jing-jin-ji planBeijing is big and crowded and polluted, and it seems to go on forever. But you ain’t seen nothing yet, according to the South China Morning Post. The government’s five-year plan is to develop a new super-city of 130 million people in an area the size of New England.

The plan to link Beijing, the port city of Tianjin and the province of Hebei into one massive megalopolis called Jing-Jin-Ji, according to the post, "is said to be a pet project by President and party chief Xi Jinping. He believes the model for the new metropolis can become a template for China’s future urbanisation."

At first glance, it sounds the a crazy idea, turning the whole vast area into one giant Beijing suburb. Right now you can’t breathe the air much of the time or get anywhere in your car, even though they keep building ring roads and highways. Getting between parts of the city is almost impossible, and don’t even think of trying to ride a bike, in a city where 50 years ago, that’s how everybody got around.

But in fact, there's some logic to it, and it might be the model for our cities of the future.

At present, there are severe restrictions on those who want to live in Beijing, and it's really expensive. So as Ian Johnson notes in the New York Times, many are moving to the adjoining Hebei province where the same kinds of residency rules don't apply. Little towns like Yanjiao in Hebei have become giant bedroom communities, but services are terrible, with overcrowded schools and few parks. It takes hours to get to work by bus and there are no subways or light rail. The local government can’t provide those services, either; there is no property tax. All these cities are financed by selling land to developers, a system that's inevitably going to crash.

However when they are all merged into Jing-Jin-Ji, there will be central governance and planning. Each of the areas will have a focus, according to Johnson:

The plan assigns specific economic roles to the cities: Beijing is to focus on culture and technology. Tianjin will become a research base for manufacturing. Hebei’s role is largely undefined, although the government recently released a catalog of minor industries, such as wholesale textile markets, to be transferred from Beijing to smaller cities. Beijing is shifting much of its city administration to the Tongzhou suburb, ending the longstanding practice of putting government offices in the old imperial district.

The key to it all working, and not just grinding to complete gridlock, is transit — light rail and high speed trains. As Professor Zhang Gui notes, “Speed replaces distance. It has radically expanded the scope of what an economic area can be.” Indeed, a high-speed train has already reduced the time it takes to get from the port city of Tianjin to Beijing from three hours down to 37 minutes. That’s commuting range.

chinese sprawl

Chinese sprawl: 30-story buildings everywhere. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

Now when they do sprawl in China, it's sprawl of 30-story buildings, not subdivisions. But if they are concentrated around transit nodes that have high-speed trains connecting them to the other cities, and if people are able to live in nodes where they work (because they're in satellite cities, not Beijing) it might actually work.

There will have to be other changes than just trains; perhaps some better method of taxation to build better communities, and a lot better urban planning. There may also be problems with other parts of China as Jing-Jin-Ji becomes more economically dominant. Just look what happens in the United Kingdom, where London is resented by everyone else in the country because it all the political and economic power lies in one city.

But if there was one thing I learned every time I got on a train in China, it's that you should never underestimate the country's ability to get things done.

Related on MNN and TreeHugger:

Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.

Beijing becoming the world's largest megalopolis
High-speed trains make it possible to imagine a city that's bigger than many countries.