The Urban Structure of Harbin, China

The Urban Structure of Harbin, China
An urban design approach
Tao Fan
Completed in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Environmental Design (Planning), Faculty of Environmental Design, The University of Calgary, July 2002
Supervisor: Dr. Beverly A. Sandalack
This Master’s Degree Project (MDP) examines the urban structure of Harbin and reviews various urban design theories and precedents targeted at urban form and structure.
The case study method is used to demonstrate how an urban design approach is necessary in the study of urban structure. The primary focus is on the structure of the public realm, particularly the Central Business District. The case study analyzes the regional context, historical evolution, urban form and planning practices applied in Harbin.  It analyzes the Harbin urban structure, _ e.g., circulation, built-up areas, figure-ground and functions to give a thorough background. Also highlighted are the future urban developments of the city and feasibility studies of introducing LRT (Light Rail Transit) system.
The design philosophy utilized is a synthesis of approaches taken by Beverly A. Sandalack & Andrei Nicolai’s (Urban Structure: Halifax – an urban design approach), by Edmund Bacon’s (Design of Cities), Kevin Lynch’s (The Image of Cities), Roger Trancik’s (Finding Lost Space) theories and approach of urban design.
A conceptual CBD redevelopment plan is produced to illustrate how urban design could contribute to the future development of the city, and ultimately, towards a more vital, identifiable and efficient central Business District.
Key Words: Central Business District, Urban Design, Urban Structure, LRT (Light Rail Transit), Planning Paradigm, Railway Corridors and Urban Growth.

Chapter 1



1.1 Background

Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang province, is located in the northeast of China. By the end of 1997, Heilongjiang province had a population of 36.28 million with an urban population of 16.33 million, which accounted for 45.02% of its total population.


 Fig. 1.1 the Location of Harbin, China

The national urbanization level in 1997 was 29%, and this province ranked at the first level in China: there are 31 cities and 466 towns. These cities and towns form an urban system, with Harbin as the core city, and Qiqihar, Mudanjiang and Jiamusi as regional cities, resource-based cities and port cities.


Human beings lived in the Shonghua River valley 20,000 years ago at the end of the Stone Age.   In the nineteenth century, however, there was still only a sparse population living a simple lifestyle as hunters and fishermen. After 1898, modern cities were founded and they grew rapidly with the development of transportation which brought immigration and the exploitation of natural resources. One hundred years before, Harbin had been a small fishing village. In 2002, it is a big city with population of 3.38 million and one of the economic, political and cultural centers in northeast Asia.  Many historical events have shaped Harbin, but by far the most important is the railway. The adoption of planning methods from Russia and Japan in the early twentieth century also influenced the urban form of Harbin.

1.2  The Research Project


Fig 1.2 Harbin, China

This map shows the relationship of the railway, urban built-up area and the Songhua River. As a railway hub, Harbin connects five trunk railway lines, such as one from Harbin to Beijing.

The project analyses and identifies the issues and problems of Harbin urban structure, and the challenge of rapid urban renewal. It makes reference to the urban design approach that looks at the city at a scale in between planning and architecture. The purpose of the project is to explore the development of the city’s historical urban structure and the physical form surrounding the urban structure of the central city. Based on this analysis, I make recommendations and conceptual proposals for improving Harbin’s urban structure. The research findings are expected to provide a relevant example for facilitating the transition of present day Chinese urban form into more meaningful and sustainable patterns.


1.3  Issues


Today, like most big cities in China, Harbin is experiencing rapid transition, urban renewal and massive development. For example, there were 1.3 million m2 of old houses, which were cleared between 1992-1994 in Shanghai, and 5.0 million m2 of slum clearance in Beijing between 1996-2000.  Not until 2000 did Harbin clear 1.0 million m2 of slums. In the meantime, the government policies are confusing; some cities promote urban renewal, and others want to stop it (Geng, 1999). In fact, the problems of aggressive urban renewal are obvious. Some painful issues confront the professionals and residents of the city.


(1) Rapid Urban Renewal

Along with economic growth, massive urbanization has been promoted as the main thrust of urban renewal. From the mid-1980s, large scale urban renewal stepped into the place of the cleared slums and several new neighbourhoods

were built every year.  In 2000, Harbin cleared out 1 million m2 of slums.



Driven by market forces, the historical districts (usually located in the centre of the city) must be sacrificed for the tertiary functions that the market needs to function. The resulting rise in land costs in the central city has meant greater development of cheaper suburban land.


Current urban development is unprecedented, both in scale and building size. The devastation of the historical fabric by urban renewal is disastrous. The traditional planning tools (the master plan and detailed construction plan) are facing challenges. The master plan focuses on two-dimensional land use planning issues, while the detailed construction plan emphasizes the small-scale, project-related developments, such as a neighbourhood, plaza, or a strip area along a major street. The public realm is being overlooked. The lack of workable administrative statutes confuses the situation. No land-use bylaw or design guideline has yet been created for the city.


The massive developments generate traffic problems and put greater demand on transportation facilities, which have to be expanded and modernized with devastating effect on the urban fabric.


(2) Losing the Identity of the City

Evolving over a hundred years, Harbin has developed a unique identity _ _ a compact urban form, human-scale blocks, and building colours responsive to the environment. In the public realm, the colours yellow, white, orange and green-blue infuse the space and lend a particular quality of urbanity.


However, from the mid 1980s, high-rise buildings designed in the international style have been inserted, in scattered fashion into the existing urban fabric and have totally changed the cityscape. These changes have raised the concerns of professionals and local residents, and a series of papers have discussed urban identity and historical preservation: for example, Prof. Huaisheng Chang has discussed the architecture of Harbin and identity of the city. Unfortunately, most writers have focused on the architecture of single buildings rather than the urban space. A legible urban structure is the basic framework for the urban form, identity and public life. A more sensitive planning approach is needed to counteract the effects of massive urban renewal and the modernization of transportation.


(3) Conflicts between the Railway and the City

Harbin originated and benefited from the construction of the Middle-East Railway. The city suffers conflicts with the railway, however, which runs through the city in a T-shape and separates the city into three parts. Linkage between these parts has been an important issue for many years, and the situation has recently deteriorated further. Rainbow Bridge, built in the 1920s, has been a bottleneck connecting the Daoli district, Nangang district and Daowai district until 1995. Now the inner ring road has been built and the second ring is under construction. The task is now to build up the linkages in urban space to reintegrate the urban fabric, not only the transportation connections.







1.4 Objectives of the MDP


The objectives of this study are:

·        To evaluate the historical evolution of the city with a focus on the urban spatial structure, in order to understand the nature of its urban form and its determinants;

·        To examine the evolution of the city in terms of the quality of urban form and urban life, with a focus on the public realm;

·        To identify and discuss specific issues of urban spatial structure in the current period of rapid urban renewal;

·        To make recommendations and conceptual proposals for improving the urban spatial structure.


1.5 Definitions


It is necessary to define a number of terms used throughout the study:


·        Great Metropolitan Area: includes the built area of the city and its suburbs in which some satellite cities and towns are located.

·        Central Business District (CBD): the commercial cores, main office and retail areas within the central city, including Daoli commercial core, Nangang commercial core, general railway plant area, Harbin railway station area and waterfront warehouse district.

·        Middle-East Railway: it is a “continental bridge” and was built in 1898 through Harbin, connecting to the Pacific in the east and to Europe in the west.

·        Lost spaces are the unharmonious parts in the urban fabric, in this document, including the general railway plant, waterfront warehouse district and railway corridors



1.6 Organization of the Document


Part I Theoretical Background

Chapter 1: Introduction

Chapter One provides a context and background for the study, the scope of the research project, and the issues relating to urban form and structure.


Chapter 2: An Urban Design Approach

In Chapter Two, an urban design approach is established. This is accomplished through a literature review of relevant theories and case studies, such as Kevin Lynch, “The Image of the City”; Roger Trancik, “Finding Lost Space” ; The Urban Structure of Philadelphia, by Edmund Bacon (1960s); and the case study of the Urban Structure of Halifax by Bev Sandalack and Andrei Nicolai.


First, the definition of urban structure is presented. Key values are established based on a review of the theories, precedents and the specific context of Harbin, which will be the criteria for the analysis in this project.


Part II Harbin: Existing Conditions and Analysis

Chapter 3: Regional Context

This chapter describes the regional context for Harbin and investigates the origin, development and evolution of human settlement in the Heilongjiang province. The establishment of a city is correlated to its population migration and development of transportation. The history of cities and towns as well as the influence of different planning philosophies are highlighted.


Chapter 4: Historic Evolution

Chapter Four critically analyses the evolution of the urban form within the underlying social process and cultural expressions that differentiate the city from others. The urban form and planning intervention is evaluated in five key periods:

·        Origins and Early History (1898 to 1930)

·        Manchuria Period (1931 to 1945)

·        Postwar Development (1950s to mid-60s)

·        Political Upheaval (mid-1960s to 70s)

·        Boom in Urban Development (1980s to 90s)


Chapter 5: Urban Form and Planning Paradigms

Chapter Five explores the connections between urban form and planning paradigms. In order to understand the current urban form, several comparisons are made.  One comparison is the plan of Harbin New Town (1898) and the plan of Barcelona by Ildefonso Cerda (1858). Another comparison is the urban structure in the master plan of Harbin (1934), and Abercrombie’s plan for Greater London (1944).


Chapter 6: Urban Structure Analysis

This chapter will make several critical analyses, including circulation, built-up area, design structure, functional relationship and building coverage. The city of Harbin is complex and dynamic and is the product of many development processes. Urban structure analysis reveals the interrelationship of urban form and process, which gives a better understanding of the city and provides a basis for the recommendations in later chapters.


Part III Strategies and Recommendations

Chapter 7: Future Urban Development of the City

This chapter discusses current issues in the urban development of the city and planning strategies.  It provides a better understanding of the issues of the city relating to its future development. Historic evolution and current issues are the basis of strategies and recommendations for Harbin’s future development.


Chapter 8: Light Rail Transit (LRT) - a vehicle to optimize urban structure

Updating public transit systems is currently a major concern in the big cities in China. The modernization of public transit will deeply affect the urban structure and urban form. Introducing an LRT system to Harbin is a major recommendation of this MDP to optimize the urban structure of Harbin. This chapter discusses the introduction of LRT systems and subway systems in big cities at a national level.  Other considerations are the feasibility of constructing an LRT system in Harbin and its effects on urban development, including form and structure.


Chapter 9: Urban Structure of Harbin

In Chapter Nine, a number of recommendations are made for the improvement of the urban form of Harbin, focusing on the structure of the Central Business District (CBD) and other public centers, such as the sub-centers distributed outside the CBD. The recommendations are targeted to the specific issues identified in the previous chapters. The functional change of the railway from a regional transportation to a public transit system provides a unique opportunity to reintegrate the Central Business District and redevelop the areas associated with the railway corridors. A high-quality CBD is necessary for regional development and vibrant urban life.




In conclusion, the analysis and recommendations are summarized with relation to Harbin in the Chinese context. Some critical issues are pointed out to be studied further.


Chapter 2

An Urban Design Approach


2.1 The Meaning of Urban Structure


The aim of urban design is to enhance the environmental quality of urban space by inferring the form and development of urban space, and to establish the organic, orderly urban space as a unity.[1]


Using these objectives, designers should understand the current form and possible evolution of urban space to create the framework of the city. Furthermore, a logical order can be established as a guideline to regulate the development of the urban form, just as Bacon pointed out that good urban design creates a powerful character for the city. This is based on the establishment of design structure.


Urban structure is a three-dimensional principle. It contains the internal logic of the pattern and formal character of urban space. A specific urban form is derived from a distinct urban structure. Therefore, the establishment of design structure is to grasp the key factors of spatial logic, not the trivial details. This effectively controls the general structure of urban form and creates a pattern for the future development of the city.


Urban structure is an essential part of spatial form. As shown by Bacon, the drawings by Paul Klee show the essentials of the structure: one within a discipline, the other in freedom. The common element of both drawings is that the central line dominates the form.[2]


Although the two drawings are very different, the common ground is the

central line, which is the essential, public aspect of space, or the basic design structure. The associated form is the nonessentials, the details of form and space, which are not the focus of design structure.


Just as Bacon said, “It is by an understanding of this distinction between the essential and the non-essential that the architect will be free from unnecessary controls and the designers will produce great civic design.”[3]


Fig.2.1 Paul Klee’s Drawings (Source: Design of Cities by Bacon, 1964, p.253)

From the discussion above, we know that analysis of urban form is the starting point to understand the distinctions between the essential and the non-essential, to establish logic and a meaningful urban structure.



2.2 Theories and Precedents


In 1978, China was opened to the world under the “Open and Reform Policy.” Since the introduction of this policy, urban development has boomed, with rapid urban renewal and modernization of the infrastructure.  This is the result of the transition from a centrally-planned economy to a market economy. Cities are adding new suburbs as well as downtown high rises, and the structure of the metropolitan area is being transformed. Pushed by market forces, the pattern of land use has changed to make room for the new tertiary functions in the central city. The modernization of transportation and large scale urban renewal has devastated the historical areas.


In the face of such massive change, the traditional tools used in the planned economy are challenged by the market economy and public awareness. In the 1950s, China adopted from the Soviet Union a planning model which was viewed as an extension of the economic plan. Economic reform, therefore, brought a huge challenge to urban development. Firstly, investment came from one investor (the government) to multiple investors. Secondly, urban land was treated as a commodity. Not until the late 1980s was the discipline of Western urban design introduced to China.


Today, the challenge Chinese cities are facing is similar to the North American experience in the postwar era, with rapid urban renewal and modernization of transportation, although in a different social context. In order to understand the issues and use the opportunities in Harbin, it is reasonable to draw lessons from the North American experience.


After World War Two, several North American scholars made a valuable contribution to the study of urban structure.  Among these scholars were Kevin Lynch, Roger Trancik, and Edmund Bacon, Beverly A. Sandalack and Andrei Nicolai. In 1960, Lynch published the book “The Image of the City” setting up a framework to view urban form as five key elements: path, district, node, landmark and edge. Trancik summarized urban design theories in his book “Finding Lost Space” in 1986, contributing to systematic thinking about urban form. `


Bacon was based in Philadelphia and was renowned as a great practitioner, especially from 1949 to 1970. In 1971, Mr. Bacon was awarded the American Institute of Planners’ Distinguished Service Award for his innovations and achievements as director of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission.


The case study “Urban Structure: Halifax - An Urban Design Approach,” (1998) by Beverly Sandalack and Andrei Nicolai was a clear-sighted analysis of postwar change in urban structure and introduced a methodology for urban analysis.


Kevin Lynch and the Image of the City


In 1960, Kevin Lynch published his famous book “The Image of the City,” which was based on the analysis of three American cities, Boston, New Jersey and Los Angeles.


·        Key Elements of the Urban Form

Fig. 2.2 Five Key Elements of Urban Form (Lynch, 1959, pp.47-48)



·        Path: There are two elements in a city which can be called a path: the road and the visual corridor. These two elements are usually woven together. The path is the critical component of urban spatial structure, or the framework of a city. It is the basic element of the identification of a city, linking all other components. Therefore, in establishing “imageability,” path is a dominant factor.

·        District: usually a two-dimensional phenomenon, varying greatly in size. A district should have individual characteristics and functions to distinguish it from its surroundings, for example, a predominance of storical architecture or modern high-rise buildings, a residential or industrial identity. These distinct districts usually have their own characteristics, with a social, historical and cultural identity and community function.

·        Edge: the boundary between districts; either the changes of natural topography or artificial form, such as a greenbelt, waterfront or street wall. Edge is the identification of a distinct urban physical environment, and the perception of change from one district to another.

·        Node: a gathering place, an important focal point relating to people’s daily life. It is usually the center of a district which has the same functions and characteristics. It is important for people to clearly perceive the node and its surroundings. The core of a city is often an important node.

·        Landmark: a unique point in an environment, distinguished from its surroundings.  It can be natural topography, trees, buildings or a particular feature. Landmarks provide orientation and hint at the surrounding urban structure.


All the elements (described above) comprise the image of a city and are interdependent. In Lynch’s view of the city we can see a paradigm of structure which enables us to understand the urban environment more clearly.




Trancik and the Theories of Urban Design


In the book, “Finding Lost Space,” Professor Roger Trancik of Cornell University summarized current urban design theories.  He isolated three dominant theories, figure-ground, linkage and place, through analysis of the evolution of modern urban space based on historical precedents.


·        Figure-ground Theory

This theory studies the relationship of solids and voids, in which the relative land coverage of buildings are solid mass or “figure,” and open voids are “ground.” Each city has its own pattern of solids and voids. We can clarify the spatial structure and hierarchy of urban form through this approach. We can also identify positive and negative space, and analyze trends in urban development through the evolution of the figure-ground relationship.


The figure-ground drawing is a graphic tool for illustrating mass-void relationships, a two-dimensional abstraction in plan view that clarifies the structure and order of urban space (Trancik, 1986).


Fig. 2.3 Diagram of Urban Design Theories (Source: Roger Trancik, 1986, p.98)


In urban design, the figure-ground approach clarifies the boundary, hierarchy, and order of space. It is helpful for a designer to pay attention to the voids in urban space rather than single buildings.




·        ]Linkage Theory

The linkage theory is about linear space connecting one element to another. These lines can be streets, pedestrian pathways, linear open spaces, or other linking elements that physically connect the parts of a city.


Through application of the linkage theory, we can clarify the spatial sequence of a city and establish a linking corridor for landmarks in a city. Furthermore, we can set up a clear order for the urban structure based on the linking corridor. The plan of Washington by L’Enfant in 1791 was a successful application of the linkage theory. The structure of Washington was governed by a series of vistas established along major boulevards connecting important places.  The famous triangle structure gives the city of Washington a distinct identity, singling it out from the typical grid form of North American cities. The plan of Canberra, Australia, is a twentieth century model using linkage as the major component for the organization of its physical form.


·        Place Theory

The place theory is different from linkage and figure-ground theories because it adds the components of human needs and the cultural, historical and natural context to the analysis of urban form. “In place theory, social and cultural values, visual perceptions of users and an individual’s control over the immediate public environment are as important as principles of lateral enclosure and linkage.” [4]


Each of the three theories reveals an aspect of physical form. The analysis of urban spatial structure should integrate all three theories, giving structure to the solids and voids, organizing the links between areas, and responding to the historical, cultural and natural environment.


Bacon and Philadelphia


When we talk about Edmund Bacon, it is reasonable to address his major professional contribution to Philadelphia in the postwar period, especially during his term as managing director of the Philadelphia Planning Commission (1949 to 1970). In this period, the comprehensive plan of Philadelphia was first issued in 1961 under the leadership of Mr. Bacon. His achievements are not only in the practice of planning but also in the creative theoretical analysis of urban form in a time of rapid development.


Fig. 2.4 Urban Structure of Philadelphia by Bacon in 1961

“Edmund Bacon had greater impact on the planning and development of his hometown than any individual except Robert Moses in New York and Daniel Burnham in Chicago. Like Burnham, he created a noble, logical diagram that had the power to stir the blood. Like Bartholomew, he had institutionalized the planning function in government and then exploited the power it brought.” [5]


In the book “Design of Cities” first published in 1967, Bacon fully elaborated his understanding of, and contribution to, the urban structure. He studied several precedents, such as Paris, St. Petersburg and Beijing to clarify the organizing law of urban form, and the urban structure from ancient Rome to modern times. He illustrated how urban structure evolved, and to what extent the force of the structure organizes urban form. He respected the effect of history on the urban structure. The nature of space and design were also interpreted.


The challenge Bacon faced in the postwar era was the unprecedented urban renewal in North America, especially the coming of the high-speed freeway system and massive high-rise buildings, which forced new pressure on the urban form. It was a challenging issue to channel these new forces to create a better urban form. Bacon’s creative work in making a clear urban structure for Philadelphia, based on its unique history and context, brought him fame in the field of planning and design. He suggested a simultaneous movement system as the underlying principle of the urban structure. “This relatively recent development sets up an entirely different kind of time-space perception. Up to this point, the rate of speed of movement through space was much the same whether a person walked, rode on horseback, or drove a carriage.” [6] He also suggested that all these movement systems must be thought of simultaneously in a coherent, integrated urban landscape.  In the urban structure of Philadelphia, Bacon proposed a linkage between different parts as a major focus, as well as a respect for its history.


The grid pattern with the diagonal Baroque boulevard became the unique structure of Philadelphia. It had evolved over two hundred years. Bacon’s design for Philadelphia in the 1960s respected its history and culture, and integrated the new elements (high-rise buildings and the freeway system) into the urban fabric, without sacrificing the city’s logical structure. Public transit routes, such as the subway and bus, were integrated into the major corridors of the structure, reinforcing its efficiency.


In practice, Bacon described his approach to urban planning as “the painful search for form.” Each of the projects that he worked on went through what he called “democratic feedback,” responding to the concerns of citizens. Through his constant endeavour for excellence in planning practice, he won the faith of the people and three mayors of Philadelphia from 1949 to 1970, and was able to implement his design for the urban structure of Philadelphia.


Sandalack, Nicolai and Halifax


Unlike Bacon’s prediction for Philadelphia, the case study, “Urban Structure: Halifax – An Urban Design Approach” by Dr. Sandalack & Nicolai (1998) is an after-view study of the effect of urban renewal on the city structure.


The authors integrated figure-ground theory, linkage theory and place theory in this project. They considered the built form and spatial structure of the city which had evolved over time and analyzed its visual qualities focused on the downtown core. The postwar changes were highlighted in a critical analysis of the historical evolution, its underlying forces, the regional development pattern, social process, and cultural expression. The authors made a number of recommendations for the future of Halifax, based on this historical analysis and their findings.


They appreciated the unique urban form which had evolved prior to urban renewal: the compact built area on a human scale, the grid pattern and close relationship with the waterfront. The later urban renewal and modernist

planning is regarded with less enthusiasm. “These and other developments have at the same time proved to be antagonistic to the basic structure of the city and the quality of public space….Modernist planning, of which urban renewal was a symptom, attempted to spatially segregate by zoning….This over-simplified way of viewing the city has resulted in the decline of downtown, environmental waste, and a much less rich social and spatial realm”.[7]


For the analysis of urban structure, the authors examined the circulation, building coverage, land use, commercial development, land subdivision, functional analysis and visual analysis. A three-dimensional computer model illustrated the pre- and post-urban renewal eras, in 1957 and 1997.


 Fig. 2.5 Functional Analysis by Sandalack & Nicolai, Halifax, 1998, p34


General recommendations included mixing residential / commercial use, recognizing the visual and symbolic importance of landmarks in structure, restoring public spaces and their quality, and promoting incremental growth with small-scale development.

This project provided a systematic approach to analyzing the built form of a city. Similar studies should be performed in other cities to provide a solid background for planning policy.

2.3 Approach


This study of Harbin is not intended to impose a structure on the existing fabric of a city, but to identify its inherited structure and sensitively reinforce it in contemporary developments. Several precedents indicated that urban structure could be identified and contribute to the new elements. For example, the axis of Paris originating from the Tuilleries Gardens and palace has evolved over several hundred years, and has become a dominant element in the city. In the modern era, La Defense extended the axial connection and gave this ancient axis new life. Any extension of the spatial structure should be rooted in its unique context.


 The next chapters of this study involve a site and situation analysis, including the regional context, historic evolution, urban form and planning paradigms, and urban structure analysis. A historical perspective provides valuable background to understanding the urban form. The current urban growth and future issues will also be discussed. The theories and precedents discussed above will be synthesized and applied to this study.  


Analysis of the historical evolution and current issues of the city should be interpreted using certain criteria. The following values, blended with the theories and precedents investigated above are applied critically to the local context.



Legibility is the distinctive quality of the environment identified by observers through shape, colour and arrangement. The legibility of both form and use is reduced in modern environments. In traditional cities, public buildings and open spaces were more easily recognizable. In modern cities everywhere, public and commercial buildings are similar, built in international style (“less is more”) in a grid pattern. Public places have lost their identity and become meaningless. A legible structure is important for a city and contributes to its distinctive identity. Without the legible, triangular structure of Washington, composed of linkages between the White House, the Capitol and Washington Monument, this city would lose legibility and power, becoming no different from most grid cities in North America.


Historical Continuity

History gives richness and identity to the urban form, which provides a stronger sense of place. The international urban renewal impetus in the middle of the twentieth century destroyed much of the rich, historical urban fabric of inner cities. Without a historical basis, the new urban structure had no roots and the city became a series of zoned areas. Historical continuity is an important quality in a sustainable city, providing variety in the monotonous new urban landscape.


Responsiveness to Context and Culture

Meaningful urban space should be rooted in its context and culture. “Their (vernacular landscapes) perceived beauty and sense of fit is the consequence of the practical needs to solve problems of habitat and daily living. Beauty is the consequence of technological limitations, which force adaptation to the land.”[8]


The urban form of a city is one of the greatest cultural expressions of human beings, not as the accumulation of engineering structures, but as a container of daily life. The distinctive identity of a city is related to cultural and natural forces. An attractive, distinctive urban form should be readable both to visitors and residents. Large international style buildings with their monotonous appearance are harmful to the earlier, more distinctive identity of the city. Their huge scale alienates the pedestrian. History indicates that an urban form imposed by one architect, such as Chandigarh by Le Corbusier, is not sustainable.


Appropriate Response to Technological Advancement

A city is an organic entity which changes in accordance with economic, social, cultural and technical influences. Technical advancement, especially in transportation, is an important factor influencing the urban form. In the horse and carriage era, the urban streets were generally narrower and blocks were smaller. In the era of the automobile, cities have stretched out to include freeway systems which dominate the urban pattern, especially in North America. Harbin, with its compact urban form, relies heavily on public transit. Updating the transit system is a major concern in the near future.  It will not only increase mobility, but change urban form and public life. The development of the LRT public transit system provides a unique opportunity for urban development and the reintegration of the Central Business District.


2.4 Methodology


·        Literature Review / Background Studies

The study by B.A. Sandalack, and A. Nicolai (1998), “Halifax Urban Structure - an Urban Design Approach,” provides a basis for the methodology of this study. The project will integrate other theories of urban design that have particular relevance to the issues facing Chinese cities, such as figure-ground, linkage and place theories (Trancik,1996), and “The Image of the City” (Lynch, 1981). Precedents will be studied, for example, in the restructuring of Philadelphia in the 60s.


·        Data Collection, including historical evolution, land use, etc.

(1)   Relevant historical urban information, such as local history, publications (books, journals).

(2)   Relevant documents in urban planning and urban design, such as the regional plan, municipal master plan, maps, urban design of the significant projects, etc.

(3)   Relevant research findings of other scholars in planning and design for this city.


·        Site and Situation Analysis

The method of analysis applies the theories (gathered from the literature and precedents) to the data collected from Harbin.


(1)   Regional Context provides a wider basis for analysis of the urban development of Harbin, its origin and evolution. Relevant issues, such as migration and transportation development are also discussed.


(2)   Historical Evolution analysis provides a long-term view. The changes in spatial structure at different periods are evaluated.  This is essential for understanding the evolution of urban form, its determinants and process.


(3)   Urban Form and Planning Paradigms reveal influences of planning paradigms on the urban form. Comparative studies of the plan of Harbin New Town in 1898, the plan of Barcelona in 1858, the master plan of Harbin in 1934 and the plan of Greater London in 1944 are conducted to reveal the historic roots of the city.


(4) Urban Structure Analysis covers circulation, the built-up area, functional relationship, design structure and figure-ground analyses. This provides a thorough understanding of how the city is developing.


·        Strategies and Recommendations

Key issues in the future development of the city are discussed, including the proposed LRT system and recommendations to focus on public space.


(1)   Future Urban Development of the City

This chapter discusses current issues, the direction of growth, and strategies for facilitating future development. Better understanding of the current situation and visualization of future development will support the recommendations to improve the urban structure to make the city plan more effective.


(2)   Light Rail Transit (LRT) - an engine to optimize urban structure 

This chapter identifies the opportunities for linking land use and mobility and discusses the integration of an LRT system or subway system.  Also discussed is the feasibility of the LRT system to Harbin, and the positive directions in urban development, improving transport and optimizing urban structure.


(3)   Urban Structure of Harbin

Based on the above analysis, conceptual proposals are made for improving the spatial structure of Harbin, including the distribution of public centers, the Central Business District and sub-centers. The Central Business District will be reintegrated through these proposals.




This chapter reviewed urban design theories and precedents, and synthesized an approach to be applied to this project. Several scholars’ contributions have been highlighted, such as Kevin Lynch, Roger Trancik, and Edmund Bacon, Beverly A. Sandalack and Andrei Nicolai. These contributions provide a solid theoretical background to this project.  Analysis of the historical evolution and current issues of the city are a critical part of the methodology and lead to recommendations for the future development of the city.   

[1] Baojiang Tian, 1998, Analysis and Design of Urban Space, PhD thesis, Tongji University, Shanghai, p98

[2] Edmund N. Bacon, 1964, Design of Cities, Penguin Books, New York, p253

[3] same as above

[4] Roger Trancik, 1986, Finding Lost Space – Theories of Urban Design, Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, New York, p.98

[5] Alexander Garvin, 1996, The American Cities – What Works, What Doesn’t, The McGraw – Hill Companies, Inc. New York, p.454

[6] Edmund N. Bacon, 1959, Design of Cities, Penguin Books, New York, p.252

[7] Sandalack & Nicolai, 1998, Urban Structure: Halifax_ an urban design approach, p9


[8] Michael Hough, 1990, Out of Place – restoring identity to the regional landscape, Yale University Press, New Haven & London, p58




Chapter 3

The Regional Context



Harbin is the capital city of the Heilongjiang province in the northeast of China. In order to understand the origin, development and evolution of the city, it is necessary to describe its regional context within the province. By the end of 1997, there were 31 cities and 466 towns in Heilongjiang province. These cities and towns formed an urban system with Harbin as the core city, Qiqihar, Mudanjiang and Jiamusi as regional central cities, and other resource-based cities and port cities. Two-thirds of the provincial domestic value of output, nine-tenths of the provincial total industrial output value and one half of the provincial total agricultural output value were achieved by these 31 cities.


The development and evolution of the human settlements in Heilongjiang province are closely related to population migration and transportation development.


3.1  Population Migration and Transportation Development

Archaeological discovery shows that there were human beings in Heilongjiang River Valley (called the Amur River by the Russians) 20,000 years ago, at the end of the Stone Age. Prior to 1898, the area was only sparsely populated by hunters and fishermen.  After 1898, modern cities were founded and grew rapidly, along with the development of transportation, immigration and the exploitation of natural resources.


3.1.1       Population Migration in Heilongjiang Province


Emigration prevailed before 1644, when the Qing Dynasty was founded. From 1668 to 1861, the Qing Dynasty carried out a “closed door” policy of migration restriction in northeast China, so migration halted at that time. Since 1861, along with the opening-up of the region for farming and the development of transportation, immigration has prevailed.



Population Size and Structure of Heilongjiang Province[1]




Non-agricultural population

Urban Population



Total Population


Proportion to population


Proportion to population





of the province


of the province

of cities








































































Before 1898, the population in this area had been sparse. Several times emigration slowed the process of urbanization and some towns were abandoned. From 1898, modern transportation (the railway) encouraged immigration and the consequent economic development of this area. Urbanization was accelerated and the urban form was influenced by European cities, especially Russian. In general, emigration and immigration created a fluctuating population density in Heilongjiang province and dictated the urban development in this region.


3.1.2       Development of Transportation and Expansion of Cities


The development of transportation has played an important role in the establishment, development and decay of cities in Heilongjiang province. Cities were not the direct outcome of the economy, but developed in a spasmodic, artificial way, based on the importation of transport technology. The development of transportation occurred in three stages: carriages, trains and motor vehicles.  Each mode of transport played a role in the distribution of cities and affected the historical inner cities.


  • The Carriage Stage

In Heilongjiang, rivers and post roads were originally used for transportation. In winter, sledges were used on the ice. In this period, the backwardness of transportation resulted in less economic contact among different nationalities, and restricted the development of urban areas.


Fig 3.1 the ancient post roads and towns in the Qing Dynasty


Fig 3.2   Middle-East Railway in the northeast of China




In the Qing Dynasty, for the purpose of defence, the government built post roads and seven major castles along the roads. Some of the castles in Heilongjiang are now known as Ninguta, Qiqihar, Mo’ergan, Aihui and Sanxing. These castles were stations for troops and their main function was for military purposes. Since transportation was inconvenient, the growth of population was slow and cities were small.


  • The Train Stage

The Middle-East Railway was opened to traffic in 1903, and took the place of the post roads.  With Harbin as the center, the railway ran through three provinces in northeast China and formed a T-shape: west to Manzhouli, east to Suifenhe and south to Dalian. It improved traffic conditions and increased the transportation of goods. As a result, a great number of people lived along the railway routes and cities were founded, such as Harbin, Suifenhe, Mudanjiang and Jiamusi.  Since the transportation routes had been altered, population distribution changed and the distribution of cities altered accordingly. For instance, the leading cities of Ningguta, Aihui, Archeng and Sanxing in this region were replaced by some newly developed cities.


Fig 3.3 Growth and decay of the cities


The development of transportation led to corresponding changes in the cities’ inner structures and opened up the rather inward-looking feudal towns. Harbin, for example, was established and developed because of the emergence of the railway. The urban region of Harbin was divided into three sections by the railway, while roads and streets were arranged freely in accordance with the city’s terrain and land features, since the Chinese traditional city model could no longer restrain the city structure.



  • The Motor Vehicle Stage

Motor vehicles followed trains as an even more modern means of transportation. Motor vehicles appeared in Heilongjiang in 1910. The expanding road network made up for the deficiency of the railways so that urban areas were better distributed. Carriages as a mean of transportation in urban areas were replaced by motor vehicles, which greatly affected city structure. The lengthening of road intervals in the road network and the subsequent larger blocks of land broke the restraint of city walls. Separate functional regions appeared, such as residential districts, industrial districts, business and commercial districts.


In sum, it is clear that the growth of modern cities in Heilongjiang province was closely related to the development of transportation, which rearranged city distribution as well as changed city structure.


3.2 The History of Cities & Towns and the Influence of the Different Planning Theories


The development of the cities in Heilongjiang Province has gone through three stages: the rudimentary stage (prior to 1898), the embryonic stage (from 1898 to 1945), and the growth of modern urbanization (from 1945 to the present). This process has taken approximately one hundred years, and the construction of the Middle-East Railway and the emergence of Harbin marked the beginning of this growth.


3.2.1       Ancient Stage of Cities (prior to 1898)


The population of Heilongjiang province had always been sparse, made up of minority nationalities. Cities were either feudal capitals or military towns, such as the City of Longquan, capital of Parhae, (Tang Dynasty), and the City of Huining, (Jin Dynasty).


  • The City of Longquan, Capital of Parhae


Fig 3.4 the Plan of the City of Longquan, Parhae, Tang Dynasty

The City of Longquan was the capital of Parhae, a vassal state of the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 698 – 926).  The city was located on an alluvial plain, not far from Jingbo Lake, with the Mudanjiang River on the west and north.  Longquan has a central-axis structure with bilateral symmetry. The whole town site is in the shape of a rectangle and is composed of an outer city, an inner city and a palace. The perimeter of the outer city wall is 16.4 km and contains ten gates. The rectangular inner city, with a 4.5 km wall, lies in the middle and north section of the outer city and contains the government office. The palace, where the Parhae royal family lived, is also rectangular and is built in the same section of the inner city. The perimeter of the palace wall is 2.5 km.[2]


  • The City of Huining

The City of Huining, the capital of the Jin Dynasty (from A.D.1115 to 1234), is located on the alluvial plain on the west bank of the Ashihe River. The city is composed of two rectangular parts, a south city and a north city, with a perimeter of 10.873 km. It has double city walls with a twin city, which is on a central axis with a non-symmetrical structure. Different functional sections are separated, and the palace lies in the west section in the south city.[3]


In terms of function and structure, both Longquan and Huining are composed of an inner city, an outer city and a palace, with only a slight difference in layout. A “Five Capital System” was adopted for both empires, that is, a system which consists of a capital city and four regional cities. The “Five Capital System” is derived from the philosophy of Yin-Yang and five elements.  The town planning methods in Heilongjiang were influenced principally by traditional Chinese city planning.


Fig 3.5 the excavation plan of the  City of Huining, Jin Dynasty


Fig 3.6 the Removing of the Capital Cities

            (From 1115 to 1644)

The Manchu minority first resided in the Songhua River valley, waged constant war with their neighbours from 1115, conquered them and moved southward. In 1644, they took control of the whole country of China and settled down in their capital city of Beijing.


3.2.2       The Formation of Modern Cities (from 1898 to 1945)


1898 – 1930

The development of modern transportation was the major factor which brought cities and towns into being. In 1898, the construction of the Middle-East Railway and the emergence of Harbin marked the beginning of modern cities in Heilongjiang province. Russians planned Harbin New Town in 1899 in St. Petersburg. The whole city was divided into three parts by the railway. The urban pattern consisted of squares and a road network of grid and radiated roads. This style of city planning was chiefly influenced by the European interest in neo-classicism.


1931 –1945

In 1931, Japan invaded and occupied northeast China and founded “Manchuria.” From 1932 to 1935, a series of city plans were worked out and railways and roads were expanded to all major cities.


 The city planning in this period had the following features:


    In the regions, attention was paid to the layout of cities and towns. With Harbin as a center, four regional cities were established in the west, east, northeast and north (Mudanjiang, Jiamusi, Qiqihar and Bei’an) and the master plan of these cities was created.

Fig 3.7 the schedule of the urban planning of “Manchuria(Source: History of City Construction in China)


Fig 3.8 the regional centers of  Heilongjiang province


  • City planning was based on regional development; both urban and rural areas had been comprehensively studied. For example, in the master plan for Harbin, with the city center as a starting point, an area with a radius of 25 km was the boundary, and a radius of 10 km was the urban area. In addition, around the urban area there was a 2 km wide greenbelt which would serve as a buffer to prevent urban sprawl.[4]

Fig 3.9 the concept planning model of the Master Plan of Harbin, 1932

Fig 3.9 the concept planning model of the Master Plan of Harbin, 1932

The urban structure was in the form of blocks and a grid road network with radial roads. The central design structure organized the whole city. This type of urban structure was based on Japanese planning ideas.


3.3  Contemporary Cities (1945 – 1998)


After World War II, cities in Heilongjiang province developed rapidly in a pattern of large, medium and small cities. The city system included a central city, a regional city, a resource-based city and a port city.


From 1949 to 1979, the development of resource-based cities was typical: coal (Jixi, Shuangyashan, Qitaihe and Hegang), forestry (Yichun), and oil (Daqing).


 During the 1980s, the development of small cities was remarkable. As the agricultural centers, small cities grew vigorously along with the policy of agricultural economic reform, which was the first step in the Open and Reform Policy of China. By the end of 1997, 31 cities, 18 county cities and 466 towns (with a non-agricultural population of 16.33 million) were established. The city planning system is now relatively mature. Regional planning, master planning and urban design are normative.


Throughout the history of the province, the cold climate has been the main factor hindering the development of human settlement. The harsh climate has always prompted southward migration. As a result, urban development in this region has lagged behind warmer regions.


Although cities emerged thousands of years ago across China, the continuous development of cities in Heilongjiang province started only a hundred years ago. The advance of modern technology, especially in transportation, is a great force for exploiting the resources in this region and speeding up the process of urbanization.



[1] same as above

[2] Li Dianfu & Sun Yuliang, Parhae, p.119, published by Cultural Relics Press

[3] Lu Shihua, On the Historic Development of the City Shangjing, the Capital of Jin Dynasty, Urban Planning Forum, pp. 34-41, the Fourth Issue, 1992.

[4] Tang & etc,  History of City Planning in the Northeast of China, Liaoning University Press



Chapter 4

Harbin: Historic Evolution


4.1 Natural Topography and the Railway


The topography of Harbin was the reason for the original siting of the city and it has continued to be influential. This part of the Songhua River contains a suitable harbour, which is the reason for setting up the city and using it as the railway hub. At the turn of the twentieth century, the watercourse was the only means for transporting the materials needed for building the railway.


To the north of the river is a flood plain frequently invaded by floods, for example in 1932, 1957 and 1998. The city, consequently, was built on the south bank of the river in 1898, marked by the construction of the Middle-East Railway. The south bank consists of two parts: low land adjacent to the river (116-120m) and higher land (130-160m) above the flood encroachments. A clear escarpment runs between the two areas from west to east. Three tributaries are congruent to the Songhua River with the Majiagou River in the middle.


The railway lines run along the escarpment with major associated facilities on the higher land. The topography and the railway lines dictated the location of the city and its urban form. The T-shaped railway lines and the escarpment separated the city into three parts right from the beginning. The original city, the New Town (now the Nangang CBD) developed on the hill facing the river between the escarpment and the Majiagou River.


4.2 Origin and Early Development (1898-1930)


The Opium Wars (1840-1842) were the means by which European powers opened the doors of China to obtain its rich resources. In 1896, Russia forced the Chinese government in the Qing dynasty to accept the inequitable “Sino-Russian Secret Treaty.”   In this treaty, Russians obtained the right to build a railway to connect Vladivostok, a Russian city on the pacific coast, to Moscow through northeast China. This was the Middle-East Railway. In the following year (1897), Russia obtained the right to build a branch line from Harbin to Dalian, called the south Manchuria branch.


Fig. 3.1 the Middle-East Railway



With Harbin as the center, the Middle-East Railway runs through three provinces in the northeast of China (Heilongjiang, Jilin and Liaoning) and forms a T-shaped junction, west to Manzhouli, east to Suifenhe and south to Dalian. Harbin was appointed the administrative center for the construction and operation of the Middle-East Railway. The reason for this choice was Harbin’s location near the center of the railway system and at the crossing of the Songhua River.  This was the major route for the transportation of materials for railway building. Secondly, Harbin was in the center of the northeastern prairies, the area which supplied the labourers and provisions for the building of the railway.


Fig. 3.2 The train first arrived at Harbin, 1899



In the nineteenth century, Harbin was a small fishing village on the banks of the Songhua River, a major tributary of the Heilongjiang River, which is also called the Amur River by the Russians. The construction of the Middle-East Railway in 1898 marked the beginning of its urban development. Settlement first began at Tienjia village (Old Harbin) because it was the major settlement above the flood plain. It was built in a north-south grid pattern that is typical of the traditional local settlements. A road (8 Russian li) linked Old Harbin and the docklands situated on the Songhua River but Old Harbin was soon dominated by the New Town on the hill ridge.


·        Early Planning and Urban Development


In 1898, Russians created the first plan for Harbin, called the master plan for Harbin New Town.[1] The town site is on the hilly ridge, south of the Songhua River and north of the Majiagou River. The railway tracks go through the site as a T-shaped form, separating the city into three parts. Linkage between the three districts is still a big problem for the city today. The Russians situated the New Town on the higher land, now the Nangang district, and docklands along the Songhua River. The urban form included squares, a grid and radiated road network. This was chiefly influenced by the European models of the nineteenth century, reflecting classical formalism.

Fig.3.3 The map of Harbin, 1910

As documented, the population of Harbin reached 14,000 in 1899, 12,000 in 1901, and 35,000 in 1903. The built areas in 1906 were 12.7 km2 with the total requisitioned land being 136 km2. Until 1905, there were sixteen countries with consulates and trading agencies in Harbin, including Russia, USA, Japan, France, Spain, Germany, England, Denmark and Sweden. Harbin became an international city a few years later, which accelerated the growth of the economy and urban building. The population had increased to 286,000 in 1919 from 113,000 in 1907. Notably, about 50,000 Russians moved into Harbin after the “October Revolution” in Russia in 1917.[2] Several new communities had to be built to solve the accommodation problems of the Russian refugees: Narharovk village and Yostromov village in the Daoli district.


·        Harbin New Town ( Nangang District)



The New Town of Harbin was planned in an area of 7 km2 south of the railway track. When the Russians set out to design the New Town for Harbin, their concepts were based on European experience, with traditions of broad axial relationships, symmetrical balance, and superimposed order on a grand scale, which had been well interpreted in the plan of Barcelona. The road system of Harbin New Town was constructed on this plan so that major roads were 42.6 m wide, secondary roads were 32 m and collector roads were 21.34 m.[3]


Fig. 3.4 The plan of Harbin New Town, 1899


Situated along the two axial streets were public buildings such as the railway administrative headquarters, the technical college (later the Harbin Institute of Technology), clubs, hotels, stores and hospitals. Residential buildings were built behind the public buildings in blocks defined by secondary roads, in low density garden-like patterns. The first building, St. Nicolas’ Church, was built at the



intersection of the two axial roads that is the highest point in the New Town. Around the Center Plaza was the Moscow Store (now the Heilongjiang Provincial Museum) built in 1906 at the southwest corner of the Center Plaza (now the Museum Plaza), reinforcing the plaza as a civic space. The onion-domed roof of the church pierced the sky and dominated the New Town as a most important landmark, both functionally and visually.


Fig. 3.5 Harbin St. Nicolas Church, 1900

Fig. 3.6 Qiulin Corporation, 1915

Dazhi Street and Hongjun Street became the main thoroughfares in the New Town, and evolved to become the city’s most prosperous and architecturally attractive street in the early 20th century.


The Old Railway Station (1903) with its triangular plaza was another landmark located at end of the north-south axis. A visual corridor (Hongjun Street) was created between the Railway Station and St. Nicolas’ Church. The Railway Station was designed in Art Nouveau style, symbolized by the soft curving lines of the windows and doors and iron decoration, and even in the lettering of the station’s name. The form of this building influenced other Art Nouveau buildings as the basic formal element in Harbin’s architecture. It was the public realm around the two axial roads. In the early twentieth century, several public buildings were constructed: the Railway Hospital, the Middle-East Railway Headquarters, the Sino-Russian Daosheng Bank, the Railway Club and the Harbin Business School (now the Harbin Institute of Technology). Qiulin Corporation was another major public building in eclectic style on Dazhi Street. Low-density, low-rise houses for employees of the Railway Corporation were constructed behind the public buildings along secondary roads such as Garden Street, Jiasu Street, and Yimin Street.


Fig. 3.7 Harbin Railway Station, 1911

The dominant colours of the early buildings were pale yellow, white and blue-green, influenced by Russian cities.


·        Daoli District



The Songhua River was the only way to transport materials for the railway construction at that time, so a dockland area naturally emerged along the riverbank. Wharves, warehouses and railway tracks were built along the south bank of the Songhua River. The west was industrial, mainly serving the railway construction. In the east, a community was constructed in a grid pattern. The roads were strongly oriented to the waterfront where the commercial streets were situated. The historic district around Center Street is one of the most important shopping areas in Harbin.


Fig. 3.9 Center Street 1, 1915

Center Street is 1400m long and 11m wide with 2-6m sidewalks. Its original name was China Street because most residents in this area were Chinese. Most of the buildings were Western-style commercial, housing, restaurants, hotels, bars, drug stores and ballrooms. In May 1924, Center Street was paved with square stones designed by a Russian engineer. The street became famous in Harbin and throughout Far East Asia. The most famous building on Center Street is the Moderne Hotel built in 1906 by a Jewish hotelier, John Joselp.  It is located in the block between West 7 Street and West 8 Street at the middle of Center Street. The main elevation of the hotel was delicately designed in Art Nouveau style, reflected in its windows, balconies and roof. The Songpu Corporation (now the Education Bookstore) was across the street. The Women-Children Store and Qiulin Store were situated beside the Moderne Hotel.

Fig. 3.10 St. Sofia Church  (H. Chang & J. Li, 1998, p37, Redrawn by Song Zhou and Lujiao Pang)

St. Sofia’s Church is a landmark in the Daoli district, two blocks away from Center Street. It is the biggest Orthodox Eastern Church in Far East Asia, reaching a height of 53.35m. It was rebuilt in nine years between 1923 and 1932 and can accommodate 1500 people.[4]


·        Daowai District


This district was outside the concession.  It was an unplanned area in the original city where Chinese workers and refugees lived. The roads were narrow and twisting, and commercial, recreational and residential uses were mixed together. The main architectural style is a hybrid called Chinese Baroque, influenced by both Chinese and Western cultures. The eighteen villages originally in this area have gradually connected.


Fig. 3.11 Daluoxin Store in Daowai District, 1920

After the “October Revolution” in Russia in 1917, Russia gradually returned the railway and subordinate cities along the railway to the Chinese government. Affected by the civil war in Russia, the economy of Harbin was at a low ebb. City expansion slowed, although the government still made some plans for the city. In 1931, Harbin’s population had reached 330,000.[5]

The 1923 city plan for Harbin extended the city to the east of the New Town. The urban form had a concentric geometrical pattern and a greenbelt ring. The urban form of the new plan was totally disconnected from the existing context. This plan, however, was never realized.



Planners tried to add Chinese culture to this Western-style city. Several public buildings were later completed in traditional Chinese style, such as the Yupu High School (now No.3 High School), Jile Temple and Wen Temple.


Fig.3.12 Wen Temple

Horse-drawn streetcars were the major form of transport at the turn of the 1900s, to be replaced by electric streetcars in the 1920s. The electric car made regular commuting possible within the three districts. After the introduction of the streetcar, the commercial cores in the three main areas were reinforced as the major shopping areas. The Railway Station area was the hub of the streetcar lines, which stretched out to the three districts.


4.3 Manchuria Period (1931 – 1945)


In 1931, Japan invaded and occupied northeast China, founding so- called “Manchuria,” which included three provinces, Heilongjiang, Jilin and Liaoning. Harbin’s role was “the economic and military center of North Manchuria.”[6]


From 1932 to 1935, a series of major city plans were devised; railways and highways were extended to all major cities. Harbin’s 1934 master plan described the city as one of the four major cities in Manchuria and the central city of North Manchuria, now the Heilongjiang province. In the development planning for cities in “Manchuria,” attention was paid to the regional layout of cities. In North Manchuria, with Harbin as the center, four regional cities were established: Mudanjiang (west), Jiamusi (east), Qiqihar (northeast) and Bei’an (north).


By the end of 1933, the population of Harbin was 381,060 and would reach 1 million in 1966, according to the plan.[7] One of the major considerations was that this plan restructured the city based on a visionary view and planned a new central axis (now Hexing Road) beside the existing built area. It also reflected the functional planning model, with commercial, industrial, residential and recreational uses. The city development emphasized changes to the major infrastructure, such as the second railway bridge across the Songhua River and the linking outer ring. This worsened the conflict between the railway and the urban built area. The new outer ring of the railway track became a barrier to city growth.


Fig. 3.13 Center Street in the flood 1932


The new commercial and administrative centers were finished partly because of the economic conditions in wartime. The public realm was still based on the Central City (Daoli, Nangang and Daowai). The city plan (1934) contributed to the future development in terms of urban structure. At the north end of the axis, which was the administrative center, only Zhongling Tower, some houses and a high school were realized by 1945. Hotel New Harbin was a careful addition to the Center Plaza in 1937, and was designed to fit the context in style, size and decoration.


In 1932, a 100-year flood occurred in Harbin, which inundated the Daoli District and north of the Songhua River.  The Center Street looked like a canal where people took boats rather than buses.  Songpu, a newly-built town north of the Songhua River, was totally destroyed by the flood. The regular flooding restricted urban development north of the Songhua River.


4.4 Postwar Development (50s to mid-60s)


After World War Two, the Western world blocked communication (SHIPPING?) to China from the outside world. Harbin was located far from the Pacific Coast, so it became the principal base for industrial projects because of its location on the railway system. This provided economic stimulus and the city enjoyed tremendous growth. Harbin grew outwards from the central core and became a major power. Several military and heavy industrial plants moved to Harbin, famous for having three big power plants and ten military plants.


In the Harbin Plan of 1956, the city took Zhongshan Road as the north-south axis and Wenchang Road as the east-west axis. Several major projects were constructed along Zhongshan Road: the Provincial Government Building, the North Hotel, the Workers’ Club, the Garden Hotel and the Provincial Exhibition Center.


The most important development in the public realm was the demolition of the railway track on the waterfront in 1953 and the creation of a linear park (now Stalin Park) for public use. In order to remember two extraordinary floods, the people of Harbin built a permanent flood-control memorial tower in classical European style, which was opened on October 1, 1958, in Stalin Park and became the connecting point between Stalin Park and Center Street. This tower is a famous landmark and is now the most attractive public area in Harbin.



Fig.3.14 Anti-flood Plaza, built in 1958, (Source: Jin Guangjun, 1999, p.39)

Fig.3.14 Anti-flood Plaza, built in 1958, (Source: Jin Guangjun, 1999, p.39)

After the 1949 revolution, city planning in China emphasized integrated industrial centres consisting of complementary industries clustered together with workers' housing nearby, so that employees were within walking distance of their workplace. The same design principles have been applied to integrated developments built since 1949.


Fig. 3.15 Linen Neighbourhood (super block), built in 1950s, (Source: Arial Map of Harbin, Harbin Press, 2000)



Most residential developments were in communities affiliated to each of the industrial factories outside the central city. Each of the communities contains residential, commercial and educational facilities. The residential plan adopted the big block model of 4-10 ha. Due to economic difficulties, the housing objective in the master plan was of a lower density, at only 4 m2 / person.[8]


4.5 Political Upheaval (mid-60s to 70s)


This period experienced great political upheaval in China: the Great Cultural Revolution. The urban planning system was discarded at the beginning of the revolution and urban development stagnated. Many valuable historic districts and buildings were destroyed. The most famous casualty was the St. Nicolas’ Church which was burned down in August 1966. Such buildings were not considered cultural relics, but symbols of colonialism.


Fig. 3.16 The last glimpse of St. Nicolas Church, August 24, 1966


Misled by the current political atmosphere, several universities moved to the countryside. Among these were the Northeast Forestry University and Northeast Agriculture University. In case of potential war with the Soviet Union, some factories were forced to move to the forest. Chairman Mao Zhedong’s call to “go to the forest and countryside,” resulted in thousands of youth from high schools and universities leaving the city. However, this de-urbanization movement was not caused by unsatisfactory urban development, but by political will.  


The national policy on urban development was for “strict controls on the size of big cities, development of the middle-sized cities and promotion of the development of small cities.”


4.6 Boom in Urban Development (80s to 90s)


·        Urban Renewal

In 1978, China opened its doors to the world once more under the “Open and Reform Policy.”  Reforms of a central, planned economy to a market-oriented economy brought unprecedented opportunities for urban development. From the mid-80s, large-scale urban renewal was the major element of urban development.

Fig. 3.18 Hongqi Neighbourhood, built in the 1990s 


Poor residential conditions were a thorny issue and the city government wanted to improve living conditions. In Harbin, large-scale slum clearance began in 1987 in the Dideli and Dafengli areas.  By the end of 1993, 2.43 million m2 of slums were cleared out and 10 million m2 of new apartments were finished. About 200,000 families, a quarter of the total residents of Harbin, had moved into new apartments.[9]



Most of the new high-rise buildings were scattered in the historic districts (Daoli and Nagang districts) driven by market forces rather than by workable regulations. Although there had been some height restrictions on new buildings up to this time, they were usually ignored by a government eager for new development. The Industry-Business Bank on Center Street near the waterfront is a clear example. All of these buildings had a devastating effect on the urban fabric and generated a much greater traffic flow. Lack of parking and open space became a greater problem in these areas.


Majiagou Airport, a military airport within the city, was returned to the municipal government in 1989.  This created new opportunities for urban development. The area, named the Harbin Economic-Technological Development Zone, was considered for public uses, such as the 2 km2 CBD, a new campus for HIT, and some residential developments. By 2000, several major projects were finished, such as the Singapore Hotel and Kunlun Garden Plaza. The road system was planned as a grid pattern to reintegrate it into the urban fabric.


Fig.3.20 St. Sofia Church (after renovation in 1997)

Fig.3.20 St. Sofia Church (after renovation in 1997)

Fig.3.20 St. Sofia Church (after renovation in 1997)

Historic preservation has been emphasized and now five areas have been designated as preservation areas: Center Street, New Town in Nagang district, the religious area in East Dazhi Street and Jingyu Street in Daowai district. In 1996, Center Street was renovated and opened as the pedestrian shopping street. Proposed buildings enclosing St. Sofia’s Church have been turned down and a 6640 m2 plaza in front of the church has been reclaimed. St. Sofia’s Church was re-opened to the public as an Architectural Exhibition Center in 1997.


Evolution of Urban Size, Harbin



built area (km2)


m2 / person











1.9 million




2.72 million




2.89 million


according to the Master Plan of Harbin, 1996













[1] History of Harbin, Urban Planning section, Harbin Press

[2] History of Harbin, Urban Planning section, Harbin Press

[3] Master Plan of Harbin, Harbin Institute of Urban Planning and Design, 1996

[4] Chang & Li, Saint Sophia Cathedral – Harbin Architecture Hall, Architecture Journal, 1998.3, p.38

[5] History of Harbin, Urban planning section, Harbin Press, 1998

[6] same as above

[7] same as above

[8] same as above

[9] Jun Lu, a Study about the Practice on the Renewal of Old Residential Areas in Harbin, master’s thesis, Harbin Institute of Technology, 1995



Chapter 5

Urban Form and the Planning Paradigms


The early plans for Harbin established the basic urban form and still influence the city today. In order to understand the city’s origin and the influences on it, a comparative study of the plans of Harbin and of cities of the same era is useful. The grid pattern was a prominent feature of Harbin New Town with its roots in the European planning philosophy of the late nineteenth century. The 1934 plan for Greater Harbin, which established the urban structure of Harbin as a big, modern city, was a Chinese version of the functional planning model originating in 1930s.


5.1 Grid Pattern

The grid city is a basic urban form symbolizing the order that people hope to impose on the natural world. Based on the particular history, environment and culture of any civilization, the built form reflected each culture.


  • European Traditions

As the basic unit of planning, the block and its three dimensions give the urban grid its character. Such urban form has a long history in Europe from Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire into the late nineteenth century. Small blocks were more typical in the early grid cities. For example, at Olynthus, the uniform blocks each measured 120 x 300 feet (37 x 90m). At Priene, the blocks were 120 x 160 feet (37 x 49m). Florence had blocks of some 645 sq. ft. (60 sq.m).[1] In new towns or additions in the late Middle Ages, long narrow blocks created a tight series of deep parcels with narrow street frontages.  This seems only sensible when mobility was limited to walking or riding.


In Haussmann’s Paris plan, the large blocks were the result of radical surgery. “Expropriation and demolition on a massive scale remade the urban block pattern, remapped the fine-veined system of medieval streets and lanes.” [2] These planning techniques influenced many other cities in the late nineteenth century.


The plan for Greater Berlin (1860) by James Hobrecht and the Barcelona plan (1858) by Ildefonso Cerda were intended as prototypes of such urban extensions - the grid cities. In the Hobrecht plan, the huge blocks were as large as 820 x 490 feet (250 x 150m).  “Cerda left the old city of Barcelona intact and spread an unvarying grid across more than 26 sq. km. of flat land outside the medieval city walls. The streets were all of equal width (20 meters) and the square blocks had cut-off corners of a dimension that matched the street width. The buildings were locked into this proportional relationship, being uniformly as high as the street was wide.” [3] The only changes were in a few diagonal boulevards that formed a huge harsh “X” across the grid, which were the symbols of Baroque planning. The two axes were obvious in the regular grid of the plan.

Fig. 4.3 The plan of Barcelona by Ildefonso Cerda, 1858  (Source: Spiro Kostof, 1991, p.152) 


  • The Plan of Harbin New Town (1898)        


The New Town of Harbin was planned in an area of 7 km2 on a ridge above the flood plain, which was then called Qinjia Hill. When the Russians set out to design the New Town for Harbin, they had in mind preconceptions based on their European experience, with its traditions of broad axial relationships, symmetrical balance, and superimposed order on a grand scale, which had been well interpreted in the plan of Barcelona. They placed an important, monumental building on the high point of land, superimposed a functional grid of streets over the site with partially curved form for the railway track, and then carved out straight, diagonal streets that formed an “X” to connect the monuments and squares. Some points of the diagonal streets were built to maintain the formal pattern, but are otherwise meaningless. The design structure of the plan is clear. Dazhi Street and Hongjun Street are the north-south and east-west axes, and a square with a church is at the intersection of the two axes. The railway station provides the focal point of the vista at the end of the north-south axis. The square is the town center, marked by the landmark church. The square contains stores, hotels and other public buildings. This plan also reflected the pioneering planning concept: the Garden City. The west part of the town was modelled on the urban form of Howard’s Garden City, with small curving blocks and a green belt.

Fig.4.5 the Plan of Harbin New Town, 1899

Public buildings (the railway administrative headquarters, the technical college, later the Harbin Institute of Technology, clubs, hotels, stores and a hospital) were built along the two axial streets. Residential buildings were situated behind the public buildings in blocks defined by secondary roads in a low-density, garden-like area. The block size varied greatly, from small blocks of 37 x 90m to large blocks of 150 x 250m.


From the analysis above, it can be seen that Harbin New Town was a reflection of the European planning model of the late nineteenth century rather than the traditional Chinese model of city planning. The New Town was built strictly according to the planning fashion at the turn of the twentieth century. Although its structures have now been changed, the basic urban form, such as the road pattern and public squares, still exists. The two major roads, Dazhi Street and Hongjun Street, work as the axes for the whole city even today. This area is one of the commercial centers and high concentrations of traffic flow along these streets.





5.2 Modern City Model

 Fig. 4.6 Ebenezer Howard‘s Garden City Model (Source: B. Li, 1997, p.21) 1898
In 1898, Sir Ebenezer Howard published his book, “Tomorrow’s Garden City.” The basic idea of the Garden City was to establish a new urban form to diminish the negative impact of industrial growth by integrating urban and rural land uses and limiting the population of the central city. The book significantly influenced the modern planning movement, producing the Satellite Garden City in England.


In 1922, Raymond Unwin, a follower of Howard, published “The Building of Satellite Towns,” which spread the theory of satellite towns. Satellite towns are independent towns encircling the central city in order to lessen the pressure of its growth.  They were built primarily for residential use and were called living towns. Local jobs were provided through their industrial and commercial facilities. Satellite towns were connected with the central city by high-speed transportation facilities.  Agricultural land lay between the central city and the satellite town.


This theory had a strong influence on modern urban planning, especially after World War Two. Abercrombie’s plan of Greater London in 1944 was a typical result of satellite town theory and was emulated by other cities around the world. The plan of Great Harbin in 1934 was an Asian version.

Fig. 4.7 Unwin’s Satellite Town Model, 1922 (Source: B. Li, 1997, p.21)


  • Abercrombie’s Plan for Great London (1944)

Patrick Abercrombie’s Greater London Plan was based on the population of London and its surrounding ring, a wide area stretching roughly 30 miles in any directions from London. The objective of the plan was to achieve a massive decentralization of people from the inner, more congested area of this vast city to the outer ring. Within the inner city, the County of London plan had demonstrated that if the slum areas were to be redeveloped to adequate standards with sufficient open space, a planned overspill program for over 600,000 people would be needed. Outside the LCC area, Abercrombie now calculated that the corresponding overspill would amount to an additional 400,000, amounting to over 1 million people in all. Until 1939, the development entailed building peripheral estates, thus adding further to the urban sprawl. Abercrombie proposed to stop the sprawl by creating a green belt, which was five miles wide on average. It would provide an effective barrier to growth and also act as a valuable recreational tract for Londoners.


Fig. 4.8 Abercrombie’s Plan of Great London, 1944 (Source: Peter Hall, Urban and Regional Planning, 1975, p.98)

New communities could then be created to receive these million people, which would truly be what Ebenezer Howard had intended: self-contained communities for living and working. Abercrombie seized the opportunity to propose a regional plan based on the principles that Howard had established nearly half a century before. In his plan, about 400,000 people were accommodated in eight new towns with an average size of 50,000 each, to be built between 20 and 35 miles from London. Another 600,000 people would move to existing small county towns, mainly between 30 and 50 miles from London, but some even more distant.[4]


  • The Plan for Great Harbin (1934)


(1) Vision Statement

Harbin is one of the more important cities in northern Manchuria, a base area for the Japanese economy, and a base area for approaching Siberia” (Li, B 1997). From this vision statement of the plan, the Japanese purpose was obvious.


At the end of 1933, the population of Harbin was 381,060, and would reach 1 million 33 years later (in 1966) according to the plan. The population of Greater Harbin (including outer regions) would be 3.5 million in 1966 in the plan.[5]


Fig. 4.9 the Plan of Great Harbin (1), 1934 Source: Li, Baihao, 1997


The master plan of Greater Harbin covered regional matters; development and utilization of land for both urban and rural areas had been comprehensively studied. This was a reflection of the new planning model, the “theory of satellite towns.” Raymond Unwin, a follower of Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City ideas, published his book “The Building of Satellite Towns” in 1922.


In the plan of Harbin, with the urban center as a starting spot, an area with a radius of 10 km was considered the urban area of 295 km2 (not including 22 km2 of the Songhua River).  The boundary of Harbin was planned to have a radius of 25 km. In addition, around the urban area there was a 2 km wide greenbelt of 112 km2, which could serve as a protective barrier to prevent urban sprawl.[6]

One obvious feature of the plan is that it extended the city across the Songhua River. In the main part of the city to the south of the river, a clear, strong design structure was imposed so that a new central axis in the middle was oriented to the river, which kept the existing town in the east. The north part of the axis to the river was composed of a central railway station and a new commercial center. The south part was the political center of the city, which included the city hall, provincial government buildings, consulates of foreign countries, etc.


Fig.4.10 the Plan of Great Harbin (2), 1934  Source: Li, baihao1997

 A greenbelt including the Majiagou River crossed the axis. Two industrial areas were planned: a light industrial zone at the upper reaches of the Songhua River, and a heavy industrial zone at the confluence of the Songhua and Ashihe Rivers.


The urban form was a grid pattern of large blocks based on existing conditions and the modern transportation requirement. Worth mentioning in the plan is, first, the new structure for the great city, which was not based on the existing one. Second, this new plan attempted to integrate the old and new parts of the city by the central axis and the ring road framework. Third, green space was emphasized both within and around the city, fully utilizing the natural topography such as the river and ravine. Fourth, it attempted to reintegrate the original industrial area along the Songhua River into the urban fabric.


Generally speaking, the master plan for Greater Harbin (1934) reflected the pioneering planning ideas of the 1920s – 1930s, such as the functional separation and theory of satellite towns. This plan was only partly realized when World War Two began, but it strongly influenced the later urban development of Harbin. By comparing this master plan with the current map of Harbin, many features of the master plan of 1934 can be seen, such as the size and basic urban form of grid blocks, although the green belt has not been realized.


From the comparative study above, we recognize that Harbin is a modern city influenced by European Classical and modern planning models but not by traditional Chinese urban planning. The urban development in earlier days, now the core area, was in typical European classical form.  The same planning theories were the basis for both the plan for Great Harbin (1934) and that of Greater London (1944). It was no coincidence that the Japanese planners applied the knowledge learnt from the Western world to Harbin in the 1930s. In general, the comparative study provides a clear understanding of what the basic urban form of the city (the core area) is and where it comes from. The future redevelopment of the core area should be based on such understanding.


[1] Spiro Kostof, 1991, THE CITY SHAPED – Urban Patterns and meanings Through History, Thames and Hudson Ltd., London, p147

[2] same as above, p.150

[3] same as above, p.152

[4] Peter Hall, 1975, Urban & Regional Planning, p.98

[5] Li Baihao, 1997, The Historic Research of the City Planning of the Japanese Occupied Areas in China, PhD thesis, Tongji University, Shanghai

[6] same as above


Chapter 6

Urban Structure Analysis

6.1 Circulation
At the beginning of Harbin in 1898, there was only one road linking the docklands with Old Harbin, southeast of the Songhua River.  Zhongshan Road, now the north-south axis, is based on this original linkage.

5.1 Circulation overlay- 1898

5.2 Circulation overlay - 1910

By 1910, the city had evolved in three sections: Daoli, New Town and Daowai. From the map of 1910, it is clear that Daoli and New Town were built according to a plan but Daowai had grown organically. Daoli and the New Town consisted of a permeable grid with two independent road systems. The only linkage was Rainbow Bridge, connecting Jingwei Street and Hongjun Street. In Daoli District, the streets were strongly oriented towards the waterfront with China Street (now Center Street) in the middle. The grid pattern of streets in the New Town was built according to the topography between the railway and the Majiagou River so that the central axis, Dazhi Street, was on the ridge. Hongjun Street, another axis, linked the Railway Station Plaza and the Museum Plaza.         

5.3 Circulation overlay - 1946
The road system of Daowai District was separated from the other areas in an organic pattern. By 1946, just after World War Two, development had expanded beyond the original grid. Main roads leading away from the city center included Dazhi Street and Xinyang Road, running southwest, with Zhongshan Road extending to the southeast. Major roads in the Daowai District were obviously oriented to the waterfront. The east part of the district was planned in grid form in the 1930s. The Rainbow Bridge was still the only linkage connecting the three districts. The T- shaped railway running through the city divided the roads into a relatively independent system in each district of the city.

5.4 Circulation overlay - 2000
The transportation facilities were modernized to an unprecedented degree between the 1980s and 90s. Two ring roads and a series of elevated bridges were built to connect different parts of the city. These were actions taken by local authorities to substitute for the proposed “modern” bridge at the Rainbow Bridge site after a hot debate. In fact, this was a wise decision that improved circulation in the city and mitigated traffic pressure in the Rainbow Bridge area. A new bridge across the Songhua River was constructed north of the Songhua River. Rapid expansion meant that traffic volume increased accordingly.

Today, the addition of newer and larger bridges connecting the expanded highway network has improved traffic flow particularly between districts and exiting the city but traffic is still concentrated along a few main arteries.
6.2 Built-up Area
Qinjia Hill (south of the Songhua River) provided a suitable location for urban development with its waterfront along a deep-water harbour. Before 1900, there had been only a few farming and fishing villages in this area.
5.5 Building coverage 1906
In 1906, development was concentrated around the New Town (now the core of Nangang District) and the docklands (now the waterfront of the core of Daoli District), with villages distributed outside the city. The Museum Plaza and China Street (now Center Street) were the civic centers of town. St. Nicolas’ Church on the intersection of Hongjun Street and Dazhi Street (both in the public realm) was a prominent landmark indicating the town center. A small holiday village was built on Sun Island, north of the Songhua River.

By 1946, the city had expanded beyond the original New Town and the docklands. Streetcar lines ran from the city center through the major built-up areas. The October Revolution of 1918 caused an influx of Russians to Harbin which resulted in the development of the Xinyang Area (the extension of the docks). In the 1930s, according to the Plan of Great Harbin, Hexing Area was built and the New Town extended across the Majiagou River connecting with the Old Harbin (now the Xiangfang District). The needs of wartime forced the building of a second bridge across the Songhua River to the east of the outer railway ring.  This was followed by the east railway station. A linking line was built to connect the Harbin railway station and the east railway station.

5.6 Building coverage 1946
The conflict between the railway and the city, where the railway line separated the city, was aggravated. In the meantime, the Daowai District evolved gradually and was annexed with two other districts. The military airport was to the east of the city and was almost enclosed by the built-up area. Harbin was now a city on the railway.

5.7 Building coverage 1957

By 1957, the city stretched out along the major roads, such as the Xinyang Road and Xuefu Road. The port facilities in the original docklands were removed to the lower part of the river (the waterfront in Daowai District) and a new heavy industrial area had developed along the railway in the southeast. Large scale industrial development was a major factor promoting the rapid urban growth of the 1950s. The new development in the south of the city included the university communities along the Xuefu Road. Hexing

5.8 Building coverage 2000

Road developed in the same period. The east railway station had been upgraded and extended. The military airport had been encircled by buildings. The Majiagou River was a natural corridor running through the city so several parks were developed along the river, such as the Children’s Park, Harbin Zoo and Harbin Botanical Garden. The removal of the railway track along the waterfront of Daoli District provided a unique opportunity to create a linear park (Station Park) for recreational use.  It became a new focus for the public realm and civic life. To the north of the Songhua River, Sun Island Park was developed as an extension of the public realm for local residents. By 2000, the built-up area of the city had extended east beyond the railway outer ring. Most of the military airport, now the Economic and Technical Development Zone, had been developed in 1990s. Railways ran around most of the circumference of the city in the south and east.

6.3  Functional Analysis
In 1910, the New Town and the Docks Area separated by the railway were the focuses of the city. The New Town was the administration center and garden-like residential area with low density. The Docks Area was the commercial center of the city with medium density residential uses, the General Railway Plant to the west, the Warehouse District to the east, and the docks along the Songhua River. It was strongly oriented to the waterfront, and had a clear linkage to the New Town. The Fujiadian Area (Daowai District) was an isolated area east of the Warehouse District.

5.9 Functional Relationships - 1910

5.10 Functional Relationships - 1946

By 1946, as the city expanded and the importance and centrality of the waterfront increased, Fujiadian had evolved to be an independent district, called Daowai District, which had strong connections to the docklands and the New Town. All three districts (the docklands, the New Town and the Daowai District) were now the focal point of the city. The new suburbs, Majiagou, Xinyang, Hexing and Old Harbin were developed as residential areas, closely linked to the city core. The new suburbs stretched out along major transportation corridors, not in a grid pattern. Zhongshan Road became a strong linkage between the New Town, Majiagou and Old Harbin. The railway was still the major barrier between districts and between the docklands and the river.

After the postwar development, the historic core was still the focus and reinforced the connections to the waterfront. New developments covered most of the land inside the outer railway ring. Several functional areas were located outside the historic core, such the university clusters around Xuefu Road, the industrial power plants along the railway (Dongli District), and the chemical plants east of the railway ring. The public realm and civic life were still focused on the historic core.
The road connections from the new suburbs to the historic core were improved, but the linkage between the new suburbs was weaker. Demolition of part of the railway improved the connection between the docklands and the waterfront.

5.11 Functional Relationships - 2000

The city is now composed of six districts within the railway ring: Nangang, Daoli, Daowai, Dongli, Xiangfang and Taiping. The city forms a compact urban mass and the importance of the original city core has been reinforced. Propelled by the real estate market, the original city core has become a high-rise, high-density urban renewal development. The historic urban, public realm has been devastated. Some problems are the shortage of parking space and green space. In the 1980s ands 90s, the transportation facilities such as elevated bridges and freeways were modernized with dispensation given by the planning department?? to demolish the historic urban fabric. Several historical buildings were demolished to provide room for the transportation facilities. More attention is being paid to the public realm at this time with the re-establishment of the pedestrian shopping street and several civic plazas, and the beautification of the environment. The extensions on the front of buildings on the major streets have been removed and a new lighting project makes the street more attractive at night. 

6.4 4nbsp;Design Structure

5.12 Design Structure – 1899
In basic characters were the two cross axis roads, with a plaza at the intersection. The radiate boulevard connected another two plazas, the Railway Station Plaza and the Jiaohua Plaza.
Design Structure is at the heart of planning and design.   It embodies both culture and current technical developments and directs development of the urban space. In the history of Harbin (from 1898), several plans were prepared for the city which influenced its development and created a unique identity made up of the urban form and architectural style. Harbin New Town, built by the Russians in 1899, was designed in a classical manner with grid-iron blocks, a central plaza and church, and diagonal boulevards, to reflect classical European traditions. The 1930s’ plan consisted of a central axis linking the administrative core, commercial core and transportation hub (the new railway station), to reflect the concepts of functional planning. This was a new model influencing the planning world.

Its basic characteristics were the two axial crossroads, with a plaza at the intersection. The radiating boulevards connected two further plazas, the Railway Station Plaza and the Jiaohua Plaza. The blocks were the fundamental unit of the urban form. The new town was designed according to the pre-determinants of the topography and the railway. The design esthetics in this New Town gave the city a different identity from other Chinese cities of the time and set the foundation for its future development.

5.13 Design Structure - 1934

In 1934, a new structure was designed for the city away from the existing built-up area, in the middle of the future urban area according to the Plan of Great Harbin. In this plan, Harbin would develop from .33 million people into a great city with 1 million people. Hexing Road was taken as the axis with the commercial center in the west and the political center in the east. A green belt along the Majiagou River ran through the axis which gave it a lively character. A new general railway station was planned at the end of this new axis. Generally speaking, this design was expected to be the engine for future development. The political center included the provincial government, City Hall, several consulates and other institutional facilities.

5.14 Design Structure - 1957
In the Master Plan of Harbin (1957), the design was moved back from the Railway Station Plaza and the Provincial Government Plaza to the area along the Zhongshan Road and Hongjun Street. In the meantime, Hexing Road was no longer the focal point of the city.

In postwar redevelopment, a series of public buildings were erected in this area which reinforced it as the geographical, commercial, and political center of the city. The prominent projects included the provincial government building with associated institutions, the Worker’s Culture Center, Heping Hotel, Northern Hotel and Teenagers’ Hall. This design continued the New Town’s structure in the original urban settlement, but limited the connection with the Daoli District by Rainbow Bridge. It was taken as the public realm, cutting down a thoroughfare –?? Zhongshan Road. In terms of transportation, it interrupted traffic flow throughout the city. The basis for this decision was economic. After World War Two, the economy was weak. In order to fully utilize the limited funding, the major public facilities were developed from existing built-up areas.  Beijing was the typical model influencing other cities. Retrospectively, it can be seen that this decision led to quick development and a prosperous cityscape, but it limited the development potential of the city by not having a long-term vision.

5.15 Design Structure - 2000
In the Master Plan of Harbin 1982-2000, the design structure took the “+” axes as the central structure, which is an extension of the original structure set up by the New Town, and a continuation of the Plan of 1957. The ring roads (the inner and second ring) connected the two axes, setting up a road network for the city. The two axes are not only the thoroughfares running through the city, but also the visual corridors connecting several important nodes, such as the Railway Station Plaza and the Museum Plaza. These areas are the major elements of the public realm in most people’s mental map, and the place for public life. In fact, the north-south axis is disrupted at the Harbin Railway Station area. The Nangang Commercial Core and Daoli Commercial Core are two separate sections. This structure demonstrates the planner’s intention of joining the two as the core, but doesn’t include any practical steps. This is the result of the city’s endeavours in the last two decades to set up a clear structure within the existing built-up area, although there is still some work to be done.

6.5 Building Coverage

5.16 Building Coverage  1923        5.17 Building Coverage  2000
Figure-ground drawings clearly illustrate the solids and voids, the relationships between building massing and open space. The following example considers the same area of the CBD in 1921 and 2000. This area is located at the southwest corner of the Museum Plaza, the centre of Harbin New Town (now the Nangang commercial core).  This area was the starting point of the city.

Building massing in Central Harbin up to the 1960s was in low-density, garden-like urban form, combined with the grid network of streets. Open space was a dominant element and the houses were scattered. Until the 1960s, consolidation of the residential blocks was a gradual, smooth process. Only the International Hotel was built on the corner of the two major thoroughfares in the 1930s.
Two blocks were bulldozed and redeveloped in the 1960s for the Northern Hotel, adjacent to the International Hotel. Significant changes occurred in the 1980s, known as urban renewal. The Provincial Parliament Building and the Financial Complex took a whole block along the Zhongshan Road. In the redevelopment, block structure (except for the north area) remained the same, but the building mass and organization changed. In terms of land use, this area has changed from singe-residential use to multi-functional uses, such as institutional and commercial uses, becoming a more public area. Some existing historical properties, single houses at the back of the street, have been altered by many additions. In comparison with the opposite corner of the plaza, where a super-high rise hotel (Huarong Hotel) comprises a whole block, this area has experienced incremental changes. Most planners and residents consider that evolution of the major street from private use to public use is reasonable. Its historical identity, however, still creates good memories for local residents.  The European-style houses, the trees and hedges and the piano melodies drifting out of the houses in the evening recall different times. Some of the adjacent area should therefore be restored and preserved. The city’s preservation plan covers several blocks which are at the back of the main street.  It intends to remove the additions and restore the green space in order to preserve these historic properties.
This chapter made a detailed analysis on the historic development of Harbin focusing on circulation, built-up area, functional relationship, design structure and figure-ground analysis.  It contributed to how the city evolved, what the key issues or concerns were in each period and what the design structures were.  From the analysis, the core area is the historic district of the city and is still the focus of the city. Some critical issues have not been resolved, such as the city separated by the railway, the associated functional relationship, while these issues are the major barriers to the future development of the city. 

Chapter 7

Current Issues and Future Growth


Since the “Open and Reform” policy of 1978, the cities of China have undergone tremendous change along with rapid economic growth. The catalyst is the move from a centrally-planned economy to a market-oriented economy. City rebuilding is not only piecemeal, but structural. This study will envision the structure of the city based on a changing urban structure, not a fixed final product.

7.1 Current Issues

Harbin has become a metropolitan city with 2.89 million people and a built-up area of 211 km2 which has evolved over a hundred years. In the last two decades particularly, its urban form has changed significantly. Several key issues should be recognized as being important for the future of the city.


1)     The Development of the Songbei New District


The Songbei New District is located north of the Songhua River, a potential site for urban development. In the last hundred years, Harbin’s development has occurred to the south of the river, with the recreational Sun Island Park north of the river. Affected by regular flooding, this area is still underdeveloped.


In recent years, the development of Songbei New District is a major concern for the local government. One reason is that land south of the river is limited for urban growth. The Administration Bureau of Songbei New District was established in the 1990s and several projects have moved to this area, such as the Harbin Financial College, Harbin Zoo and Tiger Zoo. It was decided to locate Harbin International Golf Course on Sun Island. The Songbei New District has great potential for urban development due to its location close to downtown. According to the “Development Strategies of the Songbei New District” by the China Academy of Urban Planning and Design (CAUPD) in 1998, this area has the potential to develop into an urban area of 1.2 million people. The China Academy suggests that this development should be implemented in phases, with an increase of 0.2 million before 2030. Major development of this area will take place around 2050.


2)     The Relationship of New Development and Redevelopment


In the last decade, Harbin has undergone rapid development, characterized by large-scale urban renewal. The main problem is that concentration has been placed on redevelopment of the central city, while new developments have been fairly limited. This has resulted in a series of urban issues.

Fig 7.1 Bird’s eye view of a residential community.
It was built in the 1980s, and 6-7 storey apartments are the dominant buildings in a compact form.



·        Greater density in the built-up area

The average population density in Harbin is 70.2 m2 / person, with only 57 m2 / person in the central city. This is similar to most big cities in China. The density of Beijing is 79.8 m2 / person, Tianjin is 72.8 m2 / person and Shanghai is 52.4 m2 / person.[1] The direct effect on urban life is a shortage of open space, lack of parking space, and traffic congestion.


·        Devastation to the historic district

Fig 7.2 Views from Center Street
Newly built high-rise apartments are just behind the historic street. High real estate profit is the driving force for such urban development. 

During the large-scale urban renewal, several historic buildings were bulldozed together with the slums. The unique landscape, with commercial streets, residential buildings and gardens on a smaller, human scale, has been replaced by high-rise buildings. Driven by market forces, most redevelopments are residential projects, while office space and cultural facilities have been squeezed out of downtown. The high profit from residential development close to work downtown, where cars are unnecessary, has resulted in more historical buildings being replaced by new high-rise apartments and commercial complexes. There is not enough space for cultural facilities, such as museums, concert halls or libraries. Even City Hall has been forced to move out of this area. It is thought that the commercial environment surrounding City Hall draws pedestrians and heavy traffic and makes it inappropriate as an administrative environment.  This has affected the function of downtown as a Central Business District (CBD) unlike the situation in North American cities.


·        Further social separation in space

The different social classes were further separated in space during urban renewal. Low-income families were forced to move out of the central city where there was more convenient shopping, recreation and work because land prices were too high. Many high-rise apartments replaced the historic buildings and slums in the central city. These new buildings were much more expensive than those outside the downtown area. As only rich families can afford to live in these new buildings, many of them are vacant.


Fig 7.3 The railway yard in the core of the city   The railway yard interrupts the continuity of the urban fabric.


3)     The Conflict between the Railway and City


A major problem has been created by the railway lines separating the city into several parts. With the increase in railway transport capacity and urban renewal, this problem became even more serious. The areas associated with railway lines within the city are usually environmentally unsatisfactory, underdeveloped areas. The railway disrupts connections between different areas and results in traffic congestion, especially in the Harbin Railway Station area.


4)     Land Use and Public Transit


Harbin has a compact urban form, like most cities in China. In contrast with North American cities, it is too dense. Although the private car is new and desirable, it will not be a dominant option for private travel because of the high population and lack of land. Public transit is the first choice of travel for most people and will remain so in the future. The current bus system is overburdened, so that long travel time and congestion is common. In recent years, a vicious circle has been created by the building of new roads which have increased congestion. The issue of travel difficulty is still perplexing the city, but only increasing bus numbers can solve the problem. For the 3 million people of Harbin, a new, large capacity, high-speed public transit system is desperately needed.

Fig. 7.4 Traffic congestion on Jingwei Street, the south-north axis of the city

Public transit is vital for efficient land use because the transit service directly influences one’s choice of location in the city. For a sustainable urban environment, there should be reasonable density, efficient urban function, and a sense of comfort. For Harbin, the issue is to plan urban development in order to achieve a reasonable density. Public transit will be an important factor in this plan.


7.2  General Direction of Growth of the City

Harbin is an important regional metropolis in Northeast Asia because of its rapid urbanization and modernization. The potential growth from the current 2.89 million people to 3.5 million people in 2020 and 4.5 million people in 2050 will affect the city structurally. From 2000 to 2020, the Songbei New District north of the Songhua River will be developed as an urban area with a population of 200-300,000.[2]


In 1995, the population of the city was 2.72 million people and the built-up area was 191 km2. According to the master plan of Harbin (1996), the population will reach 3.26 million people and the built-up area will be 252.35 km2 by 2010, so that the city will increase by an area of 61.35 km2.


The direction of land use development is usually influenced by geographic location, topography and transportation conditions. Historically, Harbin has been focused on the south of the Songhua River. Most of the land south of the Songhua River is higher, which is out of the floodplain. As mentioned previously, Harbin New Town was originally built on the Qinjia Hill. The land near the Songhua River on both the south and north sides is lower land, which is often flooded. For example, floods rushed into the Daoli Commercial Core in 1932. After engineering improvements,


the built-up areas south of the Songhua River have not experienced flooding. These
areas now occupy most of the land within the railway ring. In general, China is more rural than urban but the urbanization process will be accelerating along with economic growth in the first half of the 21st century. It is inevitable that the surplus farming population move into cities and towns. Therefore, any urban studies should consider the growth of the city in the future.



Fig. 7.5 General direction of growth in the city

According to the Master Plan of Harbin 1996, the general direction of growth will be to the southwest and north of the Songhua River - Qunli New District, Harxi Industrial Redevelopment, Xuefu Infill Area and Songbei New District.

Several critical issues of Harbin’s growth must be discussed. The chemical industries (south of the Songhua River) and the flood land of the Arshi River (east of the city) set up barriers to urban growth. Urban development is appropriate, in terms of the topographic and transportation conditions, west to the Harbin International Airport and south to the South Railway Station. The existing infrastructure needs only to be extended. These areas, therefore, are the most appropriate for urban development in the next two decades: the Qunli New District, Harxi Industrial Redevelopment and Xuefu Infill Area. Qunli New District covers 26km2 on the west riverfront of the city, and is planned for urban use after flood-prevention work is done on the riverfront. Most of the industrial plants in the Harxi Industrial District will be moved out of the city into the industrial parks, according to the master plan of Harbin. This area will be redeveloped for urban use.


Any development north of the Songhua River has been debated for several years. The advantage of this area is its gateway position to the major cities in the north and west of the province, such as Heihe and Daqing. There is plenty of space for urban growth. The disadvantage is that this area is in the floodplain of the Songhua River. For example, a newly-built town at this site was quickly destroyed by floods in 1932. Large-scale new development needs a large amount of infrastructure investment, such as flood control facilities, roads, bridges and underwater tunnels to connect with the existing built-up area south of the Songhua River. The flood-prevention work is not a major issue in the current economic climate, but I agree with the strategic plan of the Songbei New District. The urban development of this area should be completed in phases. Until 2020, it is feasible that the District develops an urban area accommodating approximately 200,000 people.


In the future, especially in the next two decades, the direction of growth will focus on the southwest, west and north of the city. The areas include the Songbei New District, Qunli New District, Harxi Industrial Redevelopment and Xuefu Infill Area.


In the past two decades, urban renewal changed the cityscape a lot and also resulted in many problems while new development is limited. In the future, new growth and redevelopment will be both emphasized. The core area is and will still be the focus in the future redevelopment, in which an integrated, identifiable and workable design structure should be highlighted.


[1]  Wenqi Zhang, etc. Study on the Urban Land Use and Population (Beijing: China Building Industry Press, 2000), p.78.

[2]The Strategic Plan of the Songbei New District of Harbin, 1998





“However, in order to be effective, any plans for the physical form of the city must be based on a vision. The ultimate goal of all city planning and design should be development of better place to live… A mutual understanding of how the physical form of the city has evolved, definition of commonly accepted defining norms and patterns, and recognition of the urban design issues that have emerged, could be a place to begin. Required also is an understanding of the economic and political processes involved in city building...” [1]


The origin and development of Harbin was closely related to the railway, and the problems restricting urban development have come from the conflict between the city and the railway. The Harbin Railway Station area separates the north-south axis into two parts, being detrimental to the continuity of the urban fabric. It becomes three sections between the Daoli District, Nangang District and Daowai District, and the Harbin Railway Station area is the bottleneck which connects the three. Most people have experienced traffic congestion in this area. Traditionally, Nangang was called the “heaven,” Daoli was called the “human world” and Daowai was called the “hell” in terms of the urban environment. The poor linkage is a major problem in urban function as well as the quality of the visual corridors. Another problem is that the land associated with the railway is underdeveloped, environmentally unsatisfactory slums and waste ground.  In order to facilitate future development and update environmental practices, the urban structure must be readjusted, based on the development of the city and the railway. Linking land use and mobility is the starting point for formulating the urban structure of the future. The establishment of a large capacity, rapid public transit system (LRT system) should be the first choice to lessen traffic pressure on the city core. This system would also provide an opportunity to rectify the urban structure of the city, so that the railway corridors work as the LRT corridors connecting the city rather than creating barriers.


  • LRT System as an Engine to Optimize Urban Development

Public transit is the main transport choice of both local residents and visitors, but the existing bus system cannot meet the demands of a metropolitan city of 3 million people. As in other big cities around the world, efficient, high-quality public transit is essential, with subway and LRT systems functioning as the major transit network.


An LRT system would improve the efficiency and quality of public transit in Harbin.  It would mitigate traffic congestion in the central city and would direct urban development. The unique opportunity to develop an LRT system based on the existing railway lines would fundamentally improve public transit and resolve the conflicts between the railway and the city. An LRT system would also play a positive role in urban development. The improvement in mobility would encourage people to reconsider their options about where to live, so that the central city would not be the only choice. Therefore, a balanced density would be achieved throughout the city and more space created in the Central Business District for commercial, business and cultural uses.


  • Revitalize the Downtown Area

Historically, the town center of Harbin consisted of three parts: Daoli Commercial Core, Nangang Commercial Core and Daowai Commercial Core. At present, Daoli and Nangang have become more important as town centers for commercial and business functions and in people’s mental map, but Harbin Railway Station separates the two areas. The Harbin Railway Station functions as the regional transport hub, but does not serve the city and its people as public transit. This study reintegrates the three areas (Daoli, Railway Station and Nangang) as the Central Business District.

  • Create more office space; strengthen the business functions of this area;
  • Use Harbin Railway Station area as a public transit hub; upgrade efficiency and quality of travel within the city;
  • Disperse residents to outer areas in order to leave more space for public use. There is too much residential use in the central city, unlike North American cities.


Chapter 8

Light Rail Transit (LRT) - an engine to optimize urban structure


“Public transit plays an important social, environmental and economic role…efficient, high-quality transportation can reduce the environmental impact of high auto use and provide a lower cost travel option to individuals and the community.” [2] Efficient public transit also plays an important role in directing urban growth, rational functional layout and sustainable urban structure.


8.1  More Large Cities in China Look at Subway and Light Rail Transit


China will speed up construction of subways and light rail transit systems in cities with populations of more than 1 million during the tenth Five-Year-Plan period (2001-05).

The development of rail transportation is one of the fundamental ways for China's forty largest cities to solve their transportation problems. The merits of urban and suburban rail transportation have been recognized in more than 130 countries and regions around the world. Subways and light rail are preferred choices for large cities. Rail transportation in Tokyo carries 87 per cent of total passenger flow. The figure in London and New York is about 60 per cent. By comparison, only 15 per cent of passengers in Beijing use its only rail system, the subway.[3]

At present, only Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Tianjin and Hong Kong operate subways or light rail systems, with a total length of only 193.4 kilometres. The first subway was built in Beijing in 1969.

In 2000, the State Development Planning Commission approved construction of eight new subways, including the first phase of the Shenzhen metro project and the Nanjing subway line. During the first half of 2001, the Commission approved construction of a 38-kilometre third subway in Guangzhou, capital of South China's Guangdong Province, and Line 1 of the Tianjin subway, with the plan to increase the northern city's original 7.4-kilometre subway to more than 26 kilometres.

As many as twenty other cities out of the country's forty (population of more than 1 million) are considering constructing subways or light rail systems to ease the increasing pressures on existing transportation facilities. Harbin finished its “Feasibility Study of Subway System” in 2000 although some experts disagree with the report. Some planners consider that an LRT system based on the railway would be more economically feasible in the specific context of Harbin.

ot all cities, however, can realize their dreams of facilitating traffic flow by the construction of subways or light transit systems. Before digging tunnels and building viaducts, they have to consider whether they can afford the whole project. "The cost of constructing urban rail systems is huge, and it takes a long time before any profit is made. One kilometre of subway line costs an average of 700 million Yuan (US$84.3 million), '' said Li Xiaojiang, deputy director of the China Academy of Urban Planning and Design.[4]


Aware that imported equipment usually accounts for a considerable proportion of the expenditure, the State has required that 70 per cent of equipment used for new urban railway lines be domestically made. It is estimated that the cost of one kilometre of subway can be reduced to 450 million Yuan (US$54.2 million) from the current 700 million Yuan.


8.2  Subway or Light Rail Transit for Harbin


Harbin began operating a tram system in the early 20th century, later replacing it with buses in the late 1970s. This has been a worldwide trend. All British cities had abandoned trams by 1962. A handful of tramway systems survived in North American cities, though their replacement by buses was just a matter of time.


By 2000, Harbin had become a large city with a population of 2.89 million and 211.48 km2 of built-up area. The bus system is the major choice for transport, supplemented by bicycles and taxis. The number of bus lines increases each year along with the economic growth, but buses still cannot meet the transport demands of the city. Modernization of the public transit system, preferably with rail transit, is urgent. The present debate circles around which system is more appropriate for Harbin - the subway or LRT.


This study suggests that Harbin should construct Light Rail Transit (LRT) to alleviate traffic pressure, facilitate urban development and optimize urban structure. In economic terms, it is estimated that the cost of constructing an LRT is only one-third that of a subway. It is reported that the cost of the Beijing LRT is 210 million Yuan / km (US$ 25.3 million). Two current projects show that the Tianjin LRT is 140 million Yuan / km (US$ 16.8 million) and the Wuhan LRT is 176 million Yuan / km (US$ 21.2 million).[5] In Harbin, railway lines can be re-used to build an LRT system that will solve the conflict between the railway and the city.


Light rail is a modern transit mode developed in Europe from the tramway. In comparison with a bus system it is more expensive to construct, but may be cheaper to operate for a given capacity.  It will have lower whole-life costs, a higher commercial speed, will reduce pollution and be more successful in attracting people to public transport. In comparison with a metro or urban subway, light rail will be cheaper to build and operate, but it runs at a lower speed. It maintains a visible presence as surface public transport, offers better penetration of urban areas, enjoys better security, and generates less noise.


Large cities with an LRT system have demonstrated that it is more efficient.  This is the case in Edmonton and Calgary. The Canadian city of Edmonton led the way with an alternative approach in public transit when they built a new light rail line, partly on under-used railway lines, and partly as a subway.  It has been operating since 1978 and was an immediate success. Calgary followed suit three years later. In both cases, rather than dig expensive subways, pedestrian and transit precincts were created in the city centers since guided, pollution-free vehicles such as trams or an LRT can operate quite successfully in a pedestrian environment.

8.3 The Feasibility of Developing an LRT System Based on Railway Lines


(1)   Background

Harbin’s development was based on the construction of the Middle-East Railway in 1898. Current issues perplexing the city still arise from the conflict between the railway and the city. Harbin Railway Station area, as a focal point in the original classical formal layout, separates the north-south axis into two parts which interrupts the connectivity of the whole city.


Harbin is one of the two hubs in the Northeast Railway Network of China, connecting five major railway lines: Harbin-Beijing, Harbin-Manzhouli, Harbin-Suifenhe, Harbin-Lalin and Harbin-Heihe. In the city, Harbin Railway Station is the major terminal and the East Station is secondary, handling passengers and freight. The South Station is the major freight station.  Harbin Railway Station handles 26,449 persons each day on average, accounting for 59.14 per cent of the city.  The traffic volume to and from the Harbin Railway Station is more than 100,000 people each day in peak time.[6] The traffic pressure in this area is already beyond capacity and the environmental problems are the “cancer” of the city.  Several redevelopments in this area have not solved the problem because the pressure increases constantly along with the growth in railway transportation. It is a problem because both the intercity transport and the city public transit are concentrated on the Harbin Railway Station area.



Fig. 8.1 Diagram of the city of Harbin

This map shows the relationship of the railway, urban built-up areas and the Songhua River. As a railway hub, Harbin connects five trunk railway lines, such as Harbin-Beijing, Harbin-Manzhouli, Harbin-Suifenhe, Harbin-Lalin and Harbin-Heihe.

In order to solve this problem, Harbin has implemented two major improvements to divert the inner-city railway pressure.  From 1898 to the 1950s, Harbin Railway Station was the only transportation hub both for passenger and freight transport. The East Station, built in 1958, diverted part of the passenger and freight transport. The removal of most of the freight to the railway marshalling yard on the south edge of the city was completed in 1986, lessening some of the traffic pressure in the city core. Propelled by economic growth and increasing railway transportation capacity, it is necessary to further remove the inter-city railway functions to the fringes of the city.  The proposal to move the railway further out from the central city is a just the next step in continuing the historical planning efforts. An efficient public transit LRT system can be realized based on the current railway lines.


(2)   The Status of the Railway in the Multi-transportation Market


The huge population of China, even in a country that is vast (5500km from south to north and 5200km from east to west) is highly concentrated. There are 667 cities, of which 40 big cities have more than 1 million people each in the 21st century.[7]  The number and size of the cities will increase with the rapid economic growth, and urbanization and inter-city transportation will also increase. The railway will still provide the major means of inter-city transportation, although planes and cars or trucks are major rivals in the competition for long-distance transportation. The following comparison of multiple transportation methods demonstrates the status of the railway in the multi-transportation market.


Since the 1980s, the modernization of transportation infrastructure has developed very quickly.  Highways, especially, have gained major status in the transportation market. It is predicted that twelve arterial highways will be completed as the national highway network by 2010. Air transportation increases 20 percent a year, carrying 13 million passengers annually.[8]


Although the railway system has been modernized, there is still no high-speed railway in China. In the heated competition to provide transportation, the market ratio of the railway is decreasing.  The railway (at a speed of 150-160km/h) now faces a critical challenge, especially from the highway. The construction of a new, high-speed railway is a good choice for China.

     (3) Trends in the Development of the Railway


The fastest vehicle on land is the high-speed railway developed in the 1960s in Japan, reaching 250 km/h. The MLT (Magnetic Levitated Transit) reaches double that speed at 500 km/h. It was a combined effort of Japan and Germany. The test lines for both the MLT in Shanghai and the high-speed railway from Beijing to Shanghai are now under construction and will provide the foundation for decision-making for the future national arteries of China.


For a short distance of perhaps 100-300km, the highway is more convenient than travelling by rail or air.  The average speed is 80km/h with door-to-door service.  For a distance of 500-1000km, the high-speed railway or air are good choices. The complicated boarding procedures and high prices of air travel means the railway is often more convenient, but its speed must be greater than 250km/h to be a contender. High-speed rail travels at a speed between that of a plane or car, so it is appropriate for medium-haul transportation, such as inter-city travel within 500-1000km. The airplane, with speeds of 700-800km/h, is suitable for long-haul transportation beyond 1000km.


Based on the analysis above, China’s transport needs are different from those of North America.  The railway will continue to be one of the major tools in the comprehensive transportation system in China. In the 21st century, there will be major opportunities for innovation in the construction of high-speed railways and MLTs, particularly as the national arteries between major cities.


(3)   Proposed LRT System Benefits both the Railway and the City

The city of Harbin is a focal point in the railway network of China.  Sufficient space should therefore be provided for the future development of the railway. The relocation of the railway in Harbin would benefit both railway development and the city, lessen the conflict between the railway and the city, and provide an opportunity to establish an

efficient, functional rail transit – an LRT system. An LRT system as the major public


Fig. 8.2 Proposed LRT Systems

The LRT system re-uses the railway lines which cover most parts of the city. The radius of the built-up area is about 10 km., therefore it is convenient for people to travel by LRT from the city center to the railway stations at the fringes.

transit framework, separated from road traffic, would play a positive role in future urban growth and land-use layout, and would optimize the urban structure. In this case, rather than dig expensive subways, create pedestrian and transit precincts in the city centres.


According to the master plan of Harbin (1996), the outer railway ring will extend to the west, connecting with the area north of the Songhua River by a new railway bridge. In order to resolve the conflict between the railway and the city, and facilitate development of the city, this study suggests that the railway lines within the city should be converted to an LRT system for city use. The railway, as inter-city transportation, would run on the outer ring connecting with the five branches. The Main Railway Station would move to the South Station, solving the problem of the original Harbin Railway Station area.


These changes provide great opportunities for development of the railway and public transit in the city. The changes would strengthen the identity of the city and upgrade the urban environment, as well as providing a more convenient transport system for the residents. Harbin has a compact urban form, in which the radius of the built-up area is about 10 km. The LRT system would connect directly to the railway. The direct interchange between the LRT and railway would provide a 20 - 30 minute ride from the city center to the East and South Railway Stations.


Positive Roles for the City

·        Update the public transit system; provide transit-oriented development opportunities along the LRT corridors; solve the conflict between the railway and the city; provide great opportunities for redeveloping the Railway Station area, which will reconnect the two commercial cores in the CBD; provide an accessible green corridor along the LRT system; encourage use of efficient and high quality public transit to enlarge options for appropriate residential location.  


·        The cost of an LRT system is much lower (estimated only 1/3 – ?) than the subway system.


Positive Roles for the Railway

These recommendations encourage growth of the railway at the fringes of the city.  The price of land in the central city is much higher than in the urban fringe, so huge economic rewards would accrue to the railway by selling off railway land in the central city. This would provide capital to aid the future development of the railway. In Fig. 8.3, land prices show a range from high prices in the city center to low prices at the perimeter.


Fig 8.3 Land Price Distribution in Harbin

The distribution of land prices in Harbin ranges from high prices in the city center to low prices at the perimeter.


Fig 8.3 Land Price Distribution in Harbin

The distribution of land prices in Harbin ranges from high prices in the city center to low prices at the perimeter.

To operate the LRT system, the railway company could set up an LRT Transit Company in conjunction with the City. For co-operating over the LRT system, the railway company could receive appropriate benefits. In the highly competitive transportation market of recent years, the railway company is seeking to extend its investment areas, for example into communications.  The Tietong Communication Company, in which the railway company has invested, is one of three top communication companies in China. Collaborating with city council in the construction of an urban public transit system is an innovative way for the railway company to survive.


The analysis above shows that it is feasible to construct an LRT system based on the railway lines, both for economic and technological reasons.  Political tensions, as always, may slow negotiations between the City and the railway company.

[1]  Sandalack & Nicolai, 1998, p.54

[2] Calgary Transportation Plan, 1995

[3]  China Daily  07/04/2001

[4] China Daily 07/04/2001

[5] Tianjin Daily 12/14/2001

[6] The Master Plan of Harbin, 1996

[7] Urban Planning Review, 1999

[8] Urban Planning Review, 1999





Chapter 9


Urban Structure of Harbin


In this final chapter, we set out a set of proposals to the urban structuring goals or objectives.


These are:

  • To maintain a balanced distribution of public enters.
  • To create an integrated, dynamic and efficient Central Business District
  • To promote transit oriented development (or redevelopment).
  • To highlight historic continuity in the future redevelopments.


Public centers are the focus of urban life and public realm. For Harbin, a 3 million people city, a balanced distribution of public centers is important to reduce traffic demand and meet diverse needs of people. It is critical to create an integrated, vibrant and efficient Central Business District. Due to the historic development, this area has been separated into pieces and with surrounding areas by the railway corridors, general railway plant and waterfront warehouse district, which are the barriers, but also provide opportunities for the redevelopment of this area.


In the future redevelopments, transit oriented development (TOD) will be promoted, especially the areas close to the LRT station areas. Historic continuity should be highlighted in the future development and can be reinforced through the built form.


9.1 Public Centers


History reveals that Harbin has experienced almost continual growth and change since its founding in 1898. Three town centers, the Daoli, Nangang and Daowai cores, have played important roles in the urban life of the city. In postwar development, several sub-centers (Hexinglu, Anlejie, Xiangfang and Taiping) were established as local public centers along with industrial development. In the last two decades, all these public centers have undergone rapid redevelopment.


Based on an understanding of Harbin’s history and a vision of future development, a regional framework of public centers has been planned so that multi-centers become important within the greater urban area. This study proposes a star-like pattern centred on the Central Business District (CBD) and several sub-centers.



Fig. 9.1 Proposed distributions of public centers

This study suggests a star-like pattern of public centers that is the Central Business District with several sub-centers. The CBD includes the Nangang Commercial Core, Daoli Commercial Core and the Railway Station Area. Eight sub-centers are located around the CBD, in which Songbei, West Harbin and Baojianlu are proposed super-centers.

The proposed CBD includes Daoli and Nagang commercial cores and the Railway Station. After building and re-building for a century, Daoli and Nagang commercial cores have become public centers in both physical form and on people’s mental map. Daoli commercial core is built around Center Street. Nagang commercial core contains commercial clusters on Dazhi Street and Fendou Road.  These include the Qiulin Company, Songlei Commercial Complex and Fendou Food Store. The Railway Station is located in between the two commercial cores. In addition, the General Railway Plant and waterfront warehouse district are potential sites for redevelopment, as important elements in the Central Business District.


Fig. 9.2 Bird’s eye view of the Museum Plaza

The south-north axis is clearly showed from Museum Plaza to Jinwei St. although the railway terminal breaks the axis. At Museum Plaza, Huarong Hotel stands out in bulk and height. Source: Harbin Daily


The sub-centers are the local public spaces, allowing commercial, business and recreational activities. They include Daowai, Taiping, Xiangfang, Anlejie and Hexinglu sub-centers. All of these except Daowai were developed postwar (1950s). Most of them were planned as the public centers of industrial communities away from the central city. For the long-term urban development of Harbin, particularly the next two decades, the potential growth areas are southwest and the Songbei New District. This study suggests that three sub-centers should be studied and developed in West Harbin, Songbei and Baojianlu.


9.2  The Central Business District (CBD)


From the beginning, Harbin had a strong commitment to serving the railway as headquarters for the Middle-East Railway. The grid form in Daoli and Nangang commercial cores reflects the “Ideal City” theories of Europe, although lost spaces occur in between, such as the railway corridors, general railway plant and waterfront warehouse. The Railway Station is the key connecting the city and separating the two districts. The General Railway Plant is located west of the waterfront, while the Waterfront Warehouse is in the east.  Both are key elements serving the railway.


Fig. 9.3 Lost spaces in the Central Business District

This is the original core of the city.  The grid form of Daoli and Nangang commercial cores reflects the Ideal City theories of Europe, although lost spaces occur in between, such as the railway corridors, general railway plant and waterfront warehouse. The Railway Station is the key connecting various parts of the city.


Early maps of the city show that the city was planned piecemeal, separated by the railway corridors. Harbin New Town, now the Nangang Core, was designed as an independent town, with several functional areas out of town, such as the railway plant, warehouse and residential community (Daoli core is a residential community affiliated to the plant and warehouse). Nowadays, linkage is the critical problem in this area in which the Railway Station is a key point. Along with rapid urban development, redevelopment of the General Railway Plant and the waterfront warehouses is necessary and urgent.


As a trading, cultural and political city in northeast China, a well developed CBD is critical to Harbin. In recent years, public space has been highly appreciated by both local government and citizens.  Worth mentioning is the Century Plaza, which is the original City Hall block combined with two mixed-use blocks. In 1999, three blocks were bulldozed to give birth to the plaza in front of the No. 1 Harbin Department Store.


Fig. 9.4 Center Street in Daoli commercial core

This is a pedestrian shopping street with 2-4 storey buildings in bright yellow built in European style.


This study suggests integrating the three parts of Daoli commercial core, the Railway Station area and Nangang commercial core into a Central Business district (CBD). The re-development of the General Railway Plant and waterfront warehouse district should be based on an understanding of the city and core area, and be woven back into the urban fabric. The proposal is to establish an LRT system based on the current railway lines. The updated public transit will not only improve mobility, but also optimize the function and urban form of the Central Business District.


Fig. 9.5 Proposed public space of the CBD, Harbin

This study suggests integrating the three parts of Daoli commercial core, Railway Station area and Nangang commercial core into a Central Business district (CBD) and taking Jinwei Street as the north-south axis to connect the three parts. The re-development of the General Railway Plant and waterfront warehouse district should be based on an understanding of the city and core area, and be woven back into the urban fabric. The proposal is to establish an LRT system based on the current railway lines.


The redevelopment of the Railway Station area, as a transit-oriented development (TOD) focusing on public functions (office towers, hotels and the convention center) will be a connecting point to the Nangang commercial core (NCC) and Daoli commercial core (DCC).  Jinwei Street is the north-south axis of this area and the whole city from the waterfront inland. The east and west of the Daoli commercial core should be redeveloped in a grid form, which is reasonable in the context. The mixed uses are applied to these areas, in which public space is highlighted as the extension of the DCC.


  • LRT Corridors


Fig. 9.6 Proposal of the Light Rail Transit (LRT) Corridors

These are the areas of the existing railway corridors to be changed to the LRT   

corridors. Transit-oriented development (TOD) model will be introduced to the

redevelopments around the LRT station areas. A pathway system and cross country      

skiing route can also be located in these corridors.


Currently, the railway corridor is a forgotten corner in the redevelopment of the city. Improving the environmental quality of the areas are the concerns of most people and the local government. The recommendation of this study, that converting the railway corridors into the LRT corridors within the city, provides a unique opportunity for redeveloping the areas. Functional changes will contribute to improving the environmental quality.


The above proposal is for the area around a LRT station area, which will lead to a Transit oriented redevelopment. In the future, LRT station areas will be new focus of local communities, as the commercial core, service center, and transit interchange hub. 

The LRT corridor will also make available a linear open space for recreational uses; a pathway system can be located within the corridor connecting to the waterfront and major parks in the city. In the winter, the LRT corridors can also offer a cross country skiing uses in the open space, which will highly attract local people and provide a new cityscape for this notable winter city.


  • Railway Station Area

The Railway Station Terminal and its associated triangular plaza of 27,000 m2 were originally designed as a vista in the formal pattern of Harbin New Town. The area was redeveloped several times. In 1959, the terminal building was replaced by a larger building. In 1992, it was rebuilt again and the plaza was enlarged to 75,000 m2 in rectangular form. The underground space was developed for pedestrians and commercial use. There are two public parking sites and a parking site for taxis covering 11600 m2 in all.[1] More than 100,000 passengers pass in and out of this area because it includes the main railway station and twenty bus lines. Traffic congestion and inconvenience are the key problems here.


Fig. 9.6 Harbin Railway Station Plaza, 2001

This picture shows the chaotic traffic conditions in the plaza, with pedestrians, mini-buses, taxis and buses.

In the early days, the small town was well planned, but now the railway has become a barrier between city sections. Altering the Railway Station from an inter-city transport hub to an urban public transit core with an LRT would have great benefits. The associated sites in the Railway Station area would return space to the public in the core of the CBD, which has now been lost in redevelopment.   The areas associated with the transit core and the two commercial cores would support each other. Again, it is important for the Central Business District, as well as the whole city, to reconnect the north-south axis through the Railway Station area.

  • General Railway Plant



During the course of this study, it has been officially announced that the Harbin General Railway Plant will be removed and the site will be developed as a residential community. The General Railway Plant covers 98.6 ha. west of the Daoli commercial core and north of Yuyi Road at the waterfront by the Songhua River. The Harbin General Railway Plant, an affiliate plant of the Middle-East Railway, was originally set up south of the Songhua River, west of Fujiadian (now Daowai District) and north of Qinjia Hill (now Nangang commercial core) in early 1898. The area will be re-named Century New Town. More than 70 per cent of the new construction, covering 50 per cent of the land, will be major 12 storey high-rise apartments with some 6-7 storey apartments and some super high-rise apartments.  Ten thousand apartment units, totalling about 1.3-1.4 million m2 of housing, will be built here.  Estimates of the average price per m2 are about 4000 RMB,(CAD$) which is a high price. Some commercial buildings, such as hotels, supermarkets and banks, will be along Yuyi Road, covering 10 ha. Two 100-year-old historic buildings will be preserved and used as a community library, community center and railway museum. The road system will adopt a loop form. Eleven roads will be widened and go through this site to re-unite with the surrounding urban fabric.[2]


In my view, this proposal (the General Plant area to be made a residential community) is thoughtless and irrational.  It should be studied in context in relation to the CBD. Based on its location and the potential development of the city, this area should be mixed-use, primarily public uses, such as commercial, cultural and institutional uses, as part of the Central Business District. It should be an extension of the Daoli commercial core in urban function and urban form, with its major buildings such as City Hall, the Concert Hall, museum and library. This area of the waterfront should be a public space. The roads should be in a grid system, or a modified grid, to integrate with the surrounding urban fabric, permitting the greatest degree of choice for pedestrians and vehicles. Small lots and grid blocks oriented to the waterfront provide continuation of the historical city, which should be carefully woven into any new development.

Fig. 9.7 the proposed redevelopment of the General Railway Plant Area, 2001, Source: Harbin Daily



  • Waterfront Warehouse

The warehouse district emerged in the same period as the General Railway Plant, on the docks at Songhua River.  In the early days, all the materials to build the railway were transported by river, so this area was very busy. The docks were later moved away from this area. The traffic here is congested and prevents ease of movement between the Daoli commercial core and its east side. The redevelopment of the waterfront warehouses has been under study and should be redeveloped in context. Continuation and permeability should be a high priority. Additional studies should be undertaken in order to identify the most desirable built form for future development.


9.3  Sub-centers of Public Space


  • Existing Sub-centers

The typical form of these public centers consists of a department store, a food store, a post office, a pocket park and a movie theatre. In the planned economy system, commercial activities were lifeless because most goods were sold by quota. As a consequence, the urban form of these public centers did not change for the three decades from the 1950s to the early 1980s.


Market forces in the 1980s finally forced these public centers to change dramatically. First, the “free markets on the road” appeared, which were usually located on roads adjacent to commercial buildings. These free markets were very convenient for local residents but they impeded traffic flow and generated garbage. A few years later, planned markets replaced the “road markets.” Office buildings, hotels and restaurants are other major projects squeezing into these areas, which have become more “public” space.


 In general, these sub-centers have become more complex and multi-functional. The redevelopment is continuing. These areas are well used by local residents for shopping, meeting friends or recreation. For example, street dancing and Gongfu practicing are popular in the early morning and evening.  These areas play an important role in urban life and they should be studied further.


  • Proposed Sub-centers

The proposed sub-centers include West Harbin, Songbei and Baojianlu.


West Harbin Sub-center

The southwest area of the city is close to the Central Business District and on the road to the airport, so it is a new “gate” for the city. Two major developments and redevelopments have recently been planned by the city. One is the Qunli Development Zone, sitting between the Songhua River and the airport road, with an area of 26 km2. The Qunli area is on lower land and is flooded regularly. After the flood-control project has been completed, it will be a good site for urban use and several projects have already been targeted for this area. Yuanda, a high-quality residential community, has acquired land here. Last summer (2001), an international competition was launched for this community. No.3 High School, the best high school in Harbin, has selected this area as their new campus. Redevelopment of the Harxi Industrial Area will take place to the south of the airport road. Most industrial plants in this area will be removed to the fringe industrial park by the master plan for Harbin (1996). The original industrial sites will be redeveloped by the city for other urban uses.


This study suggests that the two areas should be integrated as strong components of the city. A public sub-center is therefore necessary to serve both sides. The proposed location of the public center is at the intersection of the airport road and second ring road, supported by an LRT station. The public space includes commercial, business, and public services. Visually, it will be a new “gate” for Harbin.


Songbei Sub-center

The development of Songbei New District (north of the Songhua River) has been hotly debated by the city in recent years. Several projects have already been built in this area: the Siberia Tiger Park, Harbin Zoo, Provincial Tech-science Hall, Municipal Economic, Cultural and Administrative Center and the Harbin College of Finance. In the winter, the Grand Ice and Snow World (a winter park) will move to Songbei New District.


Although the master plan for Songbei New District is still being determined, a sustainable new development is proposed. The public center of this district should be one of the sub-centers in the city. This study suggests that it is appropriate to place the public center on the north-south axis of the city, the extension of Jingwei Street and the waterfront.


Baojianlu Sub-center

In recent years, Baojianlu has become a focal point in the area, with corner stores, restaurants and a farmer’s market. It is located at the intersection of Xuefu Road and the second ring road, in between the South Railway Station area and the Hexinglu Sub-center. Its surroundings are mainly university and college communities. Its convenience and accessibility make it important as a public space. This area should be further studied and redesigned.


This chapter gives recommendations for public space at a city-wide level and especially in the Central Business District.  These recommendations are based on a knowledge of the city’s historic evolution and future growth. A surgical approach is necessary to solve some tough problems, such as the conflict between the railway and the city of Harbin. Superficial solutions do not solve the problems. Harbin has been changing rapidly in recent years so all the areas mentioned in this chapter should be studied in greater depth.  Changes should be monitored and workable solutions formulated to keep the city growing in a satisfactory, sustainable way.





Today, like most big cities in China, Harbin is experiencing rapid transition, urban renewal and massive development. Studies of urban structure are timely and strategically important.  Some issues have been raised in this Master’s Degree Project which potentially affect the future of Harbin. The project has concentrated primarily on issues of urban structure, providing a conceptual framework for current and future plans for the Central Business District.


Urban form is the consequence of historic, cultural, economical and technological influences. This study does not simply borrow fashionable ideas to apply to Harbin, but rather attempts to base its recommendations on a deeper understanding of the city.  Consideration is given to its evolution, its defining characteristics, its current issues and future development.


The study by B.A. Sandalack, and A. Nicolai (1998), “Halifax Urban Structure - an Urban Design Approach,” provides a basis for the methodology of this study. The project also integrates other theories of urban design that have particular relevance to studies of urban structure, such as figure-ground, linkage and place theories (Trancik,1996), and “The Image of the City” (Lynch, 1981). Precedents such as the restructuring of Philadelphia in the 1960s have also been studied.


An overall view of the city’s evolution, its character and critical issues is provided. As a regional center and a provincial capital city, the development of Harbin is firmly based on its geographical location, influenced by economic development and technological advancement. The building of the railway catalyzed its urban development. The planning paradigms from the Western world, such as neo-classical ideas and modern functionalism provided its basic form and still make an impact on its future development. The most critical issue in Harbin is the divisive nature of the railway.

This study recommends that the railway within the city should be changed to the LRT system while the railway goes through fringes of the city. Therefore, this will provide opportunities to reintegrate the CBD (Central Business District) including Daoli Commercial Core, Nangang Commercial Core and Railway Station Area. Sub-centers have also been studied, which are important nodes in the public space of the city. Some issues should be continued in further studies, such as open space system, transit oriented development and several areas identified in this project.


It is clear from the research undertaken for this project that Harbin contains the potential for a vital CBD and meaningful urban structure. Currently, Harbin is applying for 2010 Winter Olympic Game, which will promote future development of the city that an identifiable, effective urban structure is critical. It is hoped that Harbin has the political will and determination to continue the complicated, sometimes costly, process involved in realizing that potential.

[1] The Report of Redevelopment of the Harbin Railway Station Plaza, Harbin Institute of Urban Planning and Design, 2001

[2] Harbin Daily 10/24/2001


Data source:哈尔滨市城乡规划局 2009.07.07