"Half the houses will be demolished within 20 years": On the disposable cities of China

The remains of Xiamen station. "I went there one day to buy a ticket and get on a train like I would do all the time. I looked up, and the place was gone." Image: Wade Shepard.

At times it seems as if China is one colossal construction site. The old is being replaced with the new, the new replaced with the newer, in a perpetual cycle of destruction and creation.

The sounds of jackhammers, backhoes, and pile drivers is the soundtrack of a country recreating itself as readily as the changing patterns in a rotating kaleidoscope. Like an aging actress, since the beginning of the economic boom period in the late 1970s, China has undergone so many facelifts that it is virtually impossible to recognize the country for what it once was.

"I don't know this place anymore," an elderly doctor who spent his life in the small city of Taizhou, 240km up river from Shanghai, once told me. In the space of a decade, his 2,000 year old city of winding gray brick, street-level houses and tight-knit neighborhoods gave way to wide, straight boulevards, luxury high-rises, and florescent-lighted shopping malls. The change prompted him to declare that he feels as if he’s living in foreign territory.


In the past three decades China has almost completely demolished and rebuilt itself. Research firm GK Dragonomics estimated that, between 2005 and 2010 alone, China dismantled more than 16 per cent of its housing stock. That's more than 1,850km2 of floorspace – enough to blanket Greater London.

And China isn’t stopping there. According to the Ministry of Housing & Urban-Rural Development, almost every structure built before 1999, roughly half of the current housing supply, is set to meet the sledgehammer at some point over the next 20 years.

New houses are built almost as quickly as the old ones are cleared away: upwards of 129m new homes have been built in China over the past 30 years. Each year that passes sees roughly 2,000km2 of floor space – enough to cover New York City one and a half times – built across the country.

But it would be a mistake to think that China is simply upgrading its housing stock to meet modern standards, and will stop and be satisfied once this is done. No, even the buildings that are being built today will hardly last out this generation. Qiu Baoxing, the former vice-minister of China’s Housing & Urban-Rural Development ministry, estimated that new buildings going up in China today will only stand for 25 to 30 years before being demolished. Li Dexiang of Tsinghua University told the China Daily that "what we see nowadays is the blind demolition of relatively new buildings, some of which have only been standing for less than 10 years".

I estimated that the place had to have been at least 30 or 40 years old. I was shocked when a security guard mentioned that it was built in 2004

"My students often tell me that they have visited a really old building when they go to one constructed in 2005 or so," says Austin Williams, a professor or architecture at Jiaotong-Liverpool University. "Perceptions of time and change are different over here."

He adds that he once gave his students an assignment to find the oldest building they could in their hometowns. One student from Ordos reported that the oldest building he could find was a mere five years old.

Since the Communist Party took over in 1949, China has been erecting massive amounts of substandard, quasi-temporary housing in waves. Originally, these quickly built, shoddy homes were a reaction to the conditions of the time, which saw a huge demand for housing from work units and a distinct lack of quality building materials. “Under Mao, for example, many buildings were constructed using bamboo as reinforcement because they didn't have the steel,” Williams explains.

While the initial, tumultuous decades of the communist rule are now over, the construction ethics of this area seem to have been retained. “Most of the housing built in China today is of substandard quality,” says Adam Mayer, an American architect who has been working in China for the past three years. “While the bones of most buildings – the concrete structure – are fine, the exterior finishes are generally of poor quality.”

Austin Williams concurs. “There are still far too many buildings built with no damp-proofing, no insulation, untreated timber and metalwork, unfixed balconies, dangerous electrical supplies... Labour is often untrained for the highly skilled architecture that they are carrying out. There are very few checks and balances in the supply chain, or rather there is very little responsibility taken or accepted for sending faulty goods back.”

One of China's rare old buildings, now being torn down. Image: Wade Shepard.

This lack of quality materials and workmanship can be evident just from a casual walk through the urban expanses of China. A couple of years ago I found myself lured in by an absolutely massive, grandiose, basilica-like building on the far outskirts of Shanghai's Hongqiao district. It was the centerpiece of a Western-style luxury housing complex that was built to resemble something from ancient Rome.

But on approach it became clear that much of it was condemned. One of the doorways was boarded up, the floors above the lobby were off limits, and entire wings were closed off. There were deep cracks spreading out over the exterior walls like the delta of a major river, and large chunks of plaster were succumbing to gravity and falling to the debris piles on the ground below. The place was literally descending into ruins.

I estimated that the place had to have been at least 30 or 40 years old. I was shocked when a security guard mentioned that it was built in 2004, just ten years before my visit.

“Buildings often look to me as if they were built in the 1950s, but in fact are built just 10 or 12 years ago,” says Austin Williams, echoing this sentiment. “The finishes are peeling, the metal is rusting, the rainwater pipes are leaking, the windows don't close properly, the cement is flaking... But this is not due to 50 years of wear and tear. It's due to inadequate specification, application, and maintenance.”


There are other, more nefarious reasons for the deficient quality of many of China’s buildings. "Construction projects require huge budgets and bank loans. By cutting corners here and there, developers and contractors can pocket large sums of money," wrote Adam Mayer on the Sustainable Cities Collective website.

“It's called capitalism,” quips Austin Williams. “Its early stages usually involve building shit, making a profit, and moving on to the next deal – even if the building falls down soon after.”

This lack of architectural longevity fits in well with China's broader economic structure: houses that can last a century are not nearly as profitable as ones that can be built and rebuilt many times over within that time frame. Buildings being destroyed simple means that more buildings can be created, and the incessant round of demolition and construction keeps the economic wheels of the country spinning.

And, as dozens of industries and up to a quarter of national GDP is fed from real estate and urbanisation, this is no mere fiscal provisioning either. “The Chinese government has an incentive to keep the working population 'busy' and employed,” says Mayer. “The construction industry is a key in doing this and keeping a steady stream of new projects going helps achieve this.”

Demolition increases GDP, too. A case in point: an entire block of housing that stands adjacent to the No. 1 Affiliated Hospital of Soochow University in the Tiancizhuan area of Suzhou is about to meet the wrecking ball. At 30 years old the buildings are not new, but they are well-built, function properly, and are not showing any overt signs of decay.

“Nothing is wrong with the building, the government just wants it gone,” Cody Chao, a medical student whose grandparents own an apartment in the complex, told me. “The location is golden. It's right next to a hospital, a university, and an elementary school.”

The shiny new cities that are going up throughout the country today are like home appliances that are designed to break down after a few years

Many relatively young and stable buildings across China are demolished, not because they need to be, but because the government wants them to be. There is no annual residential property tax in China: all taxes are paid upon purchase. And so, ever-lasting real estate just isn’t in the financial interests of local governments.

The result is that masses of otherwise adequate houses throughout the country are bought back by the government, and then torn down so the land can be sold to developers for a profit and a new round of property taxes subsequently collected.

Under this strategy there is really no limit on development, as fresh urban construction land can continuously be churned out and sold to developers. In fact, 40 percent of China's new development land is created via the demolition of older buildings. The Chinese have applied the economic stimulus of obsolescence to urban design, and the shiny new cities that are going up throughout the country today are like home appliances that are designed to break down after a few years so that you have to buy a new one.

And, explains Adam Mayer, "there is the perception among Chinese consumers that 'new' is always 'better', regardless of the quality of the new product."

This building is less than 10 years old. Image: Wade Shepard.

There is one moretwist to China’s development policies that adds to the built-in impermanence of the buildings that are constructed. When a developer buys a plot of urban construction land they are not permitted to sit on it; they must build something very soon after purchase, or they risk losing their development rights. So there is pressure to build quickly, and many developers respond by throwing up something fast and cheap.

The linchpin is that, as the typical lifespan of a modern Chinese building is so short, a developer could theoretically carry out two or three rounds of construction throughout the period of their lease on a particular plot of land (50 years for commercial property, 70 years for residential): building and demolishing, building and demolishing.  


The social and psychological impact that these churn and burn urban landscapes is vast. “For me, perhaps the most challenging aspect of the perpetual changing landscape is that the sense of community is being lost,” says Richard Brubaker, a professor of sustainability at China Europe International Business School in Shanghai. “That the natural sense of community that binds people together is weak, and as a result you have higher levels of tension, increased crime, and a general inwardness to the point where individuals are no longer interested in the quality of, or protecting, the community beyond their doormat.”

In a very real sense, what we see now across China are cities that are perpetually rough drafts of themselves – cities stuck in the loop of rampant development and re-development.

In the West, we tend to think of cities as fixed, almost immutable entities, and we take it for granted that what we see in them today will be there tomorrow. There are no such illusions in China. This is a country that exists in a suspended state of architectural vertigo – a place where cities are literally disposable.

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

 
 
 
 

Why is it acceptable to kill someone? On the mysterious history of Britain’s road death toll

A London speed camera, 2004. Image: Getty.

A decade ago I became fascinated by a graph. This one:

I had been tracking the underlining data for years. The figures were easy to remember. Every year it was 3,500, plus or minus a percentage point or two.

Yet when the 2008 data was released, it had fallen to 2,538. This was 1,000 less than the figure in 2003. I plotted the above graph, and as I said, I became fascinated.

Because this is a really important graph. This is a plot of the number of people killed on Britain’s roads each year.

In Great Britain, collectively, we used to kill nearly 3,500 people on our roads every year. Consistently or, dare I say it, boringly: 3,500 deaths a year, 10 a day. It was accepted, in a, “Well yes it’s bad, but what can you do about it” kind of way. There was no clamour for change. Newspapers weren’t running headlines about the deaths mounting up, as they do with knife crime.

Meanwhile a train crash would be front page news for a week. Take the train that derailed at Hatfield on 17 October 2000, a tragedy in which 4 people died. That led to huge media interest, massive upheaval on the railways, and, ultimately, as the re-nationalisation of Railtrack, whose failings had caused the crash. Yet more than twice as many people will have died on the roads that day. Nothing was written about those deaths. Nothing changed.

In 2000, four people died in train crashes, while 3,409 died on the roads.

Here are those figures again.

1997 – 3,599 people killed on our roads

1998 – 3,422

1999 – 3,423

2000 – 3,409

2001 – 3,450

2002 – 3,431

2003 – 3508

But, in 2004 the figure dropped below 3,400 for the first time, to 3,221. Then in 2005 to 3,201.

2006 – 3,172

2007 – 2,946

Below 3,000! This was change. Significant change: 500 lives a year were not being lost. If you use Britain’s roads, your life may have been one of them.

2008 – 2,538

2009 – 2,222

When the 2010 figures came out I was amazed by the headline figure: 1,857.

That’s still far too high, of course, but it was 1,701 lower than seven years earlier.

This was a major story that deserved a ton of coverage, which it failed to get. Having shown no concern for when we were killing 3,500 people, it wasn’t overly surprising that the fact we were now killing 1,700 fewer wasn’t celebrated.

At any rate, the graph had flat-lined for years, then, in half a dozen years, it halved. Why?

The lack of media coverage resulted in an absence of answers. One commentator, Christian Woolmar, observed that there was no clear answer to why this had happened. But he went on to point out that there had been a fall in the average road speed over this period.

My anticipation of the 2011 figures troubled me, because I expected them to go up. Obviously I didn’t want them to: I desperately want zero deaths on our roads. But something happened in 2010 that I was sure would lead to more fatalities and bring a halt to the falling trend.

I was right. In 2011 we killed 1,901.

Sometimes, being right is shit.

The news was better in 2012. The fatality rate was 1,754. So was the 2011 figure just a blip, due to some significant snowfalls that year? No: the trend was over.

The number of people killed on our roads has remained stuck in the 17 hundreds. 

2013 – 1,713

2014 – 1,775

2015 – 1,732

2016 – 1,792

2017 – 1,793

2018 – 1,782

We have returned to a flatline on the graph – and if anything, I’m more fascinated now than I was before. Road deaths flatlined at 3,500 for years, then fell sharply, then flatlined again at half the rate.

This can’t have happened by accident. I wished I could explain it. I wish we could repeat it. No: I wish the second flatline hadn’t happened, and the fall had continued. If the rate of fall had continued, we’d have reached zero deaths on the road by now. You’d be right to question whether this is possible – but if you can half the number in a few years, why can’t we eradicate them altogether? The railways are an example of what is possible. The last time a passenger died in a train crash on Britain’s railways was in 2007.

It was time to figure out the answers to two questions. Why did the death toll fall? And why did it stop falling?

The obvious reason for a reduction in deaths on the road is the improvement in car safety features. This could create a gradual fall in the death toll as new, safer cars replaced older ones. But I’m not sure it can explain a 40 per cent fall over a 4 year period.

There’s a way to check whether cars on the road became almost twice as safe between 2003 and 2010: you can compare the figures with the rest of the EU. Car safety features are international, and any new feature would have appeared around the same time across the continent.

So I found the EU figures for 2000 to 2017, indexed for 2000 and plotted the graph for multiple countries. It was a busy graph. For clarity the following graph only includes Britain, Germany, France, Spain and Italy along with a straight line drop for comparison.

The good news is that things are improving across Europe – but no country had quite the same trajectory as Britain. They all have a fall much closer to a straight line of the sort you’d expect a general improvement in car safety would produce.

One thing I did notice is that, from 2013, these five countries stop falling. The technology based solutions of recent years, such as automatic emergency braking, don’t appear to be saving lives as of yet.

So, yes, cars are safer – but that doesn’t seem to explain why British roads suddenly became 40 per cent safer between 2006 and 2010.


In 1999, the New Labour government announced that it was going to reduce deaths on our roads. The target was a 50 per cent reduction by 2010. As you now know, it succeeded. This was a major achievement for a government. The kind of thing you would bang on about all the time. “Deaths on our roads halved by Labour!” But the party wasn’t in government when the 2010 figures were released – and it’s hard to take credit for your achievements from the opposition benches.

That it was government policy is not a full explanation, and how this happened is a little opaque. From what I can gather there was a wide ranging approach. The fire and rescue service changed their practices: because they recognised that survival rates were directly dependent on how quickly people got to hospital, this became the priority. Disturbing a police crime scene was allowed if it saved a life. Accident black spots were located, highlighted and safety measures implemented. Throughout that period road safety campaigns focused on speed, with “Speed Kills” being the dominate message for that decade. The government also changed the laws on speed cameras.

RoSPA, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, has a lot to say about speeding and speed cameras. Its “Speed Camera Factsheet” states that, “Cameras are a very effective way of persuading drivers not to speed, and thereby reducing the number of people killed and seriously injured.” It reports that an independent review published by the Department for Transport (DfT) in 2005 said that “cameras significantly reduce speeding and collisions, and cut deaths and serious injuries at camera sites”, adding that cameras sites were delivering 100 fewer deaths per year.

Cameras first appeared in 1991, and revenue from court fines and fixed penalties went to the Exchequer. However in 2000 a trial scheme saw local councils keep the fines to pay for the cost of speed and red-light cameras. The pilot was so successful that, in 2001, legislation enabled this to happen across the country. The cost of providing and operating cameras moved from the local authority to the law breaking motorist.

The golden age of the speed camera had begun.

There was a tweak to this legislation in 2007. Fines reverted back to the Exchequer’s piggy bank. The DfT switched to funding cameras through a road safety grant. The intention was to create a greater mix of road safety measures agreed between local authorities and the police.

The number of people killed on British roads in 2007: 2,946

The number of people killed on British roads in 2010: 1,857

So perhaps the creation of the Road Safety Grant had a significant impact.

The second question: why did the death toll stop falling?

In 2010 I was unaware of Labour’s target to halve deaths on the roads. But, the change in government was enough for me to predict that the fall was over.

When the Tory/Lib Dem government negotiated its way into power in May 2010, the press declared that it was the end of the horrible nanny state – a return to personal freedom, liberty and the rule of common sense.

The way that this was to play out in real practical terms was on our roads. The evil speed camera was in the firing line. The narrative was that these cameras were just there so councils could extract cash from the poor public. Completely ignored were the facts that the fines were only handed down to dangerous, law-breaking drivers, and that councils no longer got the cash from fines.

Soon after the election the coalition government said that “Labour's 13-year war on the motorist is over” and pledged to scrap public funding for speed cameras. The Road Safety Grant to local authorities was cut from £95m to £57m. This meant that the government was now receiving an estimated £40m more raised in fines than it was spending on road safety. The cut to the grant reduced the camera maintenance budget by 27 per cent. It removed all the funding for new cameras, speed humps and other safety measures.

And the golden age ended.

Councils across the country announced their change of policy. Oxfordshire County Council switched off its speed cameras on 1 August 2010. Money was saved; lives were lost.

Eight months later, on 1 April, Oxfordshire’s cameras snapped back into life when the council reversed its decision because deaths on the county’s roads had immediately increased.

Turning off speed cameras sent out the message that we were no longer taking speeding seriously. The road safety campaigns changed their focus. The message that Speed Kills fell away and was replaced by drink- and drug-driving messages. It’s easy to miss that these campaigns move from encompassing virtually every driver to targeting a minority. A switch from confronting a socially acceptable behaviour to re-enforcing something already unacceptable. The state is no longer challenging everyone to be safe – only the small minority of bad people.

Yet speed still kills. The World Health Organisation states that an increase in average speed of 1 km[h typically results in a 3 per cent higher risk of a crash involving injury, with a 4–5 per cent increase for crashes that result in fatalities.
The majority of safety measures installed before 2010 remain in place and are saving lives. But with the funding gone councils are no longer installing new measures and the death toll is no longer falling.

So you can make a strong case that the pattern of road deaths was the result of government policy.

Which begs the question of our government: why has it accepted that it’s OK to kill, or be killed, on our roads?