5 March 2011

At the start of the 15th century, when the Ming Dynasty was young, Beijing was established as the new Chinese capital — a heavily planned city, a rectangle laid out on a north-south axis around the great imperial palace, the Forbidden City.

Around the palace, dense blocks of residential buildings, the hutongs, arranged in a grid that stretched to the city walls and moat; the more prosperous and higher status families closer to the centre.

The hutongs evolved through dynasties, civil wars, and revolutions, declining as they became overcrowded and rundown. But they began to be truly threatened in the second half of the 20th century, when the grid of main streets was widened into great boulevards.

And the city walls and moat replaced by the Second Ring Road (there is no first ring road, but there is a third, and a fourth, and a fifth; the sixth is under construction and the seventh in planning stages), the hutong increasingly replaced by glass office towers and concrete apartment blocks.

The city's population boomed and as the economy grew its nascent middle class sprawled out far beyond the old city walls, and in the ancient centre, every accessible patch of ground was filled with a commuter's car -- there are five million of them in the city already, growing by 10% per year, or 1,500 extra cars every day.

In the run-up to the 2008 Olympics, the city invested in much regeneration — which often simply meant evicting residents of a hutong and bulldozing it.

But just as in Europe in the 1950s-70s, public opinion has quickly turned against this destruction of established neighbourhoods.

And now instead the remaining hutongs are being restored and gentrified as the city discovers a new way to exploit them in the burgeoning consumerist economy.

The Chinese have even noticed that the motorcar is not a sensible or scalable solution to transport in densely populated places, and is investing heavily in alternatives.

Gallery: Beijing

Explore all of these photos and more in the Beijing gallery.

Browse the Beijing gallery


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