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Print Edition> Forum
UPDATED: April 2, 2011 NO. 14 APRIL 7, 2011
To Topple Trees for Subways or Not?

MEMORABLE SCENE: Charming plane trees in Nanjing grow into golden umbrellas in autumn (A DONG)

Hu Yinbin (China Youth Daily): Why are Nanjing's plane trees so charming? Because they are part of local urban life. If urban management departments leave them alone, all of the romantic, cultural and daily attachments are able to stay there quietly. But the information these old trees are to be cut or removed to make way for subways has upset local residents.

Why is the public responding so strongly about these plane trees? Superficially, their actions to protect them are about the loss of leafy overhead shade and a "graceful death" for these old plane trees. The deeper reason is, however, actually public dissatisfaction with the government's arbitrary decisions.

From the 1990s to 2005, more than 20,000 trees were cut in major downtown areas in Nanjing. Is this method the only choice for urban development and modernization? Are there better choices for harmony between the city and its old trees?

The public's extensive concern about the plane tree issue has attracted attention from the municipal government, which has tried to minimize the number of trees to be removed or cut. Now the situation seems to have come to a full stop, but still there are some things to be made clearer.

First, in tying green ribbons around the trees, are people also showing a sort of tolerance for the gloomy destiny imposed on the trees? If so, other trees in Nanjing are still living in imminent danger. Only when trees' value as part of urban civilization is admitted is it possible for a city to make sure its history and cultural elements will be well handed down.

Besides, is the rampant spread of subways really the equivalent to urban modernization? What subways represent is not damage or danger, and will not necessarily bring about opposition between urban civilization and the natural environment. The two are totally able to coexist. But why do they appear opposed at this moment? The fundamental reason is people's belief the new is always more beautiful and the old must be replaced by the new to make the environment pretty. In real life, due to this misunderstanding, modernization appears extreme and intolerant. And society might lose direction in the luxuriousness of modernization. Around the country, almost all cities share the same face: Tall buildings and broad streets. Modern civilization is getting lost in the road of development.

It's our hope the authority will sit down and really listen to the public, showing respect to the balance between urban development and protection for historic culture, rather than repeatedly cutting down trees or damaging historical sites in the name of development. Once a romantic cultural atmosphere is peeled off, a city's charm will retreat.

The plane tree dispute in Nanjing reflects a common dilemma facing many Chinese cities in their development efforts. The difference is only in number, scale and extent. How to forge a way out of the dilemma? Apart from current laws and regulations, what is more important is a rational understanding of the balance between urban development and historical and cultural heritage protection.

Zhang Qianfan (The Beijing News): The Nanjing Urban Administrative Bureau did not ask for public advice when planning the subway project. They had therefore to adjust the plan when cutting down the trees caused anger.

Plane trees are considered a symbol of Nanjing and it is not the first time the cutting down of trees has become a national focus. Trees were cut down in the name of boosting the city's development. Although it's true that subways are part of the city and they do bring us great convenience, the question is: Can we develop the city without cutting down trees?

The key point is not the choice between subways and plane trees, but how to develop the city on preconditions of protecting natural environment properly and minimizing environmental damage. Although there are 150,000 street trees in Nanjing, couldn't we just figure out a solution to build subways without disturbing those trees? Maybe it will cost more and will not be as convenient for passengers as planned. But it is the citizens' right to make the decision on public affairs, such as the construction of subway.

What is the city's development plan? Does Nanjing need more subways? Can we cut down fewer trees when constructing subways? How can we reach a balance between subway construction and tree protection? Those should be decided by the people who live in the city. The government is obliged to provide information for thorough discussions before a wise choice is made.

Xu Bing (China Youth Daily): The dispute over plane trees has finally been settled under pressure from the public. The local government called a halt to tree removals, and the new project plan will be based on thorough investigation to negative impact on plane trees.

The local government showed respect for public opinion by suspending the removal plan. But the question is why they chose to ignore it at the very beginning? Although the local government seems to have improved its management methods on this issue, it was just a passive response to the public opinion rather than a result of any active move based on the public's will. A survey by Travel Channel shows, 82.68 percent of 4,053 surveyed people objected to tree removal while 65.5 percent maintained that a city's cultural features can coexist with urban modernization.

The significance of subways is not in their contribution to urban modernization, but in how citizens perceive them, which is obviously related to their possible benefit from them. Those able to benefit greatly from subways will definitely support them, while those who do not will try to safeguard the trees. Also, there are certain people who refuse to sacrifice trees for any benefits. Therefore, the conflict between trees and subways actually reflects citizens' perspectives on their lifestyle and their city.

The plane tree issue reflects deficiencies in the government's management methods. We are glad to see public opinion is exerting a greater influence on government administration, but our concern is, to what extent can the public really change or improve the government's administrative style?

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