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Building a sustainable Beijing

Mark Harrison | 14 Mar 2016 | Comments

As a developing city, Beijing’s profile is shifting: it’s attracting more and more young professionals wanting to get ahead. As China’s political and cultural capital, it’s now home to 20 million people. So now is the time for Beijing’s authorities to take action if the city is to cope with its forecasted growth in population and jobs.

Beijing has a number of factors that further complicate its ambitions for managing effective growth, and improving quality of life for its residents. Its geographical location is one of them. Surrounded by hills, in summer it’s at the mercy of a sandstorm effect as winds whip up across the Gobi desert. Add to that its increasing problem of very poor air quality due to industrial and traffic pollution, and it’s easy to see why there has been a succession of recent public health scares.

As with London, the concentration of jobs in Beijing’s central hub is putting the city at risk, and it’s becoming a victim of its own success. As it attracts young, highly-skilled, and high-earning professionals – particularly around the downtown Guomao area – the density of employment is only adding to the city’s existing problems. Lack of available housing space, increased air pollution, a scarcity of green space for recreation or leisure – the list goes on.

So what’s the solution for building a sustainable Beijing?

Beijing’s authorities have already taken a number of innovative steps to improve air quality, such as alternating access for cars coming into its city centre according to number plates, and planting extensively around the city to create a green wall that has quite successfully alleviated the ferocity of the sandstorm effect. But Beijing needs to broaden its scope if it wants to cultivate a sustainable, pleasant city for its inhabitants to live and work in.

That’s why its authorities are looking at a ‘multi-core’ approach to planning for the city’s growth, similar to the ‘curated clusters’ model Atkins advises in our Future Proofing London report. By moving some government departments out to peripheral new towns, this model reduces the need for thousands of workers to drive into central Beijing. Simultaneously, in my view, Beijing must also keep up the momentum in making improvements to its developing public transport system for those who do have to commute, and it must continue to strengthen its traffic management controls. A good move could be in replicating London’s model of taxing city drivers with a congestion charge.

Where Beijing could really enhance life for its population, especially in the decentralised clusters, is to focus on mixed-use, energy efficient clusters planned around public transport hubs and with a high-quality public realm. Because areas that have space for offices and homes, must also have space for parks, trees and leisure activity. Why should Beijing let the car be king, when it has the opportunity now of designing the city differently?

Beijing’s streets have an important role to play. Look again at London: in 2003 £25 million was spent pedestrianising Trafalgar Square, transforming its fume-filled roundabout status to a new European-style piazza that now offers a safe, pleasant area away from the perils of traffic.

China is still a developing nation, but in my view that’s to its advantage. It has a golden opportunity now to design-in all those factors that will enhance quality of life for its residents for many years to come.