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Urban Creative Culture, Air Quality and the Tragedy of Beijing


Like many foreign travelers and working expats who arrive to China, Beijing was my first port of entry into the country. Leaving Capital Airport I was struck by the massive scale of the city, overwhelmed by the repetitive concrete towers standing like regimented rows of soldiers in the skyline. Beijing’s urban form is undoubtedly inspired by the Soviet-era tendency towards grandiose urban planning schemes, but as I would come to learn the story on the ground painted a different, much more vibrant picture of urban life.

Beijing is not a city that one can fully appreciate in the matter of just a few days visiting the famous historical sites. In the space between gigantic attractions like The Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, and Summer Palace, a modern grassroots culture thrives. Underground rock clubs, artist studios and independent coffee shops coexist in what’s left of old hutong neighborhoods as well as reclaimed industrial spaces on the periphery of the city center.

The notion of a burgeoning arts scene would seem to run counter to what many outside China still think of the city: that is, the seat of an oppressive Communist government devoted to quashing all personal freedoms. Although Chairman Mao’s portrait still looks ominously over Tiananmen Square, the perception of Beijing as a cultural desert couldn’t be further from the truth.

Arts and culture are engrained in the city’s urban DNA. Beijingers are rightly proud of their city’s long history as a cultural center, and its young creative residents continue that tradition today. Just as the infinite looping ring roads that surround the city conjure up images of Ouroboros (the serpent eating its own tail), so is the city itself in constant cyclical reinvention mode. The tremendous social and economic changes provide a fertile ground for artistic inspiration and creative freedom.

Yet there is one factor that undermines Beijing’s aspirations as a global urban creative center, and it is not the threat of government oppression. Rather, it is the layer of hazardous grey smog that envelopes the city on a regular basis.

When I first visited Beijing 2006 air pollution was already a problem, but not at quite the level it is now. When I returned to Beijing in 2009, this time moving to China for work, I noticed the pollution had become markedly worse. Thousands more cars were added to the roads and urban development was pushing out past the city’s distant 6th Ring Road. Today, the pollution levels are worse than they’ve ever been, with the density of PM2.5 particles reaching as high as 671 micrograms (or 26 times the level considered safe by the World Health Organization).

As someone with the fortune of being born in a country that is already developed and has established emission standards, I’ve been hesitant to criticize China regarding their development aspirations. Throwing stones from afar would be nothing less than hypocritical, as most developed countries also went through a “dirty phase” during rapid industrial expansion. Thus, the general tone of this blog is supportive of China’s urban development and the economic benefits it has created for the Chinese people.

Yet China’s environmental crisis is a serious threat to that process- and Beijing is ground zero for the country’s challenges. Beijing’s air pollution is a health problem for everyone in the city, regardless of class or economic status. It is an economic problem as much as it is a social problem: if the city’s residents can’t breathe clean air then urban life cannot continue to thrive. Pollution is also a real threat to urbanization, as crisis levels could prompt people to revert back to rural living despite economic opportunities offered by the city.

Encouragingly, the Chinese government has fully acknowledged that pollution is a problem and is taking proactive steps to address the issue. This includes everything from limiting the amount of automobiles on the road at any given time to decommissioning coal-fire power plants near the city.

Yet this is not enough- there needs to be a paradigm shift in the way China and other developing countries urbanize and grow their economies. This includes embracing more ecologically sensitive technologies in power generation and transportation. To incentivize using these new technologies, China is testing out a pilot cap-and-trade program in 7 cities (including Beijing). If successful, China will roll out a nationwide cap-and-trade program by 2016.

In the meantime Beijing residents will have to do what they can to stay healthy in the current environmental conditions. Sadly, until the air is cleaned up, Beijing may have to put on hold its aspiration as a global center of arts and culture, despite the exciting activity happening at the grassroots level.

  • Matthias (Beijing) - There is another aspect that undermines Beijing’s aspirations as a global creative centre: sky-high costs of real estate. As we know, artists rely on affordable spaces to run their studios and exhibitions. In Beijing’s 798 art district – re-developed from disused factories – rents are allegedly now almost as high as in Beijing’s CBD. Hence the tendency for artists to congegrate in small ‘artist villages’ at the edge (or far outside) the city, because they can’t afford to reside in the city itself anymore.ReplyCancel

    • Adam Nathaniel Mayer - Yes I know of this to be an issue as well. But artists being pushed towards city peripheral boundaries is a phenomenon that happens around the world, not just in Beijing. As the urban theorist Richard Florida points out in his book “The Rise of the Creative Class”, artists are usually the first to arrive in derelict parts of cities where rents are cheap, only to be followed by waves of gentrifiers and real estate developers- which then in turn drives the cost up.

      This seems to be what has happened in 798 in Beijing. In a way, 798 is a victim of its own success in that there probably wasn’t the expectation that it would become as popular as it now is.

      What the solution is to this issue, I’m not sure. There are still a lot of decommissioned industrial zones in Chinese cities that could be inhabited by artists.

      Housing costs in China, especially in 1st Tier Cities, warrants its own blog post, but to keep it short I think we will have to at some point see the introduction of property taxes to cool down speculation. There are still a lot of unknowns regarding the fate of the Chinese housing market.ReplyCancel

  • Anonymous - And Beijing’s aspiration to be global center of art and culture is also being put off by its crazy costliness. Artists can no longer afford to live here.ReplyCancel

  • Charlie - Great post, Adam.

    I personally have heard from a lot of friends in Beijing and Chengdu who are leaving the country this year due to the pollution. In many cases these people are long-term residents who have made significant contributions to their culture of their respective host cities. And I’m certain that this exodus of people who want to breathe clean air will have cultural implications for both cities. I single these two out since between all of China’s urban metropolises these two cities seem to be getting it worst at the moment.

    The feeling on the ground is that this situation will not be improving anytime soon due to China’s economy underpinning every other facet of society. I now regularly receive correspondence from friends overseas who show concern over my health due to pollution here. Pollution has always been bad in Chengdu, but that has never happened to me before.ReplyCancel

    • Adam Nathaniel Mayer - In many ways, Chengdu is a lot like Beijing both in it’s geography (mostly flat, surrounded by mountains) and its history as a cultural mecca within China. The geography of both cities certainly don’t help in terms of air quality, as pollution gets trapped in their respective topographical basins (unlike Shanghai or a place like Xiamen which have the advantage of ocean breezes).

      Much of what was said in the post can definitely apply to Chengdu. Initially I did not anticipate that Chengdu would develop the same problems as Beijing simply due to it being a provincial capital and smaller city. But what has transpired in the past couple years in terms of deteriorating air quality is troubling. Of course, it all comes back to development as the city expands outward and more people purchase private automobiles. I believe Chengdu is something like 3rd (after Beijing and Shanghai) in China now in the number of registered automobiles.

      It will be interesting to see what measures Chengdu’s local government takes to improve the environment in the near future. I’m pretty hopeful that air quality will soon become an issue that takes precedence over economic growth just for the sake of growth, if it is not already.ReplyCancel

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