by Dr. Sebastien Goulard

In late April 2020, China’s Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development issued a guideline that would control the construction of skyscapers. No building taller than 500 meters ; construction of buildings taller than 250 meters to be strictly supervised.

This decision goes beyond a simple architectural change, and illustrates China’s transformation, and this may also shape new BRI projects.

A new skyline

Chinese cities are the ones with the most skyscrapers. More than 2,000 buildings above 150 meters have been erected in China. Seven cities: Shanghai, Tianjin, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Beijing and Taipei have at least one 500-meter-plus building. These skyscrapers are part of Chinese cities’ skyline and illustrate the economic dynamism that China experienced especially in the 1990s with the development of Shenzhen, or the construction of Pudong business district in Shanghai.

Iconic towers have been erected such as the Shanghai Tower, the second tallest building in the world that stands at 632 meters, the Ping An Finance Center in Shenzhen (599 meters) and the CTF Finance Center in Guangzhou (530 meters).

But for several years, Gulf states have surpassed China for the construction of supertall buildings. Dubai is home of Burj Khalifa the tallest tower that stands at 828 meters.

China has therefore decided not to enter this competition and  favors another type of urbanization which matches with its new economic trends.

Innovation and traditions

In addition to discouraging the construction of taller buildings, the Chinese ministry suports architects to increase innovation. It will no longer be possible to copy foreign or national buildings. So no more Eiffel towers will be erected in China. To stand out, architects will have to turn to local heritage. On the other hand, buildings of strange shapes or styles will no longer be allowed. The main objective of this measure is to better integrate new buildings into the urban landscape, and promote harmony. Thanks to this decision, locals will feel to be a part of the city. According to this circular, residents’ opinions will be taken into account in the decision-making process regarding the construction of iconic buildings; moreover, old buildings which make up the heritage of Chinese cities will be better protected.

A more sustainable urbanization

It is also about making a better use of available resources; new buildings in Chinese cities will therefore be lower, but they will also be more energy-efficient and also cheaper to build. This is one of the main challenges this policy is answering. Greener buildings will be erected to reduce the environmental impact of Chinese urban centers.

Quality bonus

Chinese cities’ architecture’s transformation reflects the economic transformation that China is experiencing. In May 2020, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang announced that for the first time, no growth rate target would be released this year. Of course, this decision results partly from the Covid-19 crisis, but it is not the only reason. We can understand that for China, economic growth is no longer the be-all and end-all. Although economic growth is necessary for development, equity and sustainability have become major objectives for China. Beijing has chosen quality over quantity. Thus, the objective is no longer to build taller buildings, but of better quality.

What consequences for the BRI?

China continues to inspire the world and in particular developing countries in Asia and Africa, where urban development is an acute challenge. By adopting these new rules about buildings, China is sending a strong message to the world regarding major projects and urban planning.

Some BRI-related projects were criticized in the past for being too massive and out of touch with reality ; we can therefore hope that with China operating this turning point, the new BRI projects will be more modest in size and will better integrate into the local economy.

A second point concerns local heritage. With this measure, China will better protect its urban heritage. BRI states could then apply this know-how to their own cities, and decide to adopt similar measures.

An opportunity for Europe?

This change in urban policy adopted by China could lead to greater cooperation with European cities. On the European continent, skyscrapers are few and limited to business districts. Priority was given to heritage preservation and quality of life. Here is another topic on which China and Europe can cooperate.

No more skyscrapers in China? What impact on the BRI?
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