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The greening of Beijing

Green isolation belt in Beijing (RUAF China)
Green isolation belt in Beijing
RUAF China

China's capital Beijing is booming. And yet, commuting through the wide streets filled with bicycles and buses, amidst the chaos of rush hour in the metropolis, the city environs are not all grey. In fact, the People's Republic of China has made some concerted efforts to increase green spaces and forest in its urban areas. In 2002, a survey using remote sensing technologies revealed that almost half of Beijing is dedicated to green areas.

The forested hills surrounding Beijing account for much of this area, but the city also has numerous trees and grassy areas. They offer many advantages, providing tranquil spaces, local food and mitigation against air pollution and dust, but the future of these green areas also depends on their economic viability. In a city where land allocation is decided by potential economic returns, green areas are often replaced by more lucrative options.

In 2004, however, the Beijing municipal government introduced a comprehensive programme to develop peri-urban agriculture. The 2-2-1 Action Programme on Urban Agriculture aims to bring issues such as food, farming and agriculture under the consideration of urban authorities, alongside more traditional urban preoccupations such as crime, transport, and housing. In particular, the programme urges urban planners and other government departments to consider ways of making green areas more competitive.

A plan of action for urban agriculture…

Planting trees to stabilize slopes (RUAF China)
Planting trees to stabilize slopes
RUAF China

Over the last twenty years, China's government has actively encouraged urban agriculture and forests. State initiatives introduced since 2001, including the 2-2-1 Action Programme, openly advocate private investment in green spaces and promote both changes in agricultural production and alternative functions for peri-urban land.

Farmers, for example, have been helped to invest in ecological and social services alongside agricultural activities. The programme has stimulated credit provision for urban farmers and created an information centre to encourage farmers to share local technologies and experiences. As a result, more intensive agricultural systems linked to agro-enterprises have emerged, more efficient systems of land and water use have been introduced, and agri-tourism has become widely adopted.

From fruit-picking plantations to eco-agriculture holiday resorts and forest parks, new land uses are providing urban farmers with additional sources of income. The programme has supported initiatives for the branding and certification of agricultural products. On-farm demonstrations of agricultural activities also help farmers to sell more of their produce, whilst raising awareness about the contribution that urban agriculture makes to the urban economy.

…and green spaces

The programme has embraced the role that agriculture plays in urban environmental improvement, something that the government is also tackling in other ways. Private investors, for example, are being encouraged to recognise the beneficial role that urban forests can play in city life. While economic returns may not be fast, they can be lucrative. As Beijing's population becomes more economically independent, urbanites are taking more leisure time to enjoy green spaces. Visitors from all around the country flock to the capital every year to see urban forest gardens, such as those in the Summer Palace - among the most famous gardens in China. In 2002, there were over two thousand agri-tourism sites in Beijing, attracting 36.2 million visitors and generating US$285 million.

Flowers for sale in Shunyi District, Beijing (RUAF China)
Flowers for sale in Shunyi District, Beijing
RUAF China

With Beijing's rising population and explosion in industrial development, the environmental advantages of more green spaces, agricultural activities and forest areas may be obvious. But critics argue that funds for green development are short and that urban agriculture still needs to be fully integrated into city planning and policy guidelines. Encouragingly, the experiences gained through the 2-2-1 programme have resulted in the compilation of the Beijing Urban Agriculture Policy Guidelines, which have been submitted for formal integration into city law.

As reiterated recently by the chairman of China's National Development and Reform Commission, China is prepared to tackle its environmental responsibilities - but not at the cost of its economic development. It remains to be seen where Beijing's priorities lie.

Date published: July 2007


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