High Urban Density and the Goal of a Healthy City

The Case of Chongqing

As an inland city, some 2,253 kilometres up the Yangtze from the sea, Chongqing lacked the access to the most lucrative markets and trading routes that accelerated Shanghai’s evolution as a major city from the Opium War (1840) onward. With a small concession zone after 1891, Chongqing was not cosmopolitan until 1937–46, when it served as the Nationalist capital, and when its population exceeded 1.7 million by the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. With this demographic expansion, Chongqing, once known as the ‘City of Mountains and Fog’, became one of the most crowded cities in China, where people lived compactly along steep river banks and narrow lanes. This high density, coupled with a mountainous terrain and limited flat land, set the basic parameters of the challenges faced by Chongqing in trying to build a ‘healthy city’ today, which is one of five goals set by the municipal government in 2008 to improve living conditions of Chongqing people.

Like all major cities in China, the basic indicators on health for Chongqing have improved steadily. Average life expectancy of Chongqing residents rose from about 40 years in 1949 to 76 today (lower than Shanghai’s, see ‘Urbanisation and Disea­­se Patterns in Shanghai’ by Youde Guo), with most of the gain during the era of central planning and state-sponsored health care. However, as an index of high residential density, living space per capita remained very low at nearly 4 square metres by 1980. The post-1980 economic reform did not significantly boost Chongqing’s development until 1997, when it became a direct municipality under the central government. Since the 1990s, Chongqing has followed Hong Kong and Singapore in building high-rise apartments of up to 30 storeys or more with floor area ratios (FAR) of up to 4.0–4.5. This recent and massive residential construction helped raise the average living space per capita to 31.7 metres by 2010, even despite the rapid population growth during that period. This large living space reflects Chongqing’s distinctive spatial make-up among China’s largest cities. While the larger metropolitan region comprises 82,000 square kilometres and 28.9 million people, some ten million of those residents live in Chongqing’s principal urban area of just 2,700 square kilometres, resulting in a much higher density than its vast rural hinterland. While each urban resident enjoys more spacious living, the overall density has increased dramatically with the vertical build-up of residential towers, similar to that of Shanghai. However, to tackle the challenge of high-density urban life to health conditions, Chongqing has pursued more explicit policies than Shanghai.

Of the ‘Five Goals for Chongqing’ unveiled by the municipal government in 2008, three – livability, reforestation and good health – were intended to create a healthy living environment. To achieve the specific goal of a healthy Chongqing, the government plans to build sport facilities en masse and improve medical services rapidly with a wider coverage of medical insurance (free limited medical service for both the employed and the unemployed) in order to benefit local residents. This medical insurance system is a preliminary and progressive one but without very strong financial backing from the government for the moment. However, the government has committed more aid to the more vulnerable social groups with little or no medical insurance. Included in these policies was the concrete target of adding another year to the current life expectancy by 2012.

Complementary policies included an ambitious tree planting programme, begun in 2010 at a cost of HK$1.6 billion, the construction of massive new green spaces, a large number of new public parks and clustered urban districts interlaced within the existing topography of mountains and rivers. Another major plan involves building 17 new light-rail and subway lines (three of which are already in operation) in order to improve public transportation and reduce air pollution from growing car traffic, while more pedestrian walkways and ‘healthy footpaths’ have been built in many neighbourhoods. All these efforts to improve residents’ living conditions have won general praise from among both the upper and lower classes.

While it will be sometime before the intended effects of these policies can materialise in improved general health conditions, they share a prominent focus on livability, and are backed up by serious financial commitment. They also reflect an official recognition of the inescapable high density in a constrained mountainous and hilly topography, and therefore the importance of large-scale planning and engineering to mitigate its perceived undesirable impact on health. Underpinning this approach is an aesthetic rationale that a greener city that is more integrated with the natural topography of the surrounding mountains and the two rivers (the Yangtze and Jialing rivers meet at the tip of the peninsula on which Chongqing’s urban core sits) is more beautiful and also healthier. Although beautifying Chongqing through forestation and greening public spaces has enhanced the surface appearance of the city, it has run into some unintended consequences, including rapid real estate construction, with its partial end result of lowering indoor density.

Given Chongqing’s land and topographic constraints, residential real estate development takes shape in large numbers of high-rise apartment towers tightly bunched together on hilltops and along river banks. The monotonous skyline, worsened by the often foggy sky, appears to overshadow the greener and more pleasing cityscape and natural beauty of a mountainous river city. Still, the massive supply of new housing has raised residential living space per capita. However, the profit motive of real estate developers tends to push construction to the high or luxury end of the market, inflating housing prices so that lower-income buyers are priced out of the market. In the northern part of Chongqing city, luxury villa developments with golf courses for the nouveau riche were permitted by the local authorities in spite of the ban from the central government. In response, the current municipal government started an ambitious social housing programme at a cost of roughly UK$40 billion to make 40 million square kilometres of living space available to low-income residents within three years. Each of these apartments is limited to 60 square kilometres and yields 20 square kilometres per capita for a family of three. Its huge scope helps keep the indoor density relatively low, even though outdoor density in terms of people–land ratio is relatively high. The first low-rent high-rise housing development in Chongqing, Minxin Jiayuan (Folk Wish Homes), was finished in 2010, where thousands of low-income families have moved, with decent and spacious outdoor environment and facilities.

The rapid increase in housing prices in Chongqing has complicated and compromised government efforts to beautify the city, improve the quality of life and to create significant affordable housing. A brief reference to Hong Kong illustrates the point. About ten years ago, Hong Kong’s average personal income was 30 times of Chongqing’s, while the former’s housing price was about 50 times higher. The Hong Kong–Chongqing income ratio has since shrunk to 10:1, while the housing differential narrowed to 12:1. The shifts in these ratios mean that Chongqing’s housing has become more expensive relative to income, causing per capita living space to shrink. In the 1990s, many families in Chongqing bought apartments of more than 100 square kilometres, but most buyers today have to settle for less than 90 square kilometres.

In the compact and rapidly growing large city of Chongqing, there is limited room but greater need for smart planning to achieve the level of density that is conducive to quality of living and health. While this planning can take advantage of the natural beauty of mountains, forests and rivers, it confronts the tough challenge in reconciling with the brutal commercial logic of rapid real estate development and price inflation that is not necessarily compatible with building a healthy city.

The authors would like to acknowledge the comments and editorial support of Professor Xiangming Chen.

Huang Tianqi is Professor in City Planning and Urban Design at Chongqing University and Consultant to the Planning Research Centre of the Municipal Planning Bureau, Chongqing.

Huang Ling is Associate Professor in the Faculty of Architecture and Urban Planning at Chongqing University, China.

Xu Jianfeng is Associate Director of the Department of Urban Planning and Associate Professor in the Faculty of Architecture and Urban Planning at Chongqing University, China. He is also a Registered Urban Planner.