Harbin’s Future: Notes on Urban Planning Possibilities

Douglas Webster and Jianming Cai
March 24, 2007

1. Introduction
This note is a product of the Ha-Da-Qi Corridor CDS process, a joint project of the Heilongjiang Provincial Government and the Cities Alliance/World Bank.
We do not address the economy of the Harbin urban region, nor its overall strategic future, assessments that have been undertaken separately as part of the CDS SWOT and Strategy Options processes. Nor do we describe in detail Harbin’s urban form; much has been written on this topic. Rather we address key city building issues facing Harbin Municipality and its urban Districts over the 2006-2020 urban planning period. (This plan has just been approved at the Municipal and State Council levels.)

This note is based on the assumption that Harbin will continue to prosper economically, as it has done since emerging from large-scale SOE layoffs and industrial re-structuring in the 1990s, and that it will increasingly face outward as the flagship city of Northeast China, and of the Ha-Da-Qui Corridor, slowly regaining some of its past pre-eminence, both economically, and as a cosmopolitan center. (Harbin has dropped from the top 6 to the top 100 category in urban GDP since the 1960s.)  Harbin’s new role will offer new opportunities in terms of city building related to access to more public and private capital, talented designers, etc. On the other hand, achieving the envisioned flagship role will require that the overall quality of the urban environment be improved, and that unique, functionally and thematically specialized communities be developed within the Harbin metropolitan area.

2. Harbin: Context
Harbin is a middle-sized Chinese city with over 3.6 million people living in the city proper, a relatively compact area of 293 square kilometers. It is a new city, initiated in 1898 as the north-east China headquarters of the Russian railroad, the Trans-Siberian line passed through north-east China in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It prospered in the early Communist period, until its developed was hampered by both the “Third Line” and “Opening Up” economic phases, which favored other Chinese regions. Given this past prominence, followed by slow economic growth from the late 1960s to late 1990s, Harbin has a large number of Russian and Sino-Russian style buildings remaining. In addition to its architecture, the harsh winters (the time of the famous Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival), relatively cool summers, and a scenic hinterland of forests, mountains, and wetlands, contribute to its unique character. Given the city’s economic revival over the last approximately eight years, opportunities are surfacing to improve the quality of the built environment, but simultaneously economic growth poses a threat to Harbin’s built heritage as land in the urban core becomes more valuable.
However, demographic growth remains in the city proper, and especially the Municipality as a whole, remains slow. The registered urban population of the city proper actually fell by .09% from 2000 – 2001, but has been growing slowly since then, e.g., at less than 0.2% annually between 2001 and 2003.  However, there is evidence that the population growth rate has accelerated of late, with the population of the city proper currently approximately 3.5 million. (Municipal authorities forecast a city proper population of 4.6 million in 2020, while the overall Municipal population will grow very little to 2020 because of rural net out-migration, some of it to Harbin city proper.) At the same time, the floating (unregistered population) living in the urban area has remained relatively constant over the last several years.
In sum, typical of mature industrial metropolitan areas, Harbin should plan on the basis of slow demographic growth. (The fact that Harbin’s population is stable is actually a positive indicator, many mature industrial areas [“rust belt cities”] in Western Europe and the United States have lost ½ to two-thirds of their populations.)

3. City Building Issues
Key city building issues facing Harbin include:

3.1 Lack of High Quality Neighborhoods
Harbin lacks high quality neighborhoods, with high quality amenities and housing. At present, the most expensive housing is in the downtown near Central Street, while a new high-end area in the Aijian development near the Shangri-La hotel (the former railroad rolling stock manufacturing area) has emerged since that area was redeveloped starting in 2004. However, neither compares with high-end neighborhoods in most other large metropolitan areas in China. Such neighborhoods are needed to attract talent, provide lively venues for leisure, and help the city establish a distinctive and high-end image.

3.2 Industrial Scatter 
Local officials worry that there are too many industrial estates and high technology zones – ranging from national level zones to District and County ones; at least 30 exist in the Municipality. In addition, there are numerous free-standing factories, particularly in Ping Fang District, which compounds the problem. The concerns include lack of geographic clustering of similar or linked activities, the fact that noxious industry often borders residential areas, and the fact that knowledge institutions are often remote from firms that could commercialize their innovations.

3.3 Realizing the Potential of Heritage Buildings and Communities
Harbin has been effective in protecting heritage buildings (through inventory, building markers, regulations, etc.); however, there is a realization that the full potential of Harbin’s built environment heritage of unique buildings is not being realized as catalysts for neighborhood redevelopment and as tourist draws. This is particularly the case in Daowai District, which was the Chinese workers’ area of residence and trade when Harbin was a Russian railroad company town.  Daowai District is increasingly disconnected from the most dynamic economic vectors in the urban region.

3.4 Rehabilitation and Use of Brownfield Sites
In Chinese metropolitan areas nearly 80% of firms have been decentralized to surrounding peri-urban areas. In Harbin, as in the case of other previously slow growing metropolitan areas such as Tianjin, Chongqing, and Zhengzhou, industrial decentralization is less advanced. This is potentially an opportunity, providing land for reuse in the future that could significantly shape the city, provided the right planning (e.g., Floor Area Ratios) and market incentives (pricing of land) are in place. In sum, the large area in core Harbin still inappropriately devoted to industrial uses represents a significant land bank for reshaping the re-development of the city.
A related issue is the safety of brown field sites when they are redeveloped.  Are proper guidelines and regulations in place to ensure safety to new users of former heavy industrial sites? (National regulations in this regard are not well developed.)

4. Urban Dynamics

4.1 As indicated in Section 2, Harbin is growing slowly in demographic terms. This means that there are real limits to the amount of land that needs to be urbanized, i.e., converted from rural to urban uses in the foreseeable future.  Care needs to be taken not to overbuild or over-plan, especially on the periphery of the built-up area. Too much overbuilding can depress housing prices, and lead to leap-frog scattered development being “locked in” as urbanization rates fall in Harbin (and virtually all Chinese metropolitan areas) by mid-century cutting, off in-fill options.
There is evidence that overbuilding and over-extension of the metropolitan area is occurring in Harbin. For example, population densities in built up Harbin fell from 2039 persons per square km in 2000 to 1898 persons per square kilometer in 2003. Between 2000 and 2003 the “constructed” area of the city proper increased from 167.6 to 255.1 square kilometers, while the registered population actually fell (and the floating population stayed constant). 

4.2 At present, residential and commercial development is most dynamic (exhibited in the highest property prices) in the: (i) Central Street area (highest housing prices are in the Central / Qiulin area) in Daoli District, (ii) new developments near the Shangri-La Hotel, e.g., Aijian, again in Daoli District, (iii) new urbanization across the Songhua River in Songbei District). A fourth node of emerging dynamism is in central Nangang District, including the old Russian core to the south-east of the Railway Station. Higher-end residential development is increasingly to the south-west and north (across the river). Knowledge institutions are also increasing their presence along the south-west corridor as traditional industry is relocated further out on the axis (e.g., in the Taiping Airport Park) or to the South in the industrial areas of Dongli District. (For example, the Harbin Institute of Technology has taken over the old zoo.) Part of the attraction of the south-west corridor to knowledge institutions is the existence of the Yingbin National High Tech Zone, only 6 kilometers from the center of the city. 
Industrial development (aviation, automotives, etc.) is oriented to the South, in Dongli District, in both the National Level Haping ETDZ (the prime clsuter of FDI in Harbin), and in surrounding free-standing factories. This momentum of successful industry (both re-structured SOEs and other enterprises) locating to the south has resulted in the creation of a new national level zone by the Harbin Development Zone authority and the Dongli District, the Pingfan Industrial New Zone, which is formally a part of the Ha-Da-Qui Corridor development.  This new zone will cater to automotives, aviation, metallurgy, pharmaceuticals, computers and parts, precision machinery, etc., as well as containing an executive park.
The East side of the urban region is increasingly stranded, including most of Daowai District. The east side of the city is both downstream and downwind in a heavy industrial region, not a desirable location, and so will be difficult to revive. The Huagong Petro-Chemical Zone in north Daowai District (the only refinery in Harbin) has negative impact on Daowai District’s environment, further isolating Daowai from Harbin’s economic revival. Binxi industrial zone in Nangang District is another low-end industrial zone, finding it difficult to compete with newer zones.  

4.3 Although the quality of urban planning is high (there is a long and deep tradition of urban planning analysis in Harbin), there is a lack of investment capital to build high quality communities. Most property developers are local (although Shanghai developers have been at the forefront in the Aijian redevelopment); and there is an absence of world-class international property developers working in Harbin.

4.4 As noted above, a much higher percentage of land in the core city is occupied by old industrial buildings than is the norm for Chinese metropolitan areas. This is the product of Harbin’s high reliance on manufacturing and the relatively slow decentralization of industrial enterprises to the peri-urban area.

4.5 In sum, Harbin is developing a strong north-south orientation to its development, with Sun Island serving as a green heart. The relocation of the Municipal Government to the north, plus large-scale residential development, and establishment of “clean” industrial bases, e.g., the Harbin State-Level Environment Protection Technology Industry Park, are driving development north of the river in Songbei District.  Successful manufacturing industry is clearly moving south, while a south-west knowledge - high tech- aviation Corridor is gaining momentum. The East remains stagnant although plans for industrial re-structuring in the East will eventually shape the fate of the eastern side of the city.

5. Needed Actions
Given our rapid assessment of spatial dynamics in the Harbin Metropolitan area, we suggest the following actions should be considered to address the above issues.

5.1 Given the relatively slow demographic growth, emphasis should be placed on building contiguously, including in Songbei District, not overbuilding in a scattered manner, especially in Songbei District. Demographic growth will not be sufficient, even if the Municipality’s forecast of 4.6 million people in the city proper in 2020 is accepted, to justify widespread peripheral development in all directions. There is a danger that too much investment in peripheral development will deprive the core city, which is Harbin’s major asset nationally and internationally, of adequate capital, and population.

Harbin should aim not to grow fast demographically, but focus on the quality of its economy and built form. Many relatively small metropolitan areas such as Frankfurt, Amsterdam, and Vancouver have global profiles based on the quality of their urban development.
Harbin is characterized by low housing prices. (The average price of new housing is 2,600 RMB per meter, and the high end of the market is 6,000 RMB; housing prices rank 24th in China among metropolitan regions.) Although low housing prices are good in that they allow easier access to the housing by low income households, too low housing prices deter quality developers from building quality communities, and make private sector led redevelopment of brown field and other areas difficult, or impossible. Excessive building through too fast release of land, especially in Songbei District, could exacerbate this situation of low property prices in the Harbin metropolitan area.

5.2 Typical of Chinese metropolitan areas, capital for city building is disproportionately allocated to new economic zones, of which there are approximately 30 in Harbin Municipality. However, Harbin is not a typical Chinese metropolitan area, its greatest assets are the old heritage areas, the downtown, etc., which appear severely under-capitalized.  A mechanism needs to be developed that would create the equivalent of special area redevelopment status for these core city areas (as is done in many western countries) to attract national, provincial, municipal, and private capital, to enable them to compete with new economic and high tech development zones.

5.3 We see little prospect of reducing the number of, or consolidating existing special economic zones. (A Darwinian process is in effect whereby the best firms (highest value added, least polluting) locate in the national level zones, e.g., the three (four including the new Pingfang Zone) campuses of the Harbin Development Zone while less desirable firms locate in District zones, such as the Binxi Zone in Nangang District. We see the problem best addressed through incremental improvement as additional industrial space. The Municipality should play a greater role in delivering (or at least regulating) new industrial space, attempting to build fewer, but higher quality, carefully located zones. It appears this is already happening with the development of the new Pingfang Zone. As more high quality industrial land is put on the market, old zones will become relatively less important, and some can, perhaps, be redeveloped in the medium run. Others may attempt to improve their product, e.g., adding facilities, banning high polluting enterprises based on the competition and demonstration affects of new high quality economic and high tech zone space. At the same time, no new free-standing factories should be allowed.
The process of industrial relocation to the peri-urban area (largely to the south: Haping and Pingfang) should be sped up by introducing incentive structures that encourage SOEs (and other firms) to move to the periphery, as soon as possible. This will have the triple benefit of: (i) reducing pollution in the core city, (ii) creating large brown field sites to catalyze the redevelopment of the core city (see 4.4 and 4.7 below), and (iii) supporting development of high quality industrial zones as described above. Proven methods to do this are being pioneered in China, e.g., Beijing, and have been successful elsewhere in the world. In essence, firms that move out should be given an equity stake in new development on the site that they abandon. This creates a win-win situation; the SOE that moves is likely to realize a large scale capital or equity gain, especially if their old site is redeveloped as a high end, high density nodal community, near subway service.
Local officials and outside observers note the lack of economic clustering in existing industrial zones in Harbin. This is true, e.g., noodle firms are next to state-of-the-art linear motor research and manufacturing facilities, while potential buyers of the motors are distant, but there is little that can be done in the short run. In the medium-run, market forces should lead to greater geographic clustering of economic clusters. Of concern is the lack of proximity of knowledge institutions and industrial space in some cases. Historically, brain power in Harbin was centered on the Harbin Institute of Technology and the Harbin Engineering University in central and eastern Nangang District, with industry being not too far away (to the south), in a relatively compact city. However, there appears to be an increasing spatial mismatch between some new suburban campuses (e.g., in Songbei District) and new high end manufacturing, e.g., in southern Dongli District. On the other hand, the development of the high-tech south-west corridor is a case of increasingly better alignment of knowledge institutions and some high-tech firms.

5.4 To develop high quality neighborhoods (outside historical areas), we see the need for (i) the Municipality to release larger plots and (ii) involvement of world-class property developers to raise the standard to which local developers would aspire.
Harbin Municipality should directly approach high quality developers, especially those with a track record in restoring heritage neighborhoods, utilizing “living culture” approaches. The Municipality’s past approach to high-end development was to hold design competitions; although to be commended, innovative concepts can only be realized by high quality property developers who can refine and operationalize the plans, and access large amounts of capital.
It would appear that the market for high end housing is promising in that the price of high-end residential property has been growing at approximately 12-15% per year over the last 3 years, while the average housing price increment has been 8% per year.

5.5 To preserve heritage neighborhoods (Harbin is one of 10 leading heritage cities designated by the Ministry of Construction), there is a need to implement a “living culture” neighborhood redevelopment model whereby developers would be significantly involved in rehabilitation, as in Xintandi in Shanghai, under very strict conditions, with interiors being utilized for appropriate uses. Such a model would probably work in the Huayuan Street area (former Russian railroad headquarters, initial [1945] PRC headquarters), given its strategic location – being on the main north-south axis of the city, and close to the main commercial streets of the city. (There are 68 historical buildings in the Huayuan area, including 4 villa areas; the 7 square kilometer area was originally planned by the Russians as a garden city.)
The historical buildings in the Daowai District (1st to 8th Streets composed of Chinese, Russian, and Eclectic buildings) represent a greater redevelopment challenge because the area is outside the main vector of Harbin’s spatial development, as argued above. There, many buildings are in danger of collapse. Although Ministry of Construction grants have been obtained to undertake minimal work in Daowai, they are clearly insufficient in terms of large-scale redevelopment. To reverse Daowai’s “back water” economic image will be difficult given the many competing areas in the city attempting to re position themselves as high end areas. We suggest that the first step would be a Municipal effort that would concentrate on the best of the heritage blocks in Daowai, initially focusing on exterior cosmetics (e.g., painting), roadworks (e.g., cobblestones), low cost loans and tax breaks to individual owners who agree to rehabilitate buildings, local free (or low cost) design and construction assistance, etc. Eventually a momentum might be established whereby a larger scale public-private redevelopment initiative could be established.

5.6 Along the major heritage/commercial streets (Central and Guogeli) a first rate job has been done protecting heritage buildings. However, uses (interiors) are often inconsistent with the atmosphere that eventually should be achieved, e.g., Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets are found in classic Russian buildings. Over the long run efforts should be made to attract tenants whose functions (or at least interior design) are more in conformity with the Sino-Russian atmosphere that the Municipal and District planners wish to achieve.

5.7 Harbin has not been shaped by ring roads – as such the core is still strong and radial roads (8 major radial arterials) continue to significantly shape development. The suburban ring road (3rd Ring Road) is still not finished, while the outer ring road (4th Ring Road) is largely disconnected from the core urban system, serving agricultural, recreational, and satellite industrial areas.
Given this situation, Harbin should focus on creating high density nodes in the core city where brown field land (available for redevelopment) and subway stations coalesce. In these areas, very high FARs should be allowed in return for high quality design, establishment of public facilities, etc.

5.8 Harbin should take full advantage of its soon-to-be constructed subway system to revitalize the core. Areas within 400-500 meters of key stations will enjoy 25-35% increments in land and property prices (based on East Asian experience), essentially a “windfall” source of capital to create new nodes as noted above (4.7). Harbin has planned for 81.27 kilometers of subway line by 2020, and 197.9 kilometers by 2020; the first (red) line will be 14 kilometers in length, extending from the southern Harbin Development Zone (Haping Road), to the downtown, then will turn east, ending across the river. This first line will have a profound effect on the city’s structure, reinforcing the north-south development orientation. (The second (blue) line will run east-west reinforcing the fast growing south-west corridor.)

5.9 Although Harbin is known for its unique physical environment and heritage neighborhoods, it has a poor reputation for environmental quality. The Songhua River is polluted (the State Environmental Protection Agency has identified 46 major industries dumping liquid waste into the river); however, to a significant extent this situation is beyond the Municipality’s ability (even the Province’s) to control. Nevertheless, improving the Songhua River’s quality would greatly enhance the city’s amenity attractiveness, especially as development north of the river increasingly makes the river a central artery of the city, rather than its northern boundary, as in the past.
Only 37% of the city proper is served by sewerage systems, this is below the norm for Chinese metropolitan areas and this issue should be addressed.

5.10 Plans have been developed for an arts/residential district on the north bank of the Songhua river to the north-east of Sun Island. This could serve as a high-end suburban community, balancing one or two high-end core city new communities that would incorporate heritage buildings, easy access to the core and rapid transit, etc.

5.11 Given the importance of brown field redevelopment in Harbin, the Municipality, in co-operation with the State Environmental Protection Agency should establish clear mechanisms and standards for the rehabilitation of brown field sites to ensure that future intermediate consumers (developers) and final users can be assured of their safety. 

6. Summary
Harbin has enormous potential to become a high quality, compact medium sized metropolitan area, acting as the dominant and flagship city of Northeast China. Key to achieving this vision will be establishment of high quality neighborhoods, increased nodality, and more order in its industrial zones. Aside from strong Municipal leadership, the Muncipality and its Districts will need to attract more capital, attract first rate designers, planners, and property developers skilled in heritage related development, and take measures to realize the potential of its brown field sites, if redeveloped, in the context of the new subway system.

Data source:哈尔滨市城乡规划局 2009.07.06