52% of Beijing’s residents live in suburban-like areas

Beijing has grown to over 21 million residents but more than half live beyond 12 miles of the city center:

More than half of Beijing’s 21.5 million residents live outside the Fifth Ring Road, a beltway built in the early 2000s that traces a circle roughly 12 miles in diameter around the city, the Beijing Municipal Statistics Bureau said Thursday. Nearly 52% of the city’s roughly 8.2 million migrants—who lack local household registration, or hukou—are suburban dwellers.

The data mark the first time Beijing authorities have mapped the distribution of residents with reference to its six ring roads (a seventh is under construction), numbered progressively as they radiate from the city center. Experts say the numbers highlight the uneven spread of public services—typically clustered in the capital’s central areas—and reflect socioeconomic realities faced by low-income rural migrants.

The clustering of residents on Beijing’s outer fringes will become more pronounced over the coming years, as the city center has limited capacity for accommodating further population growth, Song Yueping, an associate professor at Renmin University’s School of Sociology and Population Studies, told the Beijing Times. Furthermore, new arrivals from outside the capital typically earn less and can only afford cheaper suburban housing, the newspaper quoted her as saying.

This sounds remarkably similar to recent stories about the difficulties in providing social services or mass transit in the American suburbs. Several other thoughts:

1. Many big cities in developing countries are sprawling. They may not stretch to 40-60 miles out like the biggest American cities but the rapid growth of new developments (whether funded by the government or through shantytowns) has to go somewhere.

2. If this followed the pattern of American development, we might expect to see new “urban” centers pop up in the suburbs, revolving around clusters of businesses and jobs as well as denser pockets of residential development.

3. The fact that the population can be so easily measured by the ring roads is interesting in itself. This suggests central planning that can keep putting in the ring roads. But, such roads might also help encourage sprawl along these roads as well as potentially lead to heavy traffic. Additionally, the ring roads likely serve as physical and social markers to differentiate sections of the city.

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