Beijing’s Extreme Make-over: Is it worth it?

Nicknamed the “Bird’s Nest,” the iconic Beijing National Stadium for track and field events is constructed of over 42,000 tons of steel. As the largest stadium ever built for the Olympic Games, it includes a gourmet restaurant, a four-star hotel, and an underground shopping center. It seats 91,000 spectators.

Olympic Stadium

Photo by Theo W O Jones.

The Bird’s Nest’s structural expressionism illustrates China’s modernity and its rise as a global power. The architecture speaks for itself. It symbolizes innovation, strength, and significance. Spectators during the opening ceremonies, including over 80 foreign dignitaries, were awed by the harmony of the dance, music, and pyrotechnics, all coordinated in and around the 1,082-feet-long and 721-feet-wide stadium.

Certainly the Bird’s Nest is an architectural achievement. The latest high-end trend in stadium architecture is a phenomenon growing quickly not just in Beijing but in cities around the world. However, there’s still something unclear surrounding the new stadium and the city of Beijing, and it’s not just smog. Will the Bird’s Nest and the massive construction projects undertaken for the summer Olympics in Beijing do more harm than good once the Olympic flame is extinguished?

Counting the Costs

Beijing has experienced the most expensive and the largest makeover in Olympic history. Over one million migrant construction workers were hired from China’s impoverished rural side in order to beautify the city and accommodate the influx of visitors this month. Often working over 15 hours a day, most laborers faced “wage exploitation resulting from unfair or non-existent contracts and the denial of basic public social services,” according to a Human Rights Watch report released in March of this year.

The workers who migrated from outside the city lacked Beijing urban residence permits known locally as hùkǒu. The hùkǒu system is like that of the apartheid rule in South Africa. Both were created to regulate and exploit means of labor. Under the system, urban dwellers receive all public social welfare benefits, whereas rural Chinese people are denied such. Without a hùkǒu, filing a complaint against an employer or insurance claim for medical reasons is impossible. Rather than scrapping the system to provide these essential services for all, the government began issuing “temporary” urban residence permits during the Olympics.

Now that the temporary permits have expired, most workers have come and gone before enjoying the fruits of their labor. Government officials made the final touches to the city as they swept out the workers before the opening ceremonies.

And that’s not all that was swept away.

The Geneva-based non-profit Center on Housing Rights and Evictions reports at least 1.5 million people were displaced from their homes to make way for the Olympics. Without alternative housing or an adequate independent judiciary to help them obtain fair compensation when it wasn’t forthcoming, many local residents are still left homeless.

Building the stadium cost over $423 million. That is only a small number compared to the $40 billion thought to be invested in total for the Olympic events this summer (more than three times the amount Greece spent as it geared up for the 2004 Olympics in Athens). Substantially more capital was invested for infrastructure improvements in and around Beijing. This covers transportation, such as the 66 road and bridge projects, a new subway system, public security, and airport terminals. To improve transportation services during the Olympics the Beijing Olympic Action Plan initiated ambitious construction projects on the rail, airport, road, public transportation, and parking facilities.

New Beijing, New Olympics

In front of millions of people and a vast television audience, Beijing is now a showcase for the world. The expectation is that the Olympics will leave a legacy effect that increases tourism, attracts investment, and strengthens the economy. The prevalent attitude adopted by government officials, architects and decision makers is, “if you build it, they will come.”

While the 2008 Summer Olympics has acted as a catalyst for development and transformation, Beijing’s rapid expansion of infrastructure could dampen the prospects for long-term sustainable development.

Such development can only be determined by the extent to which these investments and infrastructure can be used after the Games, and how well they are integrated into the over-economy. Take hotels, for example. Are there going to be too many hotels or will growth in tourism and business travel make up the difference?

In terms of the opportunity costs, theoretically $40 billion is capital that could alternatively be invested in hospitals, education, and healthcare, or even redistributed as taxpayers please. It’s money invested in one sector, taken away from another.

But in China, like most other places, politics comes before economics.

As the city rapidly expands its role as a global economic hub, Beijing’s infrastructure is massively strained. The buses are undependable. The subway is overcrowded. Its inner-city population has nearly quadrupled since 1949.

These problems will affect Beijing for decades to come. A smart urban growth plan would include long-term planning for bicycles, pedestrians, and the preservation of cultural heritage. Most importantly, it would discourage driving. While the use of bicycles has increased during the Olympics, once the driving restrictions are lifted, cars will likely prevail over the old bicycle kingdom once again.

Environmentalists believe the expansion of road projects could have serious long-term damage. It’s likely that these construction projects will encourage the use of private cars, which contribute to most of Beijing’s pollution problems. The Research Center for Contemporary Management released a report that noted that “there is substantial evidence that road building might be able to ameliorate the tension of transportation demand in a short run, but it might not be true from a long-term perspective.” The city has more than tripled the length of its expressway network from 216 kilometers to more than 700 kilometers. The Chinese government also continues to subsidize gas.

In preparation for the Olympics the city also improved its public transportation; however, the specialized infrastructure is linked primarily to the Olympic venues. Twenty-three subway stations along a 27.6-km line are operating from Tiantongyuan North Station to Songjiazhuang Station in southern Fengtai district. It’s difficult to quantitatively measure how significantly the subway system will alleviate traffic in the future, but it is expected to help curb the number of drivers on the road.

Not all local residents and businesses will gain short or long-term benefits from each of these projects. Many of the projects were completed with little or no consultation with local residents. Property values are raising, roads have expensive tolls, “unbecoming” shops have been closed, industry has come to a halt, and thousands of migrant workers are indefinitely idle.

The Olympic Countdown Clock in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square isn’t ticking any more now that the games have begun. But maybe it should be. Until the Olympics officially end, little attention will be given to what will be done with the stadium later. Eleven-thousand seats will be removed and it will still serve as a venue for national and international sporting events and cultural activities. Yet, it’s unlikely that the stadium will have 80,000 spectators either during the badminton final, or for many events to be hosted after the closing ceremonies.

Take for example the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, “the State Government has been propping up other uneconomic venues since the Olympics to the amount of about $46 million a year.” In other words, taxpayers in Australia took one for the team.

London has won the bid to host for the 2012 Summer Olympics. The UK plans to build a portable stadium; the newestmost expensive stadium in the world. This would be physically transferable to future Olympic sites. In terms of sustainability architect Amanda Baillieu wrote that, “Football [soccer] won’t go there because the seats are too far away, and a closer look at the drawings reveals it would be impossible to shrink the roof down to cover the permanent seating, begging the question of who would want to take on an open-air stadium in our climate?”

But if a recyclable stadium is feasible, it could provide developing nations an opportunity to host Olympics or other mega-events. South Africa is spending over $8 billion for building and upgrading infrastructure for the 2010 World Cup.

Could London usher in a new reign of architectural sustainability? The long-term social, economic, and political impact of Olympic Games has yet to be measured. But as you watch the closing ceremonies, remember that when the Olympic torch is extinguished, the people of Beijing remain the bearer of its impact.