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The 2008 Summer Olympics will punctuate three decades of development and test China's global legitimacy. They've already transformed the way millions of people think and live. Seattleite and Fulbright researcher Daniel Beekman brings you Beijing.

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July 24, 2008 4:22 AM

Beijing 2008 Q&A: Neville Mars

Posted by Daniel Beekman

Less than one month before the 2008 Olympic Games, a spate of publications have weighed in on Beijing's architectural transformation - the city's fantastic new skyline.

The New York Times, The Architectural Record, The Guardian, Spiked, The Wall Street Journal, NPR, Vanity Fair...the list goes on.

In 2001, after winning the right to host China's first Olympics, Beijing disappeared into a cloud of construction dust. It will emerge this August completely changed - a looming, muscular mass of concrete, steel and innovation.

From squat imperial village, to socialist stage, to global metropolis, Beijing certainly grown. Nearly 18 million people call the municipality home, a third of them migrants from China's countryside.

From the backseat of a Lincoln Town car or the window seat of an Air China jet, Beijing looks magnificent. It's 'Bird's Nest' (National Stadium) and 'Water Cube' (National Aquatics Center) will dazzle curious Olympic audiences.

So will Rem Koolhas' puzzling CCTV Center. Four impressive new subway lines snake out from inner Beijing, servicing the capital's sprawling suburbs, as do countless highways.

But according to Neville Mars, Dutch architect and chairman of the Dynamic City Foundation, Beijing's exceptional Olympic environment is synthetic, the capital itself doomed.

Hailing from the Netherlands' Delft Technical University, Mars moved to China four years ago. His foundation, Dynamic City, is an international urban research and development platform; his goal is to combat the 'build now, plan later' attitude driving Chinese development.

(Note: Check out Dynamic City's website for more information on the foundation and Mars' book The Chinese Dream.)

Mars, 32, agreed to answer a few questions for Blogging Beijing.

How did you end up in China?

I was trained as an architect in Holland, where I set up a small architecture research company, planning small projects. Then one day I came across an article online; it said that China wanted to build 400 new cities by 2020. That ambition triggered something in me.

Something had been missing for me in Holland. I wanted the chance to do really large-scale research on high-speed urbanization; rather than focus on the glitziest new buildings, I wanted to explore the direct and profound relationship between building environments and the way societies are shaping.

I started calling around for specialists who knew China - specialists in a whole range of subjects, from architecture to engineering. We built a team, raised funds for a year in Holland. When we got the green light we moved our foundation to China. That was in 2004.

How did the Dynamic City project evolve?

For four years, we basically had a big studio research space in 798 (a sprawling neo-industrial artists' commune north of Beijing). Most of the foreigners on our team have finished and moved home. Our book was published. We joined forces with firms here that do 3-D renderings and are now busy trying to construct some buildings.

Our approach is unique - we've made a huge effort to combine in-depth research with realistic proposals and designs. Most foundations/companies are either too scholarly or produce plans lacking research base. A handful of people in Asia do more wishful, utopian artistic projects. We're somewhere in between. Although we've come up with some fairly crazy schemes, we take into account what's happening on the ground in China's market and what might happen if we don't act now to modify urbanization.

Right now in China, people are too busy cashing in on this economic monster to think about what is actually desirable for the future. It's a serious problem. We're responding ad hoc to existing needs; this can't deliver sustainability. And when I say sustainability, I don't even mean 'going green. That's almost too ambitious. I only mean providing Chinese people with living environments that can suffice for more than on generation.

So, what does Dynamic City recommend?

What we're suggesting is an integrated solution that accounts for five levels of environment, five level of policy - individual, block, city, region and nation.

The 'fortification' of housing - gated communities - is a huge problem in Beijing. People always tell me that China has a long tradition of building walled cities and courtyards...5,000 years.

And that was extremely effective for a long time. But now, more than some people like to acknowledge, China must adhere to a market reality. Those building residential spaces must respond to the needs of customers. The original 'gated block' model no longer fits when individuals possess voting power by way of their wallets.

It's funny, because the Chinese market today suggests that people wanted walled communities. Perhaps for the short term, that's true. But Beijing will soon have to find how to provide quality living not just on a block-by-block basis but also at the citywide level. That means alleviating traffic, making the air breathable. If you want to achieve quality at the citywide level, you need to think of the city as a collection of buildings, rather than a bunch of isolated blocks.

Instead of building in grids, Beijing is building closed bubbles. Politically, these make sense. They are easy to manage, easy to define. But from an infrastructural standpoint, they are horrific. You have one entry and one exit. You create bottlenecks. Like in have the same amount of roads as before, just enclosed. It's so inefficient. The only people using those roads are the people on their way from Dashanzi to work, or on their way home.

In terms of planning and design, what is Beijing doing well?

I like to point out - to a Western audience - things that the Chinese are doing well - things we in Europe and the United States should consider learning from. What Beijing has always had going for it is density and a very compact center - less so since 2005.

This means that you can offer the city public transport and other services easier. In fact, Beijing is rapidly losing its density to the suburbs. But there are heartening examples. Even in the city's suburbs, the types of buildings and compounds going up are extremely dense.

Take Tiantongyuan (a high-rise development north of Beijing constructed along Subway Line 5). A neighborhood of half a million people has emerged out of nowhere, its growth facilitated by mass transportation. This is what cities should be trying to achieve everywhere. It proves we need to look at suburbanization in a different context. In the West we're scared of suburbanization because to us it means sprawl. But Tiantongyuan shows that classic sprawl can quickly rejuvenate itself into healthy city tissue.

How and why is suburbanization happening in Beijing?

The city is fragmenting...on two levels. Beijing as a whole is fragmenting at its periphery, as the suburbs grow. And central Beijing is fragmenting as well, cut up by giant highways.

Beijing has always been a purely mono-centric city, with concentric rings emanating from a dense center. Mono-centric cities are much more efficient than polycentric cities, with multiple hubs. Naturally, when a mono-centric city grows beyond 5 million people, it begins to fall apart. You can plan for that, or you can watch it happen. Beijing has watched it happen.

Instead of developing a strategy for the future, Beijing policy makers continue to wait...then make retroactive decisions. Back in 1952, planners here proposed that the city, already growing, construct suburban satellites - the idea being that your satellite communities eventually expand and fuse together.

First, 40 satellites were recommended. The government failed to act. Now suburban satellites ring Beijing haphazardly. Planners here have latched onto the 'satellite city' concept again, but only after the fact. It's too late. We call this 'post-planning.'

Who are the players in Beijing urban planning and development?

That's a good question. There's a long answer and a short answer.

The short answer is...well, I can say who should be involved - four parties: government, developers, designers and users. These four should form a closed loop. There should be full dialogue. It's not so efficient for quick decisions, but it ensures that what's built meets the city's needs.

If you were going to be crude, you might say that in China two of these four parties don't participate at all: the designers and the users. The government and developers fill all four roles, ambiguously, between them. The government is often developer and policy maker all at once. Or the government and developers are one and the same. It's one guy with two hats or two guys with one hat.

The reason why China can develop urban space so quickly is that the government can shift gears between public and private functions in a flash.

The long answer is...well, there's a long and detailed chain of command, which involves state-sponsored design institutes etc. In a way, who does and decides what is very clearly spelled out. But there is no real mechanism for working together, so you get departments and institutes vying for power and protecting their turf.

One thing I will say is that the top levels of government are really quite aware of the planning and design problems that exist in Beijing and other Chinese cities. They are aware on a sophisticated level. For instance, in our book I quote the mayor of Beijing saying that his city suffers from a disconnect between real estate development and infrastructural development. He really understands what's going on.

But China's top policy-makers have trouble forming progressive strategies to tackle these problems and have even more trouble implementing those strategies. In China, mid-level politics is really the jawbreaker. It's a bit sad but true.

And understanding is not the same as solving. Many of the urban planning policies in place today are counterproductive. For example, Beijing practices 'policy sprawl.' The term has a double meaning. First, there are so many rules and regulations it's impossible for anyone to adhere to all of them. Second, those rules and regulations, which are supposed to prevent sprawl, encourage sprawl.

How do policies in place encourage unhealthy sprawl?

China's hukou (residence) system (see "We're proud of Beijing" on Blogging Beijing) is at the heart of this problem. The country is still very divided between people who are urban citizens and people who are rural citizens. This completely contradicts reality. In reality, there is no more city vs. countryside, only a blur. The system bans people from moving to urban areas. The idea is to prevent the growth of slums around China's big cities.

In a way, the hukou system has worked. Suburban slums don't exist in China to the same extent as they do in other countries. But the secret truth is that the whole Chinese countryside is undergoing suburbanization; the whole countryside is becoming an enormous suburban slum. And this is leading to an ecological catastrophe.

Is 'Old Beijing' in danger? How and why is 'Old Beijing' disappearing?

There are a lot of contradictory forces at work in 'Old Beijing' - same as everywhere. Much of it is officially protected and there are incentives in place that encourage preservation. Some people are receiving state money to renovate buildings using traditional materials and techniques etc.

But at the same time, the edges of the hutong (see "Heart of the city" on Blogging Beijing) are still being eaten away at a dramatic rate. For someone like me, who is involved in the future of Beijing and on new urbanization, 'Old Beijing' is a sticky situation and a bit of quagmire.

So, how to deal with the old city? One surefire way to take pressure off 'Old Beijing' is to offer Beijingers a healthy new city. Unfortunately, at the moment, 'Old Beijing' remains part of the city's urban plans for the future.

The reasoning currently being applied to 'Old Beijing' is simply horrible. The planners are saying 'the old city is congested with people and cars, so what we have to do is move people out to the suburbs.'

But this has a negative effect. You're moving people, few of whom own cars and most of whom lived very efficiently together in Beijing's historic core with no transportation needs, outside the city where suddenly they begin driving cars and traveling long distances to shop, work etc.

In their place you are raising towers and laying down roads. You are decongesting 'Old Beijing' when to be efficient it should remain as densely populated as possible. The only way to fix the old city's problems without disrupting what's right is to move public administration beyond the third or fourth ring. There are 400-some government structures in 'Old Beijing' sucking in thousands of bureaucrats who drive black Audis. Of course, this will never happen.

How have the 2008 Olympic Games fit into Beiijing's urban plans?

The Games are just a mammoth example of the city's general approach to urban planning - that is, the 'stepping stone' approach. The idea is to realize a large, quality project very quickly...and then wait for the areas nearby to follow.

The reality is these projects don't really work as stepping-stones - they remain islands, unconnected to the urban fabric. The ideal scenario would be for these giant monoliths, like the Bird's Nest or Water Cube, to be part of living city tissue, embedded within real communities where people can walk past and through them.

But in Beijing, these Olympic monoliths are highway-oriented and strangely conceived. I'm in favor of infusing these structures with Chinese identity. But the idea that a round stadium (Bird's Nest) and a square swimming pool (Water Cube) fixed to Beijing's ancient north-south axis makes the 2008 Games Chinese? Please.

The axis is completely invisible if you're a user. You can't even walk along the axis. Plus, Chinese traditional philosophy emphasizes working with, not against, nature. Beijing's Olympic Green is the most egregiously exploded landscape I've ever seen. It's a desert. I like the Water Cube - it's a beautiful building. But why not impregnate it in within the real city.

The Olympic planning has been driven by fear of people congregating - to party or revolt or whatever. There's no incentive to create breathing public space. In Beijing, public space is only for pushing through more cars.

What will Beijing look like in ten years?

I think it will boast an extremely flashy center and some slightly livable areas - exceptions to the rule and pricey exceptions at that. The rest of the city will look nice as long as you're not stuck in traffic. the middle of the night.

How does Beijing's water shortage affect urban planning?

Water availability should be a big part of planning here, because you need to give people clean water. It was predicted that once Beijing reached 18 million people, it couldn't give them clean water. Beijing has reached 18 million people.

But now there are water pipelines running into Beijing from the south. Beijing is an artificial environment; the 2008 Olympics will be artificial as well. Financial and natural resources have been drained from other areas of the country. Even Beijing's air will be fake - factories which have nothing to do with the city's economy are shut down.

Planners don't need to consider Beijing's water shortage anymore. The city has already missed that opportunity. Now the people who have to worry are in the south.

Interactive map of Beijing/China - follow up on posts and get oriented:



'In Beijing, a cop for every five visitors'

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'Beijing cracks down on fake guns for Games security'

'Beijing hires Catholic priests for more Games masses'

'Eight fierce rivalries sure to heat up the Beijing Summer Games'

'Beijing hotels snip rates as Olympics demand falls'

'Bush wishes U.S. Olympians good luck at Beijing Olympics'

'Beijing has first workday under car restrictions'

'Beijing's Special Corrections Operation'

'The Fuwa That Were Not

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