Drum Tower and a hutong neighborhood in Beijing. (Wenjie Dong)

BEIJINGFor hundreds of years, Beijing’s unassuming hutong neighbourhoods have been one of the city’s most distinctive features. Whereas residences in Europe grew gradually taller and grander as local economies expanded, homes in Beijing remained a sprawling collection of low-rise courtyards connected by a labyrinth of narrow lanes.

Built in accordance with traditional thinking that living spaces should grow outward rather than upward, these neighborhoods remained jie diqi, as the locals put it, or “connected to the energy of the earth.”

This approach to urban planning was a luxury easy to maintain while China’s economy remained isolated from outside influence. But once economic growth began taking off in the 1990s, the hutongs’ days were numbered.

Faced with a commercial imperative to repurpose inner-city land for more economically efficient purposes, authorities began systematically to demolish traditional housing. As a result, by the time of the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008, virtually all the capital’s contiguous historic neighbourhoods had been bulldozed, leaving only individual islands of hutongs scattered about the city.

One area, however, remained undeveloped. Qianmen East, a 56-hectare (138 ac) inner-city neighbourhood just south of Tiananmen Square, had been mostly razed by developers about ten years ago, but was never rebuilt as official attitudes toward heritage preservation began to shift. Today, in line with newly revised policy, the entire neighbourhood has been earmarked for regeneration in a manner true to the spirit of the original.

For an area of this size, it is a hugely ambitious undertaking. Developers therefore asked ULI to convene an Advisory Services panel to help come up with proposals on how the redevelopment might proceed.

Communities Need People

The report notes that heritage regeneration is a complicated exercise, and Qianmen East is no exception.

On paper, successful redevelopment might seem like a surefire proposition for an inner-city location boasting cleared land and clean title in a site so close to other major attractions—including the center of government, the Great Hall of the People, and the historic Forbidden City complex. In this case, though, the outcome is far from certain. Lack of local experience in heritage restoration and an official mind-set that is not always aligned with project goals are fundamental problems.

Two major issues stand out.

The first is a government mandate restricting the number of residents in Qianmen East to current ultra-low levels—an issue arising partly because the neighbourhood lies so close to Tiananmen Square, an area of heightened political sensitivity, and partly because of concerns about rising population densities. Authorities recently imposed a cap on inner-city densities of 16,000 people per square kilometer (41,400 per sq mi). They are reluctant to allow more people to move to Qianmen because densities in surrounding areas currently reach nearly 50,000 people per square kilometer (129,500 per sq mi), among the highest in Beijing.

Creation of a new shopping area along Beijing’s Qianmen Boulevard involved demolition of a centuries-old neighbourhood and redevelopment as a tourist destination featuring faux 1930s architecture.

The other major roadblock comes from a lack of consensus among officials that historic restoration should be based on a commitment to preserve in place the conditions that give a location its character, either architecturally or in terms of its community. It is telling that in a similar recent regeneration exercise in a neighbouring district, authorities demolished the entirety of Beijing’s oldest shopping street, evicted most of its residents, and re-created the area as a tourist destination featuring faux 1930s architecture and a Disney-style street tram running down the centre of the resurrected boulevard.

That hugely expensive project drew criticism domestically and internationally, and it remains commercially unsuccessful. Current developers are anxious not to repeat this outcome in Qianmen East, but they remain unsure how to proceed.

The common theme is that both roadblocks stem from government policy agendas. Regarding population density, the panel noted that communities cannot thrive without a critical mass of residents to give them vitality.

Pedestrians stroll the new shopping area along Beijing’s Qianmen Boulevard.

Beijing’s hutongs may have been overcrowded in the past, but the problem now is exactly the opposite: only 10,000 of the Qianmen East’s original 60,000 residents remain. Moreover, overcrowding is not a problem that will affect Qianmen East because the requirement to rebuild on a single-story basis in the neighbourhood necessarily results in a lower population density than in adjacent areas where multistory buildings are allowed.

Tourism also affects neighborhood use. The absence of local residents cannot be addressed by converting the area into a tourist destination. A certain amount of tourism has its place, but experience elsewhere has shown that re-creating long rows of historic shopfronts is not enough to create the type of authentic community or experience that attracts both occupiers and tourists.

An artist’s visualisation of Beijing with the Qianmen East Hutong in the foreground. In the centre of the image are Tiananmen Square and the Great Hall of the People. The yellow structures towards the background are the Forbidden City imperial palace complex. (Beijing Institute of Design and Architecture)

Maintaining a Mix of Residents

The question, then, is what type of community should be built? Creating a high-end residential enclave would defeat the object of the exercise—to re-create the hutong as a normal, functioning neighborhood rather than a playground for the rich. At the same time, finding a workable demographic mix will be tricky.

Apart from the need to accommodate current residents, most of whom are older and working class, the panel saw scope for bringing in as residents craftspeople versed in traditional arts and construction techniques—this population was among the traditional residents of the neighborhood—as well as a younger and wealthier subset of urban creative and professional people.

In addition, it will be important to recognise that the demographic likely to be drawn to the area will increasingly be composed of millennials, and facilities should be planned with them in mind.
Perhaps the most challenging long-term issue from a demographic perspective will be to maintain a balance among various types of residents. As a unique low-rise, low-density city-centre location, Qianmen East is likely eventually to become a magnet for the wealthy. The potential for gentrification to push out lower-earning occupants, whether residential or commercial, will be an ongoing challenge in maintaining the hutong’s character and vitality. This problem, one that has been experienced in other heritage regeneration projects globally, will probably need to be actively managed.

A map dividing Qianmen East hutong into four quadrants. Sanlihe Creek traverses the southwest quadrant.

Design and Layout

The other side of the redevelopment equation involves design. With only about 10 per cent of the original structures in the hutong surviving, most of Qianmen East will have to be redeveloped as single-story courtyard structures in keeping with the original hutong character.

This may seem to restrict design options, but in practice the panel found courtyard houses as a building type to be remarkably adaptable. By embracing historical design approaches, planners should be able to accommodate single, multiple, and mixed uses—both residential and business—set within a seemingly endless variety of lanes, courtyards, ancillary buildings, and connecting passages.

The starting point for the plan devised by the panel was to divide Qianmen East into four distinct areas created by the east–west and north–south roads that now dissect the neighbourhood. Each would embody a distinct catalyst to drive development.

  • The northwest quadrant would be commercially oriented, featuring a local shopping street made up of small retail outlets, restaurants, and creative businesses. Because good accessibility will be required, restored courtyard units could be interconnected by passages linking areas of small offices with live/work courtyard houses.In addition, the variety of uses and the discrete nature of courtyard occupancy would serve as a magnet for other types of users, including satellite facilities for global innovation businesses, university research hubs, and boutique service companies in the tech, design, and finance fields.
  • The southwest quadrant is already designated as a “landscape development area,” a theme predetermined by the installation of a meandering manmade creek that replicates an ancient stream that flowed from the area into the moat of the Forbidden City to the north. The waterway could be enhanced through the addition of lighting for nighttime use, more seating, small performance spaces, and other amenities. The waterway passes through an area of already-completed hutong housing that could be repurposed as community facilities, together with a collection of galleries and workshops built into individual courtyard compounds for local craftspeople and artists.
  • The southeast quadrant has long north–south lanes that give the neighborhood a defining identity and the potential for a quiet, high-quality lifestyle. With a luxury Mandarin Oriental courtyard hotel project set for completion inside the area, it will probably evolve as an upscale residential neighbourhood. Along the southern edge of the quadrant is an area that could be repurposed as an open-air market—an important resource that would provide a focal point for locals.
  • The Northeast quadrant already features a concentration of modern and traditional Chinese health care facilities. Medicine therefore could serve as the catalyst for this neighbourhood. A cluster of homes and other properties could then become a location for households that need to be near health care and social services.

Cross section of a typical hutong lane with street trees and under-road utilities.

Streets and Alleys

The primary defining characteristic of any hutong is its network of meandering walled alleyways that are usually the only means of access. Retaining this feature will be vital, although the ability to work in such narrow streets creates constraints. Several officials, for example, complained that it would be impossible to install sewage and water mains in such confined spaces. However, panellists did not see the problem as insurmountable, suggesting modern techniques could provide underground sewage and rainwater drainage, as well as duct banks for electrical and telecommunications utilities.

Another problem is traffic. Because the narrow streets make parked and moving vehicles a bane for pedestrian access, the panel recommended banishing vehicles altogether to parking facilities established on the hutong periphery or located underground. New technology could also be adopted to control traffic, including smart parking systems, license plate number recognition systems (to help enforce the rules), and shared autonomous vehicles to provide access for residents and goods. Within the hutongs, parking places should be provided only for two-wheeled vehicles in locations that do not block pedestrians or other traffic.

ULI’s panel recommended that major roads in the huting be reconfigured as two four-metre lanes for cars and buses separated by a tree line and featuring bike lanes and wider sidewalks.

A final issue is the size and configuration of the two newly-constructed cross streets that have now dissected Qianmen East into four quadrants. These modern double-lane roads, flanked on each side by parking lanes, may allow convenient access for residents’ vehicles and deliveries, but sidewalk space is minimal and bicycle lanes nonexistent. The panel therefore recommends that these roads be reconfigured as two four-metre lanes for cars and buses, again separated by a tree line (configured with integrated rainwater storage pits), bike lanes, and wider sidewalks.

Courtyards and Guildhalls

Creating a large network of traditional courtyard buildings is in the city’s design brief for Qianmen. Because a detailed survey of the area has already been completed by local architects, designers have been able to create a catalog of design forms to use as starting points for creating new units that may be used in various ways. These include:

  • Live/work courtyards for single or multiple residents. Layouts would be completely flexible in terms of living and working areas.
  • Single-family courtyards. Rising land values mean these would probably be high-value units.
  • Multifamily courtyards, created by subdividing traditional units. Standard-size hutong homes should be able to provide four to six living spaces.
  • Guest house courtyards. These would cater to tourists and overnight guests.
  • Small offices and creative studios. Adjacent offices can also be interconnected via linked courtyards.
  • Satellite university campuses, which would require larger spaces, possibly composed of multiple courtyards that can be used for both research and education. They could also serve as accommodation for visiting scholars and researchers.

Finally, use can be made of the guildhalls. The Qianmen hutong has been home since the early Ming Dynasty to a number of such halls, each built to serve a particular function such as supporting Confucian scholars or advancing the causes of various craft-based industries, or used as boarding houses for candidates studying for imperial exams. Most of the guildhalls were spared from demolition, and 35 survive.

Given their historical significance, these facilities could probably again accommodate organizations serving a variety of public functions, including promoting emerging industries, working to attract new enterprises to Beijing, representing industries in different Chinese provinces, or simply serving as museums or exhibition spaces.

A typical hutong courtyard home in Beijing.

Conservation Issues: Homes and People

Although much of Qianmen East’s housing has long since been demolished and its residents relocated, it is important to preserve what remains of both the indigenous population (an issue addressed earlier) and the area’s stock of traditional buildings. Only some 10 per cent of Qianmen East’s ancient courtyard homes survive today. Protecting them will be important not only because modern imitations of historic structures will always lack authenticity, but also because many of the area’s surviving buildings remain intact precisely because they have signifi­cant historic or architectural value.

As in heritage sites elsewhere in the world, there are vari­ous ways to approach conservation and renovation. The World Heritage Convention has established five principles of conservation, which the panel endorses:

  • Authorities must create confidence that concerns of different stakeholders—in particular resi­dents—are understood.
  • Both tangible (e.g., buildings) and intan­gible (e.g., people) assets need to be conserved.
  • Capacity building and communication. These principles involve information sharing between the interested par­ties, including residents, donors, partners, and investors, and the national and local authorities.
  • The importance of community has been discussed elsewhere in this report.

Conservation Financing Models

Beyond the fundamental principles of conservation, the most important practical requirement for a renovation programme is sufficient funding. The panel understands that capital has already been allocated from government sources for this purpose. In particular, a new bank was established in late 2017 to provide low-interest loans and guarantees, to be followed soon by an RMB 1 billion Cultural Asset Protection initiative. Both are aimed at promoting culture- and heritage-oriented businesses in the East Qianmen area. In addition, development officials indi­cated during interviews that they were prepared to include subsidies as part of their financing model.

The panel suggests, therefore, that grants and low-interest loans to property owners should be made available from those or other government sources. This approach is common in other heritage locations (see Bukchon Hanok Village case study). To the extent that official funding does not cover the cost of required restoration work, financing may be available from international heritage conservation groups or other philanthropic organisations and individuals.

Public/private partnerships (PPP) may be another way to finance restoration initiatives. One example in an Asian context would be the Kurokabe Inc. programme in Japan’s Nagahama city, where a joint venture between the local government and eight regional companies (the latter hold­ing a 70 per cent share) bought a local historic building from a private owner. The initiative, which was managed by the corporate participants, financed the restoration of the building and later became involved in preservation and regeneration projects in other parts of Nagahama city. In addition to restoration, the goal of the project was to promote economic activity in businesses that did not compete with pre-existing shops and businesses in the area, in particular in the arts and crafts sector. As a result, Nagahama became one of the leading centres for artistic glassware production in Japan. Similar PPP structures have been mooted in South Korea, though so far none have been launched. The PPP approach is also widely used as a redevelopment model in Western markets.

Another potential funding framework was outlined in background briefing documents received by the panel. Described as a “shared property development model”, the scheme proposes that standard presale (i.e., off-plan) marketing techniques be avoided, with developers instead completing construction on their own before selling the homes at lower price points by way of a “shared owner­ship” model. According to this approach, both buyers and developers would then hold an agreed percentage of the land use rights, with developers retaining rights to main­tain and supervise the property.

The goal ultimately is to attract those who could not otherwise afford to buy, to ensure that any future work will be done properly, and to prevent illegal building work. The same approach was suggested as a means of financing conservation activities for existing courtyard homes in the Qianmen area—for the same reasons and with the same goals.

The panel understands that this concept is based on a national initiative aimed at financing renovation work on ancient buildings. In Qianmen East, the funds would help promote two important objectives:

  • Homes would become affordable for groups that might otherwise struggle to buy properties at real market values (i.e., younger people or those involved in arts and crafts industries).
  • Properties could be appropriately renovated and main­tained.

On that basis, the strategy seems plausible, although the panel questions whether existing property owners would be prepared to give up equity in their homes simply to have them renovated by the government. In any event, if the scheme is implemented, it would be important to ensure that the rights and obligations of each party are clearly set out (in particular as to responsibility for the costs of any future renovation work). It will also be important to ensure that potential buyers are not corralled into unfair deals as a result of inequality of bargaining power vis-à-vis develop­ers. In particular, rights of private owners in relation to subletting and ultimately selling their property rights must be protected in a fair and transparent manner.

A Significant Opportunity

Because few, if any, city-centre heritage projects of comparable scale and ambition are likely to become available in another global city in the near future, the opportunity offered by the Qianmen redevelopment is one that resonated strongly with the ULI panellists, who saw it as one of the most exciting and inspirational heritage projects ever studied by the Institute.

For now, developers and government officials may be too focused on current and past problems encountered in local rehabilitation efforts to recognise the significance of this opportunity. But the consensus among panellists was that, if handled in a way focused on recapturing some of the vitality of the hutong’s original community, the redevelopment project has the potential to emerge as a showcase for global conservation practice and be seen as one of the finest heritage redevelopments in the world.

Colin Galloway is vice president of content at ULI Asia Pacific, based in Hong Kong.