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Special> 30 Years of Reform and Opening Up> Beijing Review Archives> 1998
UPDATED: November 29, 2008
Deep Into the Earth
Short of land space, cities are busy building underground projects.Meanwhile, a unified and legal control is needed
Our Staff Reporter Jiang Wandi

Among the countless changes--perhaps even the most spectacular ones--that China has experienced during the two decades of reform and opening is the rapid urbanization process.

Xu Xin, a worker for a construction company who has lived in Beijing for over 50 years suddenly found himself a stranger in his own city. After retirement last year, he decided to explore the city to see how it has developed and improved in recent years; he nearly got lost in the totally new landscape. Twenty years ago he rode only 20 minutes by bicycle with his kids to the outside of town, where the children ran after strange-colored butterflies in the wilds and he fished in a small river. Now, since the downtown area has been enlarged by two and even three times, he cannot reach the pleasant suburb after traveling by bus for even an hour.

Contributing to the suburban sprawl are an increased urban population, which, in turn, is snowballing into ambitious housing projects and more vehicles on the road. Now everybody, house developer, road builder, civil engineer and green-belt defender, is demanding space, which almost drove city management into a corner. In spite of these obstacles, however, city development will go ahead. It is estimated by the government that the urbanization rate will reach about 35 percent with the urban population increasing to 450 million by 2000. By 2010, the rate will be about 45 percent with the population up to 630 million.

Where is the desperately needed space going to come from and how will it be distributed? A populous country with inadequate natural resources, China has always fallen short of arable land. Its per capita arable land is merely one fourth of the world average. As a result, using farmland for other uses is strictly forbidden. Given the situation and with no apparent solution from surface space, management of many cities are shifting attention to the space deep beneath their feet. It is a unanimous belief that development of underground space may be a way out for saving the jammed cities.

Actually, the space under Chinese cities was by no means a dark realm even 20 years ago. It was home to poorly and randomly built drainage and communications systems and a great number of air-raid shelters. These labyrinth-like shelters were designed and built by local communities in the early 1970s when the country was preparing shelters in the event of an enemy attack. Now the mass-built bunkers have lost their military importance; some have been turned into storehouses and others are simply symbols of the hard old days. China has been slow at developing underground communication. It did not have a subway until the mid1970s when the first subway line began operating in Beijing.

(No. 16, 1998)

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