August 28, 2005

Beijing's Quest for 2008: To Become Simply Livable

BEIJING, Aug. 27 - There is a placard beside Tiananmen Square that counts the days until the 2008 Summer Olympics, and every one of them would seem precious: Beijing must build or renovate 72 sports stadiums and training facilities, lay asphalt for 59 new roads and complete three new bridges by the opening ceremony.

It is a task that would overwhelm most cities, but Beijing is so efficient at pouring concrete that the International Olympic Committee has asked it to slow down rather than finish construction too soon. Far more difficult will be fulfilling Beijing's promise of playing host to a "green" Olympics as well as meeting a new goal in the city's revised master plan - to become "a city suitable for living."

"It's kind of a new concept for us," said Huang Yan, the well-regarded deputy director of the planning commission, when she announced the master plan in April. "We've never thought about this before."

For Beijing's 15.2 million inhabitants, that comment does not amount to much of a revelation. Beijing is clotted with gridlocked traffic as the number of cars has more than doubled in just six years. Air quality, after years of steady improvement, has leveled off recently in some categories and even worsened in others as Beijing continues to rank among the worst cities in the world for clean air. The city's water supply is so stressed that some experts have called for rationing.

Even with the daunting task of Olympic construction under way in the northern tier of the city, Beijing's troubleshooting mayor, Wang Qishan, has said his time is often dominated by non-Olympic concerns. In a speech early this year, Mr. Wang said he was besieged with public complaints, and "the hot topics are always rubbish, sewage, public toilets and traffic." The city has thousands of old and fetid public toilets that it is hurriedly trying to replace.

"Wherever I look," he said, according to the government's official English-language newspaper, China Daily, "there seem to be problems." He said the only person who did not complain to him was his wife.

It is uncertain whether Beijing's theoretical embrace of "livability" can be translated into real improvements in quality of life in a city that often feels like one enormous construction zone. (The city has roughly 8,000 construction sites.)

Critics are skeptical. They attribute Beijing's current predicament to previous failed planning policies and blame the government for the rampant development that has destroyed much of the historic old city while making a mess of the emerging new one.

"Bad planning over the past decades has already become a point of embarrassment for the city," said Wang Jun, whose best-selling book, "The Story of a City," documented the demolition of many of the city's old "hutong" neighborhoods, the ancient, densely populated enclaves of narrow, winding streets and crumbling courtyard homes.

Mr. Wang said Beijing never recovered from the 1950's, when Liang Sicheng, the country's pre-eminent architectural historian, warned that destroying the hutongs would lead to traffic and pollution and urged Mao to preserve Beijing's ancient city walls. Instead, Mao demolished them as a symbol of Chinese feudalism.

More recently, the hutongs have been steadily demolished, dislocating untold thousands of people, to make room for the thousands of development projects swallowing the city.

"Now, his predictions have come true," Mr. Wang said of the pollution and traffic.

The unrelenting pressure bearing down on Beijing and other Chinese cities is the influx of people. China is in the midst of one of the fastest periods of urbanization in history, with 300 million people expected to migrate to cities in the next 15 years.

The population of Beijing alone could surpass 21 million by 2020 if its growth continues at today's rate.

Ms. Huang said planners had been forced to rethink their priorities. Beijing actually encompasses a vast geographic area, much of it mountainous and dotted with rural villages.

The new master plan calls for creating suburban satellite towns to ease the population pressures on the city's center. Manufacturing, for example, would be clustered in the east, while high technology would be in the west. Ms. Huang said the city's limited access to water and the nationwide shortage of energy meant that smarter planning was now essential.

"In the past, we never thought of the capacity of resources," she said. "We only focused on development."

The ruling Communist Party considers the Olympics to be modern China's coming-out party to the rest of the world, and all of Beijing is looking toward 2008. The government has stipulated that major construction projects in the city be completed several months before the opening ceremony. The Olympic venues will be finished by the end of 2007.

But it is not clear whether Beijing will be able to meet the goals attached to its "green" Olympics promise. Already officials have committed to moving out some factories and closing others. Thousands of heavy polluting trucks and taxis have been replaced with vehicles that meet tougher fuel restrictions.

Last year, city officials rejoiced when Beijing met, albeit barely, its goal of 227 so-called Blue Sky days based on levels of three primary pollutants in the air.

But some residents were so skeptical that they accused officials of manipulating data. A recent report by the environmental office of the United States Embassy in Beijing acknowledged the increase in Blue Sky days but noted that the standard used is less stringent than in the United States. The report found that the number of days with "extremely unhealthy pollution levels" had jumped to 17 from 5 and that the overall pollution index had risen for the year.

The report also found that levels of particulate matter in the air were several times that of major American cities and cautioned that Beijing might not meet its goal of complying with World Health Organization air quality standards by 2008.

The spike in private automobiles - the number is now approaching three million - detracts from gains made by reining in polluting trucks and taxis. Private cars increasingly seem to be overwhelming the city, and officials are responding with a flurry of road building, even as subway lines and light rail are also being expanded. "It's basically using the Los Angeles model to solve the problems of New York," said Wang Jun, the author.

Los Angeles, of course, might provide a bit of inspiration for Beijing, having markedly reduced its air pollution levels.

Even now, there are moments when the pollution abates and Beijing is revealed for what it could be. In August, after a stretch of heavy rain, the sky was blue by any measure and the jagged mountains circling the city were on clear display.

But those days are rare. Not far from Tiananmen Square, the city's planning department offers a glimpse of what it hopes Beijing will look like by 2008, with a dazzling scale model: the business district is a sleek cluster of futuristic towers; the Olympic complex rises elegantly in the north, surrounded by green space; the ancient Forbidden City lies at the center.

It all seems orderly, even manageable, but perhaps that is because of a notable omission: the model has almost no people or cars.