Olympic Sustainable Landscapes: The Case of Beijing

by Alex Camprubi, International ASLA

Aerial view of National Olympic Stadium, Beijing
Aerial view from the Olympic Forest towards the National Olympic Stadium and Olympic Green Beijing. / image: Shutterstock

1992 was a year in which the world shifted gears on development, particularly within the sustainable realm. Not only because of Rio’s Earth Summit or Beijing’s Green Plan [2] and their third economic reform [1], but 1992 was also the year that the US lifted sanctions against China, the Cold War formally ended, and Barcelona had just hosted their Olympic Games, transforming the city while astonishing the world by transforming a large-scale media event into a project for the future of their citizens.

Barcelona overcame the challenge of being denied a seafront for recreation purposes for many years. Instead, they masterfully linked their urban fabric to the sea by establishing an urban connectivity between four strategic areas. This allowed them to gain more than 600 hectares of new green area, plazas, and parks [2] and further enabled the city of Barcelona to formally embrace the environmental concerns as a third pillar of Olympism [3]. During this process, Barcelona was able to build what became one of the most valuable city brands in the world [4].

Renovation of urban parks in the city of Barcelona. Drone view of Montjuic Olympic Park. / image: Iakov Filimonov | Dreamstime.com

That same year, Beijing, Berlin, Brasilia, Istanbul, Manchester, Milan, and Sydney were all designated by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) as Candidate Cities for the Games of the XXVII Olympiad [5]. In 1993, Sydney was designated to be host, leaving Beijing in second place as inspectors pointed out environmental and mobility concerns [6].

Therefore, Beijing had to face the reality that more work and further planning were required in order to compete with other capital cities in the world to become an international city. Their frustration increased their motivation to deliver a bid like no other, learning not only from their own experience, but also from the success of Barcelona and from Sydney’s summer games success in the year 2000.

Urban regeneration of the city of Barcelona. Plaza España, Barcelona Expo Pavilion, and Montjuic Palace. / image: Tomas1111 | Dreamstime.com

Beijing has had four stages of development linked to Olympic sports: a first period during the decade of the eighties to prepare for the 11th Asian Games; a period that started after failing to host the millennium Olympics; a third period after the successful bid in 2001 until the 2008 summer games, and a last period towards preparing the 2022 winter Olympics. Each of these periods has moved China’s sustainable agenda forward at an increasing rate. The different urban and green plans of the city coincided with the timing to prepare for the Olympic games. Furthermore, sports were tied to national pride and a communist image construct of a nation [6], in which public space had a significant role associating the greenery of the city with a developed civitas and urban dignity. This explains why, dating back to the Mao era, the green cover of the core urban area of Beijing went from 1.3% in 1950 to 31% in 1994 [7]. This was initially achieved by following a soviet quantitative method and later on by utilizing a random “green filling-in approach,” creating an urban green belt.

At a time that China was growing their yearly GDP in double digits, the consequent building boom in the city assimilated all kinds of western influence; from neo-baroque patterns to cutting-edge vanguard design, intending to update Beijing’s world image and create the emblematic semblance of power [8], landscape design was no exception. During the following 20 years, China became increasingly open to ideas, to the point of associating western classical culture and visual forms with high value and status [9].

The use of sculptures that resemble former communist propaganda. Image construction of communist sports: 11th Asian Games, 1990. / image: Zjm7100 | Dreamstime.com

Sustainable landscape design, however, evolved slowly since the nineties, irrespective of the buzz caused by the Brundtland Report and growing interest in landscape ecology [10]. Chinese scholars showed much reticence toward departing from the traditional Chinese gardening and landscape design that was centered on the philosophical approach of Unity of Man with Nature [11, 12], a concept that further nourished the rise in the Chinese theory of an Ecological Civilization [13]. Soon, design styles were a commodity rather than a project philosophy, having an impact on how the city was perceived.

With the increased involvement of China with the United Nations and its sustainable programs, China became the designated host of the 2008 summer Olympic games, with a bid that highlighted three concepts: Green Olympics, High Tech Olympics, and Peoples’ Olympics, on a budget which was to be no less than $42.3 billion (USD), a number that was two to six times higher compared with other Olympic budgets until then [14]. It was a turning point in the sustainable path of landscape architecture in China, and how sustainability was perceived by Chinese citizens.

Integrated water management in Beijing Forest Park. The park covers an area of 680 hectares north of the National Stadium. / image: Xiaoyong | Dreamstime.com

42.2% of the Olympic investment was designated specifically to improve the environment of the city. The organizing committee delivered 20 environmental goals for the Olympics. Four of them had a direct relationship to the landscape field, either in the form of forestation, ecosystems, or the public space realm of the Olympics [15]. Other serious challenges that had to be surmounted were due to the requirements of the IOC. Beijing was also facing sandstorms, serious air pollution, water pollution, water scarcity, limited urban mobility, a scarcity of wayfinding signs, limited accessibility, and energy shortages. All of these had to be overcome.

After the Olympics, sandstorms made their way back to the city. A sandstorm in Beijing’s North third ring road in 2015. / image: Skywalker0 | Dreamstime.com

In 2004, during the preparation period for the games, a first green belt was defined within the fourth ring road, which covered 240 square kilometers. By 2008, more than 720 green areas and parks had been built, plus an unlisted number of renovated streetscapes. Besides that, more than 30 million trees, shrubs, and rose bushes were planted to cover an area of 8,800 urban hectares [16] at a cost of $7 billion (USD) [17], a fraction of the additional $41.1 billion of the allotted non-sport capital investment [18]. Most of the actual parks within the urban core of Beijing were the ones forming this first green belt [19]. An additional 150 projects were commissioned to further increase green coverage [20], lift the city landscape, and enhance the suburbs of Beijing.

Two additional green belts outside of the city core were planned to cover 1,650 square kilometers and 10,418 square kilometers; another 40 million trees were planted by 2008 to reach a green coverage of 40% of the suburban area of the second green belt and nearly half the area of the third greenbelt. These percentages were found to be the minimum necessary to influence the microclimate and reduce temperatures in the City of Beijing by mitigating the heat island effect and increasing the humidity [21, 22], thus providing a better environment for the athletes.

This massive work to erect a tree barrier on the mountain limits of Beijing was one of the complementary strategies brought about to stop the sandstorms coming from the Gobi Desert. Other strategies included planting the desert with straw checkerboards, 10 to 20 centimeters in height and 1 x 1 meters in diameter, planted or sowed with a mix of seedlings of Artemisia Ordosica, Hedysarum scoparium, Caragana Korshinskii, Eregrostis Poaeoides, and Calligonum Mongolicum [23] that develop topsoil on the dune surface, increasing the accumulation of silt and clay contents and therefore improving the soil habitats [24]. A third strategy was to build sand fence barriers as a first wind break barrier, and to detain the sand from being carried on [25]. The Green Wall Project has been dusted off and continued until today, thus providing an effective strategy against desertification and for stopping the sandstorms in the capital city. Today, with this technique, the Maowusu Desert, at the southwest end of the Gobi, has been “greened” to an extent of 90% [26].

Maowusu Desert, also known as Mu Us Desert, had a green coverage in 2018 of more than 90% of the 42,900 square kilometers of its area, the result of work that started in 1959 and has continued on and off throughout the subsequent decades. The World Bank has supported desertification projects in China since 1980. / image: CGTN

Of all the parks built for the Olympics, the one that has drew the most attention is the Olympic Green, which includes the Olympic Forest Park, a project widely analyzed and published. This project received an ASLA Professional Award in 2009, which was awarded to the Beijing Tsinghua Urban Planning & Design Institute, based on the winning conceptual proposal of SASAKI in 2002. All the details of these sustainable practices have also been documented in the Landscape Architecture Foundation’s Landscape Performance Series. In addition to its notable design and sustainable qualities, it was also one of the first sustainable projects in China, by a foreign firm, to be recognized as such.

Beijing Finance Street was one of the first modern projects and landscapes to be finished before the 2008 Olympics with green building concepts and sustainable landscape practices implemented by SWA. / image Shutterstock

Other sustainable landscape projects would follow in Beijing and the rest of the country. Between 2001 and 2009, Turenscape contributed to the Olympics by transforming a former gas appliances factory into the Chaoyang Volleyball Park, with low water consumption vegetation and a multimedia installation. Turenscape won a 2002 ASLA Professional Award for the Zhongshan Shipyard Park and Kongjian Yu, FASLA, continued introducing theories from Garrett Eckbo, Ian McHarg, Richard Haag, Laurie Olin, FASLA, and Carl Steinitz, Hon. ASLA, in his work. Merging this all together with the wisdom of ancient Chinese culture resulted in a series of projects that has indeed had a profound impact on the landscape field in China. Since 2002, Kongjian Yu has received 13 ASLA Awards for the work he did at Turenscape and Peking University. These works influenced the whole nation and current regulations for China’s development by introducing the concept of “The Sponge City” that he used in his Zhongguancun Life Science Park in 2002 and kept using in many other projects.

Beijing’s Zhongguancun Life Science Park, a daring proposal in China back in 2002 that has improved its character over time and is now seen as a pioneer design in China. / image: Turenscape

Other ASLA Award-winning firms also continued to develop key projects for the Beijing Olympics and showed to be key leaders on the sustainable path for China. Early examples of this work are projects such as the one in the 798 Art District by SASAKI, the renovation of the Fragrant Hills Park by Tsinghua University Urban Design Institute, and the Beijing Finance Street project by SWA. Other landscape projects that were either built, renovated, or restored for the Olympics were: the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, the Old Summer Palace, Chaoyang Park, Houhai and Beihai Parks, Badaling and Mutianyu Great Wall areas, Gulou and Nanluoguxiang, Zhongguancun Plazas, as well as most of the parks within the first green belt. The greenery on expressways and streetscapes also made an impact on how the city was perceived. Aside from the landscape projects, relevant infrastructure that was built worth mentioning here is the new Capital Airport terminal, three new subway lines, adding a fleet of new electric buses, and new sections of the third, fourth, and fifth ring roads that were added. All of this transformed mobility patterns and enhanced the urban experience.

The Summer Palace in Beijing is seen as a masterpiece of traditional landscape design and an example of the Chinese philosophy of “Man and Nature as One.” The park and several buildings inside were restored before the Olympics. / image: Shutterstock
798 Art District in Beijing, a case study in itself of the transformation of the city that was also an early example of western influence in landscape design in China, by SASAKI. / image: Shutterstock

Hence, in this period, the number of sustainable landscape projects remained a small percentage of the overall landscape projects that contributed to the transformation of the city; many of these projects established a generic landscape style and were exported to other regions of China, resembling what Rem Koolhaas would call a generic city [27]. Sustainable landscapes could not scale up in the ladder value and kept being contrasted with the traditional Chinese practice, and were therefore positioned as an alternative for certain projects.

Most of the green practices established prior to the 2008 Olympics have not performed well over time. Even though they achieved their goals for the sports event, they have not achieved a constant social benefit. Greenbelt areas shrank to the pressure of real estate development; monoculture forest plantations did not achieve biodiversity; in some regions, trees didn’t have the soil and the water needed to grow. Subsequent to the clear skies in the City of Beijing in 2008, air pollution peaked at its highest level in 2013, and a large sandstorm hit Beijing in 2017 due to the lack of maintenance of the windbreak barriers. Other problems could be described, but this should give a sense of the challenges that have arisen. However, despite its drawbacks, these sustainable landscape perspectives and ecological practices in landscape have been a seed that was sowed. That seed would grow during the next decade, after the 2008 Olympics.

Turenscape continued promoting sustainable landscapes around the country. Its “Sponge City” concept became the norm for future parks in China. Constructed wetland park in Yichang, Hubei Province. / image: Turenscape

Since 2009, ASLA has awarded twice the number of landscape projects in China compared to the previous decade, for a total of 40 awards [28]. The Landscape Architecture Foundation’s Landscape Performance Series, as of this post’s publication, includes 7 projects in China [29]. The sustainable path in China for landscape projects has been slowly growing since Beijing started to prepare for the first Olympics and has reached full momentum. Recently, President Xi Jinping announced that: “We aim to have a carbon dioxide emissions peak before 2030 and to achieve carbon neutrality before 2060” [30]. This announcement came as a surprise to many, and has been welcomed not only by the IOC, but by the ICCP and the COP. In the past decade, a number of wetland projects have emerged around Beijing, with the aim of reaching 40 parks in the next five-year period.

For the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, the Steering Committee has issued a Beijing Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games Sustainability Plan that has been praised as the most comprehensive in Olympics history. This plan relates to the Sustainable Development Goals in a creative way that includes a Management System Manual, Infrastructure Management Measures, a Sourcing Guide, and a Carbon Management Plan [31].

Yongxing River restoration in Daxing, south of Beijing, near the new airport terminal. The Yongxing River and the Yong Ding River are being restored with sustainable practices as part supgrade of the city for the 2022 Winter Olympics. / image: Turenscape
The west end of the former iron and steel factory has already been transformed into a park that has been conceived as a climate positive project, with the first integral sustainable plan for the Olympics that considers not only green building but also management and procurement for organizing the games. / images: Alex Camprubi (top) and Xiaoyong | Dreamstime.com (bottom)

One of the important venues for the 2022 Olympic Games will be the Shougang Park, designed in collaboration between Arup, Shougang Group, and the Beijing Municipal Institute of City Planning & Design (BMICPD). This site, which was an iron and steel industry brownfield, is being transformed into one of the best sustainable landscape examples in the world with a climate positive target that is supported by the entire C40 initiative programme [32]. The Shougang Park has spaces for practicing as well as a couple of venues for the Winter Olympics. Nonetheless, the renovated area of 290 acres is just 45% of the scale of the future park that will be linked to the adjacent Yongding River restoration that extends from the mountains northwest of the park, 80 kilometers south of Beijing near the brand new 700,000-square-meter Daxing Airport designed by Zaha Hadid Architects and ADPI.

The communist China image construct has been linked for decades to Olympic sports events and the associated national pride. The city landscape, as an integral part of this image construct, is being updated constantly, evolving with an increased importance placed on sustainability practices that is empowering China in the international scene—which explains not only the amount of the investment itself, but also the physical transformation of the city.

Beijing’s National Olympic Stadium, with a sculpture representing the strength and reach of the people. / image: Alex Camprubi

Sustainable landscape projects will keep on progressing with increased attention, given the need to contribute to the decarbonization of China by 2060. What remains to be seen is how Beijing will continue to build its image construct linked to international sport events after the Winter Olympics of 2022, and what will be the role of sustainable landscape design in the next decade.

Sculpture of the 2008 Olympic Games logo. / image: Alex Camprubi


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Shougang Park’s low water consumption vegetation in foreground and repurposed buildings in background for the headquarters of the Organizing Committee for the Beijing Winter Olympics and Paralympics 2022. / image: Alex Camprubi

Alex Camprubi, International ASLA, is a principal designer at Arppa Design Studio, an urban and landscape design practice in Guangzhou, China. He has been working in China for more than 13 years and lectures often on topics related to sustainability, placemaking, and landscape intelligence.

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