone-wild like the Indian ring-necked parakeets that brighten up London’s parks and the Javan mynas that chatter in Singapore’s streets.

Bohemian waxwings mainly live in the forests of Scandinavia, but in cold winters they will fly across the sea to British parks and gardens to feast on garden berries. No prizes for guessing where this one is. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

As cities have changed, so too have the birds that lived there. Back when most meat was butchered in shops and markets, piles of skin and bone attracted huge flocks of scavengers like ravens and red kites. Now city streets are mostly free of scrap meat thanks to bin lorries, supermarkets and industrial meat processing; both species fled into the countryside, where they found themselves persecuted by farmers and gamekeepers, the red kite almost to the point of extinction. Now both birds are making a slow comeback.

On the other hand, parks and gardens have lured new species out of the woods and into the town with their sweet berry bushes and seed-filled bird feeders. Blue tits – tiny birds that in the forest prefer to pick spiders off oak trees – adapted especially well to garden life: in the days of milk rounds, the birds learned how to peck open bottle caps and sip at the cream inside. The birds’ behaviour has recently changed again because of the rise of supermarkets and the fall of dairy delivery, and it certainly won’t be the last time.

What do city birds think of us?

Herring gulls are as happy in a Latvian bus station as they are on a windswept beach. Happier, maybe. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

If you walk in a forest you might well find yourself absolutely surrounded by bird song but unable to see where it’s coming from. Birds are shy and, unless they grew up on a desert island, they will fly away and hide at the slightest hint of a threat. They almost behave like programmed characters from a video game – they draw an imaginary circle around themselves (known as the “flight zone”) and if anyone enters that circle, they flee.

Urban birds consistently have a much smaller flight zone and will tend to let humans get much closer to them; and the longer a species has been urbanised, the more this radius shrinks. In the most extreme instance, urban birds will hop right up to someone who might feed them and even land on their hand. (In one of the best birding moments of my life, a parakeet in Hyde Park snatched a peanut from a tourist then landed right on my shoulder to eat it, staying there long enough to pose for a selfie).

If one bird invades another’s territory, things can get messy. Here, two magpies chase off a buzzard as its partner watches. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

Then again, not all birds are that friendly. Many are very territorial, especially in the nesting season. Even medium-sized birds like vicious Australian magpies can cause eye injuries to people passing their nests; really big birds like swans can seriously injure people who get too close. Others, like the larger species of gulls, are just greedy and will attack people to steal their food.

Most birds aren’t quite that bold, but living close to humans has still affected their behaviour. Many species of birds are very intelligent – European magpies might be the cleverest non-mammal on the planet – and they’ve worked out how many of the systems of the city work. Pigeons can hop on-board trains for a lazier way to travel between feeding spots. Seagulls understand how to open automatic doors in order to raid branches of Greggs. Crows use passing cars to crack tough nuts, and will even wait at traffic lights to swoop in when the cars stop.

What do we make of city birds?

The robin was voted Britain’s favourite bird in a recent poll, which just goes to show what being small, cute and surprisingly aggressive can do for you. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

Although we share our cities with a whole menagerie of wildlife, most of it is either shy and nocturnal, or prefers the dark, dirty places where humans rarely venture. Birds by contrast are inescapable – on any day on any city street you can expect to at least see a few pigeons flying overhead, or hear something singing from a nearby bush. For some people, this constant awareness has morphed into affection; for others, jealousy at sharing urban spaces with other species.


Even setting aside the risk of attack, birds can come into conflict with humans. Their droppings are not only unpleasant, but they can damage buildings and cause nasty lung diseases. Not every bird has a beautiful song either – a great tit squeaking away outside your bedroom window at 5am is bad enough, but spare a thought for the Australians who have kookaburras scream-laughing on their balconies. If waking you up wasn’t antisocial enough, big birds like herring gulls and Australian white ibises (better known as “bin chickens”) will rip open bin bags and fling the rubbish across your garden. The birds guilty of these indiscretions are generally classed as pests and many cities are fighting back – either by killing the birds or by taking eggs from their nests.

Herons eat fish from ponds and occasionally birds of prey will attack small pets. Urban pigeon keepers, angry after having a prize bird attacked by a sparrowhawk, occasionally try to poison or set cruel traps to kill hawks; but in general cities actually provide a safe haven for birds of prey. Scottish sparrowhawks seem to breed significantly better in cities, likely because there are so many other birds there to hunt.

In fact, many city councils are encouraging birds of prey as a natural way to control the population of pigeons and rats. Peregrine falcons – the fastest birds on the planet – are given protected nesting sites on church spires and skyscrapers and their every move is streamed on webcams. Harris hawks – native to American deserts – have been brought across the Atlantic to scare birds away from the tennis courts at Wimbledon.

Smaller, cuter birds don’t have any such image problems, and millions of Brits put bird seed in their gardens or feed the ducks at their local park. (I should add: if you do, please don’t give them bread, which lacks the vitamins birds need and causes a horrible disease called “angel wing”; seeds, vegetable peel or little bits of fruit are better.) Cities are increasingly recognised as places where you can spot interesting birds – right now, the bird tracking portal eBird lists no fewer than 289 species that have been seen in London – and the last couple of years have seen guides such as David Lindo’s How to be an Urban Birder and even scientific journals such as the Journal of Urban Ecology dedicated to the life of the town.

Save the birds

An American robin has a rest in Boston Common. American robins are in a completely different family to European robins, in case you ever wondered why the robin in Mary Poppins looked so messed up. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

Although cities offer food and shelter, they also contain many threats. Glass windows are invisible death to birds flying at full speed – the exact number killed isn’t clear, but it might be as many as 30 million a year in the UK alone. Vehicles can also kill, especially in suburban areas where dense gardens meet busy streets.

Although city birds are protected from some of the predators that they would encounter in the countryside, there are still plenty of animals looking for a meaty meal – not least pet cats, which the RSPB estimates kill 55 million birds in the UK every year. 


These threats aren’t necessarily having an effect on bird populations as a whole – most birds lay more eggs than needed, and if one young bird is killed by a cat a sibling can take its place. The bigger risks come from changes to the environment itself. Pesticides, patios and over-neat lawns have reduced the number of insects crawling around, and therefore the amount of food available for birds like thrushes, starlings and sparrows.

In spite of how easy they are to observe, urban birds tend to be understudied compared to their rural cousins. The fact pigeons are so widespread means researchers often overlook them, but their ubiquity means that observing the birds can help scientists to track environmental changes and to compare cities that otherwise have little in common. Citizen science can help here – the bird tracking apps Birdtrack and eBird let anyone submit their bird sightings, and actually need more coverage of urban and suburban areas.

Thankfully, the idea of creating urban bird sanctuaries is now being taken seriously. Parks have a role to play, but many birds actually prefer the wild roughness of building sites and industrial land, where bare soil crawls with bugs and wildflowers grow gloriously high – ironically, brownfield sites can be as important to the ecosystem as pristine green belt. Perhaps the most spectacular example is the London Wetland Centre in Barnes. Just across the Thames from Hammersmith, this Victorian waterworks has been converted into marsh land and attracts huge flocks of water birds, many of which can’t be found anywhere else in London. In fact thanks to the reserve, a few birds such as the reed-dwelling bittern – which almost went extinct in the UK – are now easier to spot in London than in the countryside it.

Flying into the future

This blackbird probably doesn’t understand its rural cousins. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

In his book Darwin in the City, the biologist Menno Schilthuizen suggests that we’ve been looking at blackbirds all wrong. European blackbirds were originally forest-dwellers eating berries and bugs from the ground. For this, they needed long, probing beaks and the ability to migrate in the winter when the soil froze hard. However, a few blackbirds – possibly initially those living in the hills around Rome – made their way into cities and found plentiful supplies of food year round.

Since they no longer needed to pry into the earth or the bark of trees, their beaks started to get shorter. Because food was available year round, their migration instinct was switched off. And because they needed to compete with traffic and the other noises of city life, their songs got louder. The city dwelling birds became incompatible with their forest dwelling ancestors; the changes to their beaks meant that their songs changed too, until they were effectively speaking different languages. There is a compelling case to be made that there isn’t just one species of blackbird, but two: the forest blackbird, Turdus merula, and the city blackbird, Turdus urbanicus.

Where the blackbird has led, other birds are sure to follow. British great tits are evolving bigger beaks that help them dig around in garden bird feeders and many urban birds have started singing the dawn chorus earlier to avoid traffic and aircraft noise and to take advantage of artificial streetlighting. City-dwelling pigeons even seem to be evolving darker feathers, probably because the dark pigment captures the toxic elements pigeons accidentally ingest when they peck at paint.

Nesting in coated metal gutters like this exposes pigeons to dangerous chemicals in the paint, and this pigeon’s dark feathers are likely an evolutionary response to that threat. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

Birds are no longer just accidental wanderers into cities, nor are they just greedy opportunists: they are an integral part of urban ecosystems. Not only do cities need their birds – Increasingly, birds need their cities.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray tweets at @stejormur. Many of the birds mentioned in this article tweet in a tree near you.