How Beijing Works

By: Sarah Dowdey
Beijing Image Gallery The people of Beijing celebrate the one-year countdown to the Olympic Games in Tiananmen Square. See more pictures of Beijing.
Feng Li/Getty Images

In 2001, B­eijing beat pollution, improve its infrastructure and play host to scores of guests. With the Olympics less than a year away, is Beijing ready to take the field?

­Beijing is an old city, but you wouldn't necessarily know it. Everything seems to be new, under construction and expanding. Returning visitors often have trouble recognizing the places they knew well just five or 10 years ago. More than 15 million people pack themselves into Beijing and its ever-expanding suburbs -- and more arrive every day [source: Beijing 2008]. The city has always been bursting out of its Inner Walls and outer gates, although not quite at today's breakneck speed. In the 13th century, Genghis Khan's grandson, Kublai Khan, seized Beijing and made it his Mongol capital. About 200 years later, the Ming Emperor Yongle named the city Beijing, or "Northern Capital," and continued to grow his empire. The pace of change quickened in 1949 with Mao Zedong's drive to raze monuments, city walls and other signs of old Chinese feudalism.


Today, Beijing is not only China's capital but its cultural center. The city overflows with universities, galleries and museums. Its rapid development spurs on a booming economy. In the next section, we'll learn about Beijing's diligent Olympic preparations.

Beijing Olympics

A typical day of Beijing traffic
Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

Beijing, like any city vying for an Olympic nomination, had to prove itself. The city won its bid by promising to stage a Green Olympics. Although eco-consciousness is increasingly de rigueur for major sporting events, the concept was relatively new in 2001. The first Olympic-scale international sporting event to go green happened five years later with the 2006 World Cup. Committee members saw that if Beijing, with air pollution worse than that of Los Angeles, could successfully go green, the city itself might draw as much hype as the games staged there.

Beijing quickly shut down its nastiest factories to reduce air pollution. Coal-fired power plants installed wet scrubbers, a basic system that removes sulfur dioxide from flue gas. The city even persuaded its worst polluter, a steel company, to move its factories outside of town.


But Beijing's biggest pollution problem is its high concentration of particulates -- particles of dust and fossil fuels like coal suspended in the air. Because particulates aggravate the respiratory system, athletes could have difficulty competing in Beijing's bad air. And unfortunately, the games are taking place in August, which has the year's highest rates of particulate matter. In August, a seasonal shift in the wind blows the grimy air of surrounding industrialized areas into Beijing and traps it between the city's mountains. The United States Olympic Committee's Performance Services Division has even recommended that its athletes wear activated-charcoal face masks during competition and off the field [source: Wired].

Beijing's huge and growing fleet of cars also adds to the city's air pollution -- there are more than 3 million cars on its roads [source: subway system that will play an important role shuttling Olympic spectators to various venues. But as an everyday transit option, the subway is too limited for a city of Beijing's size. Beijing launched a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system in 2005 to help support the subway. BRT lines run on exclusive lanes and are able to speed by traffic.To lower air pollution and reduce traffic, Beijing may also limit driving during the Olympics. In August 2007, the city ran a four-day trial program that allowed cars to drive only on alternate days based on license plate numbers. Because an increase in humidity coincided with the test, the results were unimpressive. Particulate mater actually rose nearly 10 percent despite the reduction in car emissions [source: Washington Post].

The busy Beijing subway will help Olympic visitors get around town.
Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images

As the games near, Beijing assures skeptics that several last-minute tricks will improve air quality. The Beijing Meteorological Bureau, which has already experimented with ­cloud seeding to control the weather and prevent rain, guarantees that it can also create refreshing rain showers to help clear the air. The city government might also shut down factories a couple of weeks before the Olympics and force workers to take vacations.

Next, we'll learn about Beijing's newest avant-garde buildings.



Beijing Olympic Venues

The Beijing National Stadium, also known as "the bird's nest," will be the venue for the opening ceremonies and track and field events.
Feng Li/Getty Images

Olympic greenness might begin with wet scrubbers and traffic schemes, but such measures lack the glamour of rainwater-capture systems and solar-heated swimming pools. Beijing has pulled out all of the stops for its new Olympic buildings -- choosing cutting-edge architects, striking designs and new-fangled technology to increase energy efficiency. Beijing will launch its green games from a new city center: the aptly named Olympic Green. Its three central parts -- the Forest Park, the Cultural Axis and the Olympic Axis -- connect different venues, public areas and subway stops.

The Beijing National Stadium, the city's newest jewel and the future site of the opening ceremonies, anchors the Olympic Green. China imported the famous Swiss design firm Herzog & de Meuron Architekten AG to design the 91,000 capacity stadium, popularly known as "the bird's nest."


An artist's rendition of the National Aquatics Center shows the building's soap-bubble skin.
BOCOG/Getty Images

Until recently, most Chinese designs came from local institutes once owned by the state. The institutes put out a huge number of buildings, but they lacked creativity and flair. Since then, Beijing's growth has stirred up an interest in design. Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron are known for their imaginations and use of material skins as sheathing. For the tangled National Stadium, they made the skin double as the building's structure. The bird's nest description originated as a way to describe the stadium's use of structural steel in its exterior. Bird's nests are also Chinese delicacies.

China also brought in the Australian PTW Architects to design the Olympic Green's National Aquatics Center, or "water cube." The walls of the low building imitate the structure of soap bubbles. Gas pumped between two layers of plastic film is cordoned off into smaller chambers to create bubbles. The center will host swimming, diving, synchronized swimming and water polo competitions.

But there's more to Beijing than the Olympic Games. In the next section, we'll learn about some of the city's other attractions.


Beijing's Attractions

Beijing’s Tiananmen Square at the one-year countdown celebration.
Feng Li/Getty Images

Although Olympic guests will surely spend much of their time checking out Beijing's newest sights and watching events, no visit should go without a trip to Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, the Temple of Heaven and the Great Wall of China.

Tiananmen Square is Beijing's center. Built in 1417 during the Ming Dynasty, Tiananmen Square abuts the Forbidden City. Mao Zedong transformed the square in the 20th century, building the Monument to the People's Heroes at its center. The Chairman himself lies in a crystal coffin in the Mao Zedong Memorial Hall. Westerners became familiar with Tiananmen Square in 1989 after a pro-democracy demonstration turned violent. As the protesting got out of control, Communist Party leaders put Beijing under martial law. The police and troops killed several hundred unarmed protesters in the streets surrounding the square.


Tiananmen Square's Gate of Heavenly Peace leads to the Forbidden City, home of emperors. The 800-building complex housed Chinese emperors for 500 years. Common people were not allowed into the city, and the royal family rarely ventured outside of its walls. Today, visitors can see the Dragon Throne, the imperial residences and the meandering Imperial Garden. Just outside Beijing lies another beautiful example of Chinese landscape design. The Summer Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, consists of a labyrinthine garden studded with pavilions, temples, palaces and bridges.

The Temple of Heaven sprawls over even more space than the Forbidden City. Its grandeur was meant to show the emperors' humility in their offering to heaven. The site includes the Circular Mound Altar, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest and the Imperial Vault of Heaven, which has an echo wall. The Vermillion Steps Bridge or Sacred Way connects some buildings. Emperors once believed that they could pass over the bridge into heaven.

And, of course, most tourists stop by Beijing's section of the Great Wall of China, which once extended 4,000 miles across the country. The wall runs along the northern part of the city.


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