Homes for all #2: Beijing with John van de Water

Homes for All is a video series commissioned by Stadsleven in which correspondents from all over the world report on the state of the housing market in their city. In episode 2, architect and co-founder of NEXT Architects John van de Water shows us a square meter of Beijing that tells you all you need to know about the current housing market. 

Blog written by Sanne van der Beek

China’s megacity project to house a billion

1 billion. That’s the number of Chinese who, according to the Worldbank, will be living in cities by 2030. A staggering number. It would account for 70 percent of all the inhabitants of China. In comparison: now around 54 percent of the Chinese live in cities. With 42 million inhabitants, the Pearl River Delta, which consists of cities like Hongkong, Macao, Shenzhen and Guanzhou, is already now the biggest city in the world, even bigger than metropolis Tokyo. 

Everywhere in the world, cities attract people looking for all kinds of opportunities. But the Chinese government has made it – to quote the Worldbank – ‘a deliberate, ambitious project’ to get the Chinese into the cities by buying land, building entire megacities and moving people into them. This creates a very uniform landscape of high residential towers, all built very close together. And so sinologist Ruben de Bie writes that ‘China’s urban landscape is turning into an Ikea-catalogue for residential towers’. China’s megacity operation is all topdown and strictly planned, which leaves little space for organic growth or bottom-up initiatives. But precisely in the field of urban planning, China could really benefit from a bottom-up movement, argue urban planners Linda Vlassenrood and Zef Hemel.

Living in these megacities is unaffordable for most

Despite the government’s megacity projects, the housing prices in big cities have skyrocketed since 2001, making living in the city unaffordable for many as John van de Water also shows in his video. A typical two-bedroom new home in Beijing now costs around 6 million yuan ($870,000), about 69 times the average per capita disposable income in the city, according to Fortune

And so, keeping a lid on price fluctuations has become a priority for policymakers. They experiment with regulations, for example that sales prices for new units in a few cities like Zhengzhou – capital of Henan – are not allowed to be higher than the price level seen last October for new units in the vicinity. Many analysts warn, however, that these kind of regulations are anti-market and will not have the intented effect. 

But, it seems like the housing market in itself is less under pressure. In line with global declining housing prices, home property prices in Beijing fell for the first time in more than two years in June. In other cities in China, the prices already slowed down. In June, average new home prices in China’s 70 major cities rose 10.2% from a year earlier, decelerating from May’s 10.4% gain. Home price growth in China’s largest cities is expected to stay on a mild slowing trend for the next 12 months.

Turning vacancy into a chance for the ant tribe

Despite the booming housing prices, there’s also enough vacancy. Ten million houses stand empty, to be precise, according to Credit Lyonnais Securities Asia of 2014. NEXT Architects believe that these vacant buildings would be perfect for the ‘Ant Tribe’, a new demographic group of young, highly educated people who leave home before they get married. That goes against Chinese tradition, but is a real trend now.

At the ‘China House Vision’ manifestation at the Architecture Biennale in Venice 2016, NEXT presented our idea to revitalize the massive concrete towers by adding flexible modules around a collective core, as you can see here below. Marijn Schenk of NEXT architects explained this idea in our live talkshow about China’s citymaking


Want to know more?

  • You can find other episodes of our Homes for All video series here.
  • John van de Water wrote a book about the lessons he learned about China with a title that says it all: ‘You can’t change China, China changes you‘.
  • Last year, we discussed China’s citymaking in our live talkshow with Marijn Schenk (NEXT Architects), Ruben Terlou (Aan de oevers van de Yangtze), Linda Vlassenrood (International New Town Institute) and Neville Mars (Shanghai-based architect). You can watch the video of the talkshow (in Dutch) here. Also, in our webmagazine you find blogs (in Dutch and English) about this subject.
  • In the live talkshow of 28th of September ‘Wij Willen Wonen‘ we’ll discuss the overheated housingmarket in big cities, in the Netherlands and elsewhere, and will look at alternative solutions.