Earthshots: Satellite Images of Environmental Change

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These images show the growth of Beijing from 1977 to 2020. In the images, the blue tones representing buildings and pavement spread outward, replacing the red tones of natural and agricultural vegetation. The city has now grown far beyond its traditional core around the Inner City, which is visible as a bright rectangle in the zoom-in images.

Map of the featured area.

Beijing traditionally consisted of the square, walled Inner City and the rectangular, walled Outer City to its south. The walls no longer stand, but in their place the Second Ring Road now outlines the Inner City, and canals outline the Outer City. These and the outer Third Ring and Fourth Ring Roads are partly visible in the Landsat images.

The Capital Airport is the large runway complex northeast of the city. A new runway opened in 2007, and that expansion can be seen when comparing the 2000 and 2020 images. In 2000, the Capital Airport handled 21.7 million passengers. In 2011, it handled over 77 million passengers. In only 10 years, it moved from the 42nd busiest airport in the world to the 2nd busiest.

Within the Inner City, the moats and walls of the Forbidden City (Imperial Palace Museum) are prominent, with Wu Gate at the southern end. Also within the Inner City are six lakes, including Zhong Hai Lake just west of the Forbidden City.

In the Outer City three parks are visible, of which the middle is the Temple of Heaven. These are the red areas (darker than the agricultural vegetation outside of the city).

In the out zoom, Kunming Hu Lake is visible on the northwest edge of the city. The historically significant Summer Palace is on the shore of this lake.

In the north-central part of the 2013 image, a few bright spots appear that aren't in the other images. This is the Olympic complex that was built for the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, and includes the Olympic stadium, which came to be known as the Bird's Nest.

Beijing has grown and changed remarkably in the "reform era" since 1979, in its own distinct pattern. U.S. cities, for example, are often shaped like a circus tent, with a sharp peak of skyscrapers in the center, sloping off to mid-rise buildings and then low suburbs of single-family houses. Beijing, in contrast, is bowl-shaped, with low historic buildings in its center, surrounded by many commercial skyscrapers and residential towers. Height restrictions have limited many buildings to 3 stories within 250 m of the Forbidden City, 10 stories within the Second Ring Road, and unlimited stories beyond. And single-family buildings are rare in Beijing, except in recent western-style suburbs built for foreigners.

Several distinct dynamics have shaped Beijing's growth. The state built a great deal of housing in Beijing during the 1950s, but little was built in the 1960s and 1970s, partly to discourage migration to the city. In the 1970s, many people who spent the Cultural Revolution in the countryside returned to Beijing, and others came seeking jobs. Married couples increasingly sought their own home after marriage rather than living with their parents. By the late 1970s, housing was scarce and crowded. In 1979, along with new reforms, came a boom in housing construction that was much-needed. Beijing's 2020 population is estimated at just over 19 million, with a population density of about 4,600 people per square km.

In the more socialist era of 1949–1979, most Beijingers lived and worked in the same place. These "work units" included communal dining halls and infirmaries. So the city was not highly differentiated into office, shopping, industrial, and residential areas. There were few reasons to travel across town often. This has also changed in the reform era; housing is typically still tied to a job, especially for the many state employees, but this housing is not at the workplace. Many work-units buy floors of apartment buildings, or other blocks of housing, so many coworkers live together.

In the 1980s, many industrial plants were moved from the central city to outlying areas. Much of the new housing was also outside the Third Ring Road, in medium- and high-rise buildings often built on former agricultural land. In the central city, office districts and shopping districts have been built or expanded. Many new buildings serve the increasing number of foreigners doing business in Beijing.

Partly because people's daily activities now occur in separate parts of the city, traffic has increased greatly, and congestion is a major problem. An extensive subway line now operates in Beijing. By 2010, the Beijing subway network had 14 lines, 198 stations, and 336 km of track.

The Chinese government has provided a bicycle renting system in Beijing to try to relieve traffic congestion. But car use has risen dramatically in the last decade, and city planners are planning around the automobile and building expressways.

One new building project that exemplifies some of these trends is visible southeast of Beijing. Fangzhuang is a new city of 78,000 where in 1984 only 1,000 people lived in agricultural villages just outside the Outer City. In the 1977 image, agriculture, represented by red, dominates the area. By 2020, those lands have been swallowed up by development.

Fangzhuang includes condominiums, 3-story apartment buildings, schools, parks, shops, and a community center. Such prestigious work-units as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have bought blocks of apartments, and since 1994 some foreigners have moved in. Operations such as health care, day care, and garbage collection are still managed by socialist-style committees of residents.


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