After building Beijing's Olympic Park for the 2008 Games, a Chinese-American urban planner and Israeli architect continue to help develop green cities in a largely polluted China.
BEIJING — When Israeli architect Benny Shadmy arrived in China from Jerusalem nine years ago, he saw the opportunities in a country where legend holds that a new city pops up from scratch twice a week. For Professor Hu Jie, a China native and well-known urban planner in the United States, coming back to his homeland after 20 years was a unique chance to participate in the planning of Beijing’s Olympic Park.
Both of them stayed and became partners in an enormous challenge for the world’s most populated country: how to achieve sustainable urban planning. *Shadmy and Hu, it turns out, do it largely by mixing the most modern techniques with ancient Chinese principles.
The process of urbanization is happening in China at unprecedented scale and speed. According to the Research and Development Center of Beijing, the Chinese urban population will double over the next 30 years, which means that an additional 500 million people will be added to Chinese cities. That alone is about equal to the current combined population of the United States and Russia.
In the face of such growth, it would seem virtually impossible to design low-pollution, energy-efficient cities while ensuring a good quality of life for so many people. But Shadmy and Hu are part of a growing team of urban planners who are trying to make it happen.
Feng Shui and modern values
The design of the city of Beijing was planned from the start based on principles of Feng Shui, the ancient Chinese system that harmonizes humans with their surroundings. It is built on a central axis that the Chinese believed to be the center of the world, and that crosses in a perfectly symmetrical way the Forbidden City and the old city of Beijing. The structures were built around it in harmony and perfect balance.
This urban planning survived nearly 600 years, and was even adopted by the communist regime of Mao Zedong, whose portrait in Tiananmen Square sits exactly on top of the central axis.
What finally disturbed the ancient harmony was the runaway capitalism that invaded the Chinese capital when economic reforms were unleashed two decades ago. The accelerated economic development was accompanied by a notable lack of modern planning, unstoppable entrepreneurs and greedy government officials, who turned an imperial city full of trees and lakes into a dense and polluted urban jungle.
When in 2001 Beijing won the right to host the 2008 Olympics, the government committed to try to improve the city’s planning and development. Indeed, the plan was to go back to the city’s glorious past, and to restore axis and logic to the city’s urban design. The Olympic stadium, “The Bird’s Nest,” and the Olympic swimming pool were placed on both sides of the axis. The area to the north of them was for the Olympic Forest Park.
The projects had already begun when Shadmy arrived in Beijing and was immediately thrilled by the idea of mixing old values with modern architecture. “I think that Forest Park symbolizes in China a certain switch from the copy-paste culture to a smarter planning rooted in the country’s past,” the Israeli architect explains. “It was philosophically important for me to study the traditional planning of ancient Chinese parks and bring our traditions into the design. There had to be elements from the Chinese culture as well as from its history.”
Shadmy says the most important element was to be sure the project was environmentally sustainable. Therefore, the park was designed to keep water consumption low since northern China suffers from a serious lack of clean water. The ponds in the park aren’t just a home for the ducks but also are part of a filter mechanism that purifies the water from a polluted river nearby and allows the clean water to flow into the park’s lake.
But for Shadmy, Forest Park was only the beginning, as he is applying the concepts on a much bigger scale — to entire cities in China. Shadmy and Hu, together and alone, are trying to implement these concepts in a long list of projects across the country.
One of them is the Tieling project, a new city a few hours away from Beijing and one of a growing number of new urban centers considered to be “ecological.” Though most Chinese people have still never heard of it, Tieling now boasts a population of three million people, and features the central axis concept that Shadmy and Hu have used in Beijing.
The primary urban essentials — housing, commerce, entertainment and government buildings — are placed on different sides of the axis, while a lake that had been dried out due to over-pumping was restored at the center. Tieling is now a city on a lake, which is also used for the city’s sewage treatment.
“The idea to draw from traditions, and not necessarily with religious distinctions, is something that can be done here in Israel,” notes Shadmy. “We have an enormous historical and cultural background that we can use in good ways.”
Eventually, back in China, these new cities will help reinvent urbanism on a scale that has never been seen before. The question remains, though, whether they will turn greener, or grayer.
*Note: This article was translated by Worldcrunch contributor Daniel Shadmy, who is the son of Benny Shadmy. Neither Daniel Shadmy nor Worldcrunch was involved in the commissioning or production of the original Calcalist article.