Locking up nature: gated communities in Beijing

There was plenty of red to go around in my previous posts examining the discourse surrounding the introduction of rhus typhina for the Beijing Olympics. This time round, let us look at shades of green in the city through the issue of greenspace access.

The promises of gated communities

In Beijing, gated communities abound (Dou 2008). These are ‘residential areas with restricted access, such that spaces normally considered public have been private[s]ed. Physical barriers—walled or fenced perimeters—and gated or guarded entrances control access’ (Blakely 2007: 475). Gated communities in urban China developed as the country moved in the direction of a socialist market economy in the 1980s. Housing reform promoted the flourishing of residential property markets, which in turn gave rise to the introduction of property management companies that would manage private estates in return for service fees. Gated communities thus emerged to allow these companies to delineate the boundaries of the areas they managed (Xu and Yang 2009).

Today, many gated communities are targeted towards the wealthy and middle class, and are marketed as providing the ‘urban good life’ (Pow and Kong 2007: 138) that many aspire towards. Other than benefits such as enhanced security, developers often highlight the abundance of lush greenery in the estate as a luxury exclusive to residents, against a backdrop of limited greenspace as a result of urbanisation (Staub and Yu 2014).

A green paradise: Canal Bank, a luxury gated community located in Tongzhou District in the east of Beijing. 20 acres of its 84-acre compound is forest, some of which are 100-year-old trees. Prices are remarkably high: some units are going for 500000000 yuan (~£56.7 million)! (Source: X)
Probably more affordable than Canal Bank: greenery in gated communities in Haidian District. Many are superblocks with individual estate management arrangements. (Source: Hamama and Liu 2020: 9)

The benefits that greenspace access brings for physical and mental health have been well-documented.

This short but informative video from the Barcelona Institute for Global Health explains benefits of greenspace and argues for the increased provision of greenery in cities.

Gated communities, however, enclose urban greenspace behind walls and put a price on access to nature, which is conventionally under the domain of public infrastructure (e.g. in the form of public parks) (Blakely 2007). In what Colding et al. (2020: 8) term the ‘commodification of commons’, access to greenspace can now be bought, which puts some of it out of the public domain. Exclusion of non-payers is enforced by walls, fences, and security guards. The denial of access to those who are unable to afford it represents a method of ‘maintain[ing] control over space’ (Alkan-Gökler 2017: 690), which produces an artificially scarce nature (in economic terms, a club good) (Pow 2009: 215). UPE contextualises this as a result of socio-economic forces driven by a combination of capitalist systems and individual desires (Heynen, Perkins, and Roy 2006; Heynen and Robbins 2005) that cater to the aspirations of the well-off at a cost to those with less purchasing power (Swyngedouw 2004a, cited in Heynen, Kaika, and Swyngedouw 2006). What can result, then, is an urban terrain fraught with unequal access to urban greenspace and its corresponding benefits.

Returning urban greenspace to the public

Change in urban greenspace provision to increase equality of access has begun: in 2016, Beijing’s Municipal Commission of Planning announced that there would not be construction of gated residential communities in the city’s sub-centres in the future, as part of the nation’s 13th Five Year Plan. On top of that, there are plans to develop waterfront green spaces which will be completely open to the public, so as to allow 85% of residents to live within 200m of a park. This signals a transformation of the ‘power geometries’ (Heynen, Kaika, and Swyngedouw 2006: 12) that influence access to greenspace in Beijing, with the city’s government and urban planners playing an increasingly active role in ensuring sufficient public access to greenspace, as well as limiting the power of property developers to fence off residential compounds. UPE can help contextualise this as a process of socio-political mediation, with urban planning policy the tool used by the city’s officials to re-negotiate the power asymmetries and resultant arrangements that determine access to greenspace, and therefore the nature that is experienced by Beijing’s inhabitants (Heynen, Kaika, and Swyngedouw 2006). While it may take some time before residents of gated communities give the nod to the opening of their gates, the move to increase provision of publicly-accessible greenspace in Beijing is an encouraging move towards having more equal access to urban nature, ‘an essential’ often treated as ‘an amenity’. In this, we find inspiration for urban planners to design cities with plenty of open spaces, offering everyone an experience of the ‘urban good life’ (Pow and Kong 2007: 138).

List of References

Alkan-Gökler, L. (2017) ‘Gated communities in Ankara: are they a tool of social segregation?’, International Journal of Housing Markets and Analysis, 10, 5, 687-702.

Blakely, E.J. (2007) ‘Guest editor’s introduction: Gated communities for a frayed and afraid world’, Housing Policy Debate, 18, 3, 475-480.

Colding, J., Gren, Å., and Barthel, S. (2020) ‘The Incremental Demise of Urban Green Spaces’, Land, 9, 5, 162.

Dou, Q. (2008) ‘Change and continuity: A morphological investigation of the creation of gated communities in post-reform Beijing’, presented at International Planning History Society 13th Biennial Conference: Public Versus Private Planning: Themes, Trends and Tensions, Chicago, USA. 

Hamama, B. and Liu, J. (2020) ‘What is beyond the edges? Gated communities and their role in China’s desire for harmonious cities’, City, Territory and Architecture, 7, 13.

Heynen, N. and Robbins, P. (2005) ‘The neoliberalization of nature: Governance, privatization, enclosure and valuation’, Capitalism Nature Socialism, 16, 1, 5-8.

Heynen, N., Kaika, M., and Swyngedouw, E. (2006) ‘Urban political ecology: Politicizing the production of urban natures’, in Heynen, N., Kaika, M., and Swyngedouw, E. (eds) In the Nature of Cities, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 1-19.

Heynen, N., Perkins, H.A., and Roy, P. (2006) ‘The Political Ecology of Uneven Urban Green Space: The Impact of Political Economy on Race and Ethnicity in Producing Environmental Inequality in Milwaukee’, Urban Affairs Review, 42, 1, 3-25.

Pow, C. (2009) ‘Public intervention, private aspiration: Gated communities and the condominisation of housing landscapes in Singapore’, Asia Pacific Viewpoint, 50, 2, 215-227.

Pow, C. and Kong, L. (2007) ‘Marketing the Chinese Dream Home: Gated Communities and Representations of the Good Life in (Post-)Socialist Shanghai’, Urban Geography, 28, 2, 129-159.

Staub, A. and Yu, Q. (2014) ‘The “New” Gated Housing Communities in China: Implications for Urban Identity’, 2014: Beyond Architecture: New Intersections & Connections, ARCC Conference Repository.

Xu, M. and Yang, Z. (2009) ‘Design history of China’s gated cities and neighbourhoods: Prototype and evolution’, URBAN DESIGN International, 14, 99-117.

3 thoughts on “Locking up nature: gated communities in Beijing

  1. I had never heard of the gated communities in Beijing and found this incredibly interesting! The link between UPE and the”commodification of the commons” was clearly shown by the images of private greenspace. Furthermore, the video on the benefits of green spaces was really insightful, I wonder if you have an opinion on which is the most significant reason for urban planners to promote open spaces?


  2. Hi! A truly fascinating read with great insights into the problem! The story of gated communities in Beijing and a lack of public access to nature within the city’s premises reminds me very much of a situation in Mumbai. There, due to such urban problems as gentrification, poor waste management and overpopulation, the public spaces once available to people from all social strata have suffered greatly. A solution for the rich, just like in Beijing, has been the development of gated communities. The situation in Mumbai and urban problems mentioned earlier are clearly showed in a film “Slumdog Millionaire” and discussed in an academic reading ‘Architecture and Urbanism in “Slumdog Millionaire”: From Bombay to Mumbai’ by Baweja, V. (2015) – both of which I highly recommend!


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