The ring roads of Moscow and Beijing

How urban road patterns inevitably affect our worldview

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Our cityscape often affects our worldview. They not only tell a story of the past, but also shape our present reality and behaviors for generations to come. Streets sometimes create “mental borders” that drive migration patterns, real estate prices, and our perception of what constitutes a pleasant neighborhood.

When I visit a new city, I notice its road patterns. As I walk around and observe my surroundings, I take mental note of where I am and how roads converge and diverge. In Moscow, when I zoomed out on the map, I immediately noticed the concentric circles of roads radiating from the center of the capital. It was surprising how orderly the roads were organized, reminding me of the rings of roads from my hometown, Beijing.

At the heart of Moscow lies the Kremlin and the Red Square, from which the city expands in several concentric rings. At the center of Beijing we find the Forbidden City and the Tiananmen Square. As we zoom out from the city center, we see a similar pattern of rings surrounding the old capital. These rings came from the past. Walls were built around the fortresses and palaces where nobilities and emperors resided. The first and second rings of both Moscow and Beijing then followed the contours of the ancient city walls centuries later.[1]

To redirect traffic from the city center, both cities kept the ringed structure and continued the construction of ring roads.[2] Moscow's Third Transport Ring (TKK) and The Moscow Automobile Ring Road (MKAD) are now important transportation corridors that envelop the city. Beijing completed its 7th ring with 1,000 kilometers (over 600 miles) in circumference to connect the surrounding economic zones of Tianjin and Hebei.[3]

These urban plans, amongst many things, reflect our similarities in culture. The rings not only serve as physical boundaries of the cities, they are also socioeconomic borders. They carry certain meanings as people use them to define social statuses. For example, those who own apartments inside the Garden Ring are said to be the richest and most successful people in Russia. Many also jokingly refer to the MKAD as the “border” between Moscow and the rest of Russia.

Image taken from МКАД CITY

Growing up in Beijing, the rings were part of our everyday life and were integrated into our everyday language. We would ride the subway route that is known as the 2nd Ring; we would tell others we “work just north of the 3rd Ring” and people know exactly what that means. Times I would recall the others refer to the area that I grew up in as “五环外“ (outside of the 5th Ring). It didn’t carry much meaning and yet, it marked the concept that there is an inside and an outside. 

When China invited designers from Russia for advice on city planning upon the formation of the country in the early 1950s, they borrowed the ring road idea (among the many things China learned from our "Big Brother").[4] Perhaps the notion of keeping the authority in the very center appealed to the leadership. It is "an expression of power of the ruling elite in physical space", as if the weight of the imperial palace appears to send ripples throughout the city, represented by the successive layers of ring roads.[5]

The capital as an expression of divine power (The Guardian)

The orderliness of these roads is perhaps a reflection of our cultural values. Ingrained in our culture is the idea of safety and protection, made visible in our design as we chose closed loops instead of open ones. Borrowing the words from my dad, "头脑禁锢跟这有这很大关系" (the imprisonment of the mind has a lot to do with this). We prefer to stick to a finite loop as opposed to being more open to change and innovation. A strict standardization on urban planning in turn affects our consciousness and limit our ability to break out of the loop as we continue to form mental models around our environment. 

Here in the States, streets also outline neighborhoods and mark mental boundaries. For example, Tribeca means Triangle Below Canal Street, a neighborhood that is known for its artists’ lofts and upscale residential area. North of Market and South of Market in San Francisco carry contrasting connotations. Market Street acts as a dividing line between the upper class of the north and the working class of the industrial south.[6]

Streets and our surroundings give social meaning to areas we’ve gotten to know. If we pause to reflect on the cityscape or townscape of the place we grew up, we might recognize mental borders that had defined, in one way or another, how we think and how we view the world.

Suggestions for further exploration --

  • In researching for writing this article, I stumbled upon the Future Architecture platform. They cover the ecosystem of cultural players in architecture and many ideas on the future of cities.

  • Here is a list of ring roads in the world.

  • I thought this was a well-written piece on the urban patterns of Beijing.

  • Question for the audience, do you know of another "ringed city"?

Some of the notable ring roads in the world that is comparable to Beijing's 5th Ring and Moscow's MKAD (roughly drawn to scale)

[1] Why Moscow has so many rings – and what you should know about them
[2] Even though the ring roads are built to reduce traffic volumes in the urban center by offering an alternative route around the city, they often resulted in congestion.
[3] Going round in circles
[4] Chinese architect Liang Sicheng at the time opposed the planning; he proposed to build the city on the west side to preserve the capital. The Chinese Cultural Revolution demolished most of the capital; if the traditional architecture from inside of the Second Ring of Beijing had been preserved, it would've been an unparalleled wonder of the world.
[5] Story of cities #4: Beijing and the earliest planning document in history
[6] Market Street: A history of dividing and uniting San Francisco

This article is written by me, Coco, a designtrepreneur that loves innovations in architecture and the built world.

There may be biases and inaccuracies; if you see anything you disagree with, would love to hear from you! Reach me @cocobliu

Always start at the center 🐾@Red Square, Moscow