Tag Archives: Environment

Blue Skies over Beijing – posted by Lauren

I have arrived in Beijing and begun working at the China Academy of Urban Planning and Design (CAUPD). My late arrival makes me more of a fall intern than a summer intern, but CAUPD was kind enough to let me begin later since I will not be returning to Portland afterwards. I just completed my MURP degree with a focus on environmental planning, and I will be working in CAUPD’s Institute of Eco-Environment Research while I am here.

China clearly has its share of environmental concerns at the moment, which is why I am so interested in working here. I arrived with a respirator mask in my carry-on, ready for the airpocalypse I’ve heard so much about (the embedded link equates breathing Beijing air to smoking 40 cigarettes a day). Air quality is primarily measured in PM2.5, which represents the tiny particulate matter that can easily lodge in the bloodstream when inhaled. A safe range is less than 50, and Beijing has averaged around 200 lately and reached as high as 900 in the past (roughly, the index stops at 500). For comparison, Portland air quality is typically less than 30.

What I was expecting...

What I was expecting…

So you will understand my shock to be greeted by beautiful blue skies and not a smog cloud in sight. The PM2.5 has been hovering in the 30 – 60 range, which is totally breathable air by anyone’s standards. In a bizarre twist of fate the air quality in Portland was far worse than Beijing when I arrived because of the wildfires burning in Oregon. I spent the first few days in the company of fellow interns Hannah and Lea, who also couldn’t believe the weather. We could see the colors of the sunset, the reflection of the sky on the water, even our shadows. It probably would have taken me a while to notice that one – Hannah pointed out that she rarely sees her shadow since the sun is obscured by a thick haze.

My handy air quality index app, reporting abnormally normal conditions. 

My handy air quality index app, reporting abnormally normal conditions.

So what gives? It turns out arriving on August 22 was fortuitous timing. From August 20 to September 5 the government is closing factories and limiting auto access within the city. Similar to car restrictions in European cities, only odd numbered license plates are allowed on one day, and even numbered plates on the next. According to colleagues I haven’t seen real Beijing traffic yet. The reason for the pollution crackdown is because there is going to be a huge celebration on September 3 to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression (a/k/a WWII). Normally the day goes unobserved, but it will be a national holiday this year with a huge military parade, pomp and ceremony, foreign dignitaries, the works. It would be a shame if the photos of this once-in-a-lifetime celebration were mired in smog. Beijingers are (perhaps somewhat subversively) calling the color of the sky “parade blue.”

smog car poster

These posters just showed up in the subway a few days ago, after everyone enjoyed a week of beautiful weather. The second one reads, “In order to maintain the blue sky, please choose green travel.”

These posters just showed up in the subway a few days ago, after everyone enjoyed a week of beautiful weather. The second one reads, “In order to maintain the blue sky, please choose green travel.”

When I comment on the fantastic weather everyone quickly points out that it will not last, so I shouldn’t get used to it. It is as if the government switched off the smog machine, but they’ll flip it back on when the celebrations are over. This really leads one to question why you would permit hazardous air when you have the power to prevent it. It actually makes me more hopeful than ever that good policy is going to have a huge impact on China. I’ve heard it referred to as the “three T problem” – $1 trillion each to clean up the water, the land, and the air. It is shorthand for the scale of the problem. But massive, widespread environmental problems can be tackled – case in point, the air I’m breathing right now. The smog machine may get turned back on next week, but alternatives are on the rise and if anyone can implement them quickly and completely it is China. Take for example the first project I’ll be working on at CAUPD’s Institute of Eco-Environment Research:

We are developing a policy toolkit for local governments to incorporate distributed energy with urban planning. Most DER projects in China are natural gas powered, but renewable energy is the next step.

We are developing a policy toolkit for local governments to incorporate distributed energy with urban planning. Most DER projects in China are natural gas powered, but renewable energy is the next step.

Sure, it is going to take time to transition away from fossil fuels, but in the near future the smog machine won’t be needed to grow the economy. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the transition to a clean economy happens incredibly fast given China’s past rate of urbanization and development. I’m not being an idealist – the National Development and Reform Commission (a big deal) is interested in distributed energy because the existing centralized, coal-powered energy model is not rational. You don’t need a green agenda to realize the inevitable.

Stay tuned for blue skies all the time.

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Incredibly instructive signage

China never fails to disappoint when it comes to instructive [and entertaining] signage. Here are a couple of my favorite instructional signs.

Shenzhen recreation area

Shenzhen recreation area

“A small step close toward urinal, a big step toward civilization!”

Until I saw this sign (a male companion brought it to my attention- I did not discover it by being in the urinals myself), I would not have equated urinal usage with civilization. That being said, I totally get it. Hardly a day goes by without observing a child’s bare bum, often relieving itself in the public right-of-way. If you’ve been to China, you are likely familiar with crotchless pants that young children adorn. Also likely, you’ve observed some questionable parental judgment when it comes to excretion. While I understand many of the benefits of not diapering a small child, there’s a critical age at which public excretion just seems like a slap in the face (let’s hope not literally). And of course, not just children are to blame for human waste in the right-of-way. So yes, perhaps, a small step close toward urinal is a big step toward civilization.

Shenzhen recreation area

Shenzhen recreation area

“The slight effort to do environmental protection gives our children a beautiful earth”

Beautifully put. It may take a bit more than a “slight effort”, but stewardship, personal responsibility and trans-generational thinking are always good lessons.

All your emergency provisions in one park

This way to all of your various emergency service needs. And, just in case, please feel free to vend an emergency life jacket should the man-made pond reach one thousand year floodplain levels.

Shenzhen's Lichee Park

Shenzhen’s Lichee Park


Guangzhou MTR

Safe escalator use

I’ve always been a cautious escalator user, but I was not fully aware of the dangers and responsibilities of escalator use. Thanks to this example of incredibly instructive signage, I now am. The messages conveyed here may be too numerous by our signage standards, but, hey, this is China (“TIC”).  

Wayfinding on Hong Kong MTR

Some more incredibly instructive MTR signage (although, quite a bit more useful)…

Hong Kong MTR

Hong Kong MTR

Shenzhen performing arts center

Shenzhen performing arts center

“Dry your hands, keep away drops” Yes, while drying your hands certainly will keep away drops, I can’t help but to wonder if this is the most important message to disseminate at the sink basin. Yes, I have an agenda. So far in mainland China, I have yet to see a sign about the importance of washing hands with soap- or the oh-so-familiar signs about washing before returning to work. I’ve been conducting my own study of sorts. At my office, males and females share the sinks in an area outside of the squat toilets. Covertly, I watch the handwashing behaviors of my fellow office workers. Over the past four weeks, on only two occasions have I seen anyone use soap, despite the fact that it is conveniently placed beside each basin. I try to withhold my public health reflex of repulsion. Back to the sign at hand (pun not intended): while entertaining, for me, this sign states the obvious, but misses the point.

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“I speak for the trees” – Lorax, from Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax

This blog post is dedicated to Hannah Silver who has always been a believer in the Lorax.

The relationship to nature and urban form are two important aspects of what defines the urban forest. But Beijing and China have showed me culture and history shape and influence the fabric of the urban forest even more. Dating back to the 13th century, the Mongolian emperor Kublai Khan mandated that street trees along major boulevards be spaced no more than two paces apart. This was to ensure plenty of shade during hot summer months and to provide snow markers during the winter (Profous, 1992). These close plantings also help retain soil moisture and protect the bole of the tree from extreme fluctuations in heat and cold which could damage the tree. You can see in the pictures below the trees boles are often painted white to increase sun reflectance preventing solar damage to the trunk. The result is a dense urban forest planting which focuses on the form and shape of the bole of the tree, rather than on height and branching patterns typical of western aesthetics. China has lost many of its great trees in history from repeated invasions, cultural revolutions and political conflicts. Examples of these are the Boxer Rebellion in the 19th century, the invasion of the Japanese in the Second World War and during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s (Profous, 1992). The great trees of China are now often found in the courtyards of temples and palaces, where monks and citizens protected them from the violence and chaos of their times. Due to these trees advanced age they are often propped and supported to maintain their form and to prevent cracking and damage would could injure and expose them to disease.

Many tree species are selected based on cultural pride for the city, with each city having a “brother tree” and “sister flower”. The two “brother trees” for Beijing are the Japanese pagoda tree (Sophora japonica) and the Oriental arbovitae (Platycladus orientalis). The Japanese pagoda tree is a common street tree found on major boulevards but also in the hutongs, residential alleys, some of which date back over 700 years. These trees are hardy against the extreme urban environmental conditions like heat, pollution and compaction often found in Beijing. Because of the cultural significance of the Japanese pagoda tree and its hardiness, the tree is ubiquitous across the Beijing’s urban forest. The Oriental arborvitae is common in residential areas and in hutongs, prized for their compact and straight growth form, as well as the symbolism for longevity (Profous, 1992). According to a study of Beijing’s urban forest (Profous, 1992), it is composed of over 90 different species of trees, with four genera making up over 55 percent of the forest canopy. Outside of right-of-ways the urban forest is much more diverse in the hutongs where many families will diligently care for and maintain trees in courtyards, oftentimes not visible from the street. These family trees are often fruit and nut trees, providing local fresh sources of food.

Comparatively, Portland Oregon’s urban forest is composed of over 170 different tree species (DuVander, 2013); nearly double that of Beijing. The data from this article made me think of the implications for Beijing’s urban forest. While major corridors, both road and transit, are required to plant at least two different species of trees, the low diversity and close spacing run the risk of hosting and spreading diseases and pest populations throughout the city. This made me think of city planning policies in Portland surrounding their urban forest. Recently the city of Portland banned the planting of maples as street trees within the city to limit an overabundance of maples, increase the diversity of other tree species and ultimately make the urban forest more resilient. The cautious planning of Portland’s forest comes after a hard lesson learned after in the 1960s an outbreak of disease wiped out most of the mature American Elms in Portland (DuVander, 2013). Perhaps Beijing could take warning from Portland’s experience and plan the urban forest for more resiliency in design and placement.

Since nature is so highly valued in Chinese culture and tradition the urban forest in Beijing will continue to be a priority for the city and its citizens. Hopefully as Beijing continues to grow, expand, and become more dense, so too will its urban forest. I am excited to see and learn more of how Chinese planners and horticulturalists integrate nature and ecosystem services into the urban environment.



DuVander, Jenny, Dec. 4, 2013, “Tree primer: Diversity in the urban forest”, The Oregonian, link: http://www.oregonlive.com/hg/index.ssf/2013/12/tree_primer_diversity_in_the_u.html

Profous, George V., 1992, “Trees and Urban Forestry in Beijing, China” Journal of Arboriculture 18(3): May 1992, p. 145-154



Street trees

Street trees closely spaced together with white paint on the trunks.


A house built around a tree

A house built around a tree


Very old tree

One of the Great Trees which survived at the Temple of Heaven


Llama Temple tree propped up on a crutch


Nine Dragon Juniper

Nine Dragon Juniper