The Beijing Olympics - Changing a city forever

Vancouver, Canada - Predictions of environmental calamity associated with the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games have come fast and furious of late: the city’s already-stressed water supply will fail; air pollution will hurt athletic performance; algae will clog the rowing venue; Beijing’s notorious traffic jams will turn the Olympic into a transportation nightmare; commerce and industry will shut down during the games to reduce air pollution; civil liberties will be curtailed as Chinese authorities seek to hide signs of urban poverty while foreigners are in town; and the ‘Green Games’ won’t really be green at all.

Many of these concerns may materialize into real problems - not that they have not occurred in other Olympic host cities. But they are insignificant in the wider tableau of what China is attempting to do using the 2008 Games as the focal point. Figuratively and literally, China is using its turn as host of the Olympics to turn Beijing into one of the 21st Century’s most advanced centres of culture, economic power and geo-political influence. In the process, China is reshaping its own national image.

Those familiar with Asia know China seldom does things by half measure, and preparations for the 2008 Olympics bear testament to this fact. Over 40 billion dollars have gone into creating Olympic venues that have pushed the outer bounds of design, functionality and architectural genius. Sustainability has been woven into the very fabric of each new facility, starting with the almost over-powering new Beijing airport, with the world’s largest international air terminal. Designed by renowned British architect Norman Foster and built in less than four years at a cost $3.8 billion, it can handle more than 50 million passengers.

As noted in the New York Times by architectural writer Nicolai Ouroussoff, it’s more than the grandeur of the facility that strikes awe, but the feeling one is passing into another world that has so deftly embraced change, it has left Western nations in the dust.

The same can be said of the brilliant and translucent National Aquatics Center and the new Olympic Stadium - the soaring ’Bird’s Nest’, which will surely become signature symbols of the new Beijing just as the Eiffel Tower in Paris and the Opera House in Sydney are inseparable from the names of their host cities.

But much more has gone into reshaping Beijing than these architectural monuments that stand out from the endless mile upon mile of hi-rise residential towers that house the worker bees of the new geopolitical center of Asia. As noted in an earlier article (Beijing Olympics - Propelling Sustainability), China is making tremendous efforts to place sustainability at the forefront of its Olympic agenda.

Despite the criticism levelled against the pace and scale of China’s preparations for next month’s extravaganza, the other environment-related undertakings that are transforming Beijing are as impressive as such icons as the Great Wall or the Forbidden City.

  • Three new subway lines and a new rail line were put into service this week at a cost of 3.2 billion dollars, adding 58 kilometres to Beijing’s already extensive subway system. This will reduce traffic gridlock on citystreets and improve air quality;

  • The city’s daily sewage treatment capacity has doubled to 2.5 million cubic meters since 2001. Nine new sewage disposal plants and 4,000 km of new sewers have been added to meet Beijing’s Olympic commitment to treat 90 percent of its waste water before the games began.

  • Four new water recycling plants and 350 km of distribution pipelines have been added to provide 960,000 cubic meters of recycled water a day (46%) of the treated water supply, in order to improve the water environment in the urban area.

  • More than half a million vehicles will be removed from the roads to calm traffic and reduce particulate matter emissions in the city during the games and older high emission vehicles have been retired or relocated. For a city that registers over 1,000 new motor vehicles a day, making any headway on this front is an achievement of note.

  • Also to improve Beijing’s notoriously foul air quality, officials have converted thousands of dirty coal-fired furnaces and boilers to cleaner low-sulphur coal or natural gas.

  • High emission factories have been shut down or relocated to the suburbs and funding to expand the use of clean and renewable energy sources has increased, with emphasis on clean coal technologies, wind and solar power, biomass and large scale, high-efficiency, clean power generation.

  • Solar, wind and geothermal power will be used on key Olympic venues and most Olympic-related buildings have been designed to LEED certification standards. The Olympic athletes’ center, for example, is a state-of-the-art near zero energy use building that incorporates advanced HVAC technologies, daylighting to reduce the use of electric lights, internal and external shades and energy-efficient windows to reduce solar heat gain, and solar photovoltaic panels to generate some of the electricity needed.

While extraordinary measures are always required to stage an event with the intensity and magnitude of the Olympic Games, their impact on overcoming Beijing’s legendary environmental problems will stand for decades.

For example, Beijing’s dwindling groundwater supply is a well documented problem that affects more than just the urban area that is home to the city’s 18 million people. The whole of northeast China, which borders on the great Gobi desert, is a water scarce environment.

The city’s chronic air quality problem - still 200% above WHO standards - has kept it near the top of the list of the world’s most polluted cities for decades. But visibility, which can be as low as a few hundred metres during the city’s pollution-laden misty July weather, has shown significant decreases in concentrations of all airborne pollutants in recent years due to stringent control measures.

That extraordinary measures such as cutting down traffic and industrial activity will be required to ensure blue skies in August is not news; it’s reality.

Also not news is the now infamous algal bloom that threatened a host of water sports. This is a natural phenomenon caused by hot and humid weather, the discharge of untreated sewage, agricultural run-off from excess use of fertilizers, and industrial pollution. It can happen anywhere.

What is news is the fact that Chinese authorities have acted to overcome these immediate problems, and on a larger scale, have raised environmental protection (and spending on environmental issues) to a level near the top of the government’s national priorities. The State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) has been transformed from a small department into one of the fastest growing administrations in the Chinese government.

Chinese industry has responded to the new priorities as well. The Global Wind Energy Council reports that 40 Chinese companies account for more than half of the new infrastructure capacity for wind turbines for the global market last year.

Other trend setting innovations underway in China include the creation of new environmentally sound "eco-cities". (See article Eco-Cities - Building Better Cities for the 21st Century). These are not short term changes, but the basis for a new standard of urban design in a nation known for its economic, social and political extremes.

The Olympics Games have been a catalyst for action and change, and at times an uncomfortable spotlight has been focused on the efforts of Chinese authorities to improve environmental quality to meet the goal of holding a Green Olympic event. Many wonder if the ‘green’ will last or whether the monuments built for this event will end up in disrepair like so many of the facilities built elsewhere for other Olympic events such as Athens or Montreal.

Not likely!

Apart from the nature of the infrastructure that has been put in place, which was designed for a life beyond 2008, allowing such icons to fall into disrepair is simply not the Chinese way. Indeed, the larger legacy of the 2008 Games is already cast in the bricks, mortar, and innovative technologies used to create a new metropolis within the ancient precincts of China’s capital.

Rather than criticizing China for its efforts, we should be learning from them, noted British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell during a recent mission to Beijing to open the BC-Canada 2008 Pavilion.  He noted also that British Columbia has world-leading expertise in green technology and green design and can make valuable contributions to help China’s burgeoning economy to become more sustainable and to reduce its footprint on the planet.

The 2008 Olympic Games will change Beijing forever and will help transform China’s world image in terms of culture, economic power and political relevance. And while the 2010 Winter Olympics in Whistler-Vancouver are not of the same scale, one can only hope that the vision shaping Vancouver’s post-2010 legacy is as far reaching and relevant as that which is remaking Beijing half a world away.

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