Beijing becoming a ‘livable city’? You betcha, says Chinese planner with state ties

Members of the Beijing Municipal Institute of City Planning and Design are helping the massive city cope with numerous urban challenges. From left are Liu Yamin, Zhou Xuemei, Ma Liangwei, Gui Lin and Chen Pengbo.
MinnPost photo by Jay Weiner
Members of the Beijing Municipal Institute of City Planning and Design are helping the massive city cope with numerous urban challenges. From left are Liu Yamin, Zhou Xuemei, Ma Liangwei, Gui Lin and Chen Pengbo.

BEIJING — The notion that there is a city planning department in Beijing is more than a little bit surprising.

This was planned?

To the visitor’s eye, there is traffic beyond belief. Stand-still-honking-horn-squeeze-past-other-cars-gingerly traffic. And Olympic traffic with its odd/even restrictions is, presumably, half as bad as usual.

The city is dense. Subway cars are always bulging with people.

Yet, somehow, it is sprawling. It contains 6,900 square miles, or it’s about 100 times larger in area than the city of Minneapolis. It includes eight distinct mini-cities and another 10 suburban regions in its orbit.

Getting from one end of Beijing to the other in a taxi at 3 in the afternoon is an hour-long proposition. Getting from a central part of the city to the north and the Olympic facilities on public transit is a 45-minute commitment.

This city of 16 million still doesn’t supply drinkable water to its residents.

There are horror stories about Beijing’s and China’s pollution output. The scariest was reported by Mother Jones last December.

Last June, James Fallows of The Atlantic sounded a more optimistic note.

Yes, he said, Beijing is one of the world’s least livable cities and, yes, China is extremely polluted. But even the government knows it’s bad, and innovative solutions are under way.

So, there is the Beijing Municipal Institute of Planning and Design.

It helped put together the Olympic Green, that 4-square-mile zone of stadiums, arenas, athlete housing and media centers, everything on the massive scale the Chinese seem to embrace. Every building makes a person feel very small. It has helped develop a long-term plan for the city.

The Institute’s deputy director is a warm man with a friendly sense of humor named Ma Liangwei. Small world that we live in, Ma, 46, was once a visiting student at the University of Minnesota’s China Center and took classes at the Carlson School of Management and the ‘U’ law school.

Wouldn’t you know.

In a conference room high above Beijing — with the sky a humid white outside — Ma and engineers on his staff told me about how Beijing is transforming itself into a modern and, even, environmentally sensitive city.

We can all laugh, what with that traffic and that haze, but it’s fair to say Beijing is trying. Dare I say, on some fronts, it seems to be doing a bit better than the Twin Cities.

Since 1998, rail lines have increased from about 18 miles in 1998 to 120 miles today. Senior engineer Chen Pengbo told me that by 2020, Beijing hopes to construct an additional 300 miles of subways and rail lines, more than doubling today’s capacity.

Ma, Chen and senior planner Gui Lin insisted that Beijing’s long-term plan was hatched before the Olympics were awarded in 2001. They said that the massive $40 billion of improvements in infrastructure, including a spanking new airport in the run-up to the Games, would have happened anyway. That was hard to believe, and I told them so.

But a couple of facts are encouraging, while others are alarming. Coal burning has been significantly reduced for home heating. Natural gas is the developing method. Windmills exist in Beijing and are beginning to produce some electricity. Recycling bins are all over town. Bike paths are part of every new street built for the Olympics. The old scenes of thousands of bikes on Beijing’s streets are ancient history, but in certain parts of town, bike riders are everywhere.

Still, water is in short supply, and a pipeline has been built to bring in water from 600 miles to the south. That can’t be good long-term.

In the end, the pollution story that dominated pre-Olympic news coverage hasn’t been a big deal. Athletes aren’t complaining about the air, and journalists with asthma tell me they haven’t been affected at all by the atmosphere. It feels dirty and stifling, but it’s not choking.

I asked the planning institute folks their opinion of the pollution and its impact on their lives.

Gui Lin looked out the window.

“We have no choice,” said the city planner.

Everyone laughed, a bit nervously.

Mutual slang lessons
After their formal presentation, we retired to the Institute’s dining room for a lunchtime feast. Ma’s English is quite good. The others’ English ranged from shyly non-existent to OK.

My Mandarin consists of about four words.

Through Ma’s translations, we began to share colloquialisms and slang. It was fun.

It began with their explanation of the signature facilities on the Olympic Green, the Bird’s Nest stadium and the Water Cube swimming hall.

According to official documents, those two facilities represent an old Chinese belief that “the sky is round and the Earth is square … It caters to the Chinese spirit of the unity of the universe and humans.”

Sky round. Earth square. I had never heard of that concept.

But, if you’re watching on TV, the outdoor Bird’s Nest has a round opening to the heavens. The indoor Water Cube is about as square as a building can get.

“The Water Cube stands for Earth,” said Ma, “the Bird’s Nest for heaven.”

Round is masculine. Square is feminine. It was a lovely expression that caused me to think a little bit as I munched on the dumplings and steamed buns.

As I fiddled with my chopsticks, I asked if, with all the new subway lines, people were actually using them and keeping their cars at home.

Gui, the city planner, said yes, for sure. She said she was a good example. When the new lines came on board recently, she stopped driving and hopped on the train.

“We are changing our lifestyle,” she said.

“Wow,” I said. “You’re walking the talk.”

Quizzical looks came across everyone’s face as they repeated to themselves, “Wark that ark … Wark tha tark.”

“How about, ‘Practice what you preach?’ Have you heard that?”

“No,” four others in the room said in unison.

“You’re doing what you’re telling others to do,” I explained to Gui. “It’s your job, and you’re following your own advice. You’re walking the talk.”

She liked the notion. She understood it. “Wawk …  the … tawk,” Ma and Gui said, repeating my accent, as if the rain in Spain were mainly on the plain.

Then, we were on a roll.

Ma wondered if I’d ever heard the Chinese expression, “The winner is king, the loser is the thief.”

I hadn’t. And I still don’t get it.

I asked him, if he’d heard of, “All’s well that ends well.” I explained that it could apply to the Olympics in Beijing.

He said he hadn’t.

He told me that when he spent his four months in Minnesota in 2002, he learned the expression, “Let your fingers do the walking.” Had I heard of that?

Everyone laughed.

The planners and the engineers were still figuring out “walking the talk” when it was time for all of us to get back to work — they to address Beijing’s booming and challenging future, me to watch somebody in short pants do something sweaty.

As I departed, I shook hands with Ma Liangwei.

“Thank you very much,” I said to Ma. “Xie, xie,” I said, in my best Mandarin.

“You’re welcome,” Ma said, before stopping himself short. “In Minnesota, you say something else.”

“Yes?” I wondered.

“You betcha.”

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by william mcgrann on 08/21/2008 - 11:41 am.

    Jay…your article on the Bejing city planners was just excellent. One gets the sense, through your wonderful writing, of how proud and excited these Chinese officials are about their work. Yet, you also convey how they understand the tremendous challenges they face. You are, without question, a great journalist but also a goodwill ambassador and a model American to these people. Congratulations!

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