28 August, 2017

Back in Beijing

Greetings from China, where I'm back lecturing at the Gengdan Institute in Beijing for two weeks. The Institute is located off the sixth ring road of Beijing, a city of 22 million people. We're located in Niulanshan about 50 kilometres from the city centre. 

In my day job I teach urban planning and regeneration at the Dublin of Technology, and in recent years we've been attracting international students from around the world. A few years ago a visiting delegation from China sought deeper collaboration with Ireland, and that's why I'm here. The young Chinese students are keen to learn about spatial planning in Ireland, and lessons in environmental management from around the European Union. Lecturing a group of students from a completely different cultural background makes you question your own values and the successes and failures of Ireland inc.

I flew into Shanghai, and took the 300 km/h Maglev train in to the city. I then hopped on a metro that took me to  the waterfront where I admired a skyline of skyscrapers that have almost all been built over the last twenty five years on the walk to my hotel. Thanks to the Man in Seat 61 for recommending the faded grandeur of the Astor House Hotel.  The following morning I took a taxi to a railway station the size of Croke Park, and hopped on a high speed train that covered the 1,300 km to Beijing in under six hours, despite stopping in many stations in cities in between. Along the way I saw new highways and rail lines under construction, and wind turbines and corn fields in between. I knew we were nearing Beijing when a brown haze became visible outside the carriage window. My host Nina (Jiang Tianjie) 蒋天洁 met me at the station and we drove two hours to  Niulanshanzhen 牛栏山镇 in the suburbs, where the air is cleaner, and you can see the mountains on a clear day.

This week I am lecturing about the built environment, and next week heritage appraisal. I've mixed feelings about travelling this far to teach just for two weeks, but I feel there are lessons about environmental management, air quality and public participation that are worth communicating to a Chinese audience. 

I offset my flight emissions through Climate Neutral Now, a United Nations online platform for voluntary cancellation of certified emission reductions. In this instance the money goes to an electric and hybrid  bus rapid transit system in the city of Zhengzhou, south west of Beijing. It would be nice if there was a Dublin option. There's also the thorny question of human rights in China, and I had mixed-feelings about Dublin City's twinning with Beijing some years ago. Yet in my mind it is good to engage with a people who at at the heart of creating the Asian Century. China's been in the news for some of the wrong reasons this week, with Cambridge University Press being criticised for their self-censorship within China, and a note of caution being urged over Greece's willingness to cut deals and bend to Chinese interests in foreign policy.

Yet it is good to be here, lecturing young Chinese students about some of the success stories in environmental management that stem from European Directives, and being frank about the failures too. China continues to grow at around 6% each year, and while the problems that confront migrant workers, Beijing's smog and unaffordable housing persist, it is this generation of young planners that will shape the future of the Asian Century. There's been an extraordinary growth in green technologies in China over the last few years, lot's of solar water heaters on roofs, and electric scooters and delivery vehicles on the streets, mixed in with imported Fords and Range Rovers. The next few years will decide what direction the country will take, and I hope that they can learn from our experience of boom, bust, and partial recovery in recent years.