“We can’t accept the fact that the trees will disappear” – the intangible costs of development

One of the first things that a person notices when they arrive in Nanjing, is that unlike other Chinese cities, many of the main streets are lined with mature trees. Some of these trees were planted over 60 years ago, and in some ways are the symbol of Nanjing.

The trees are so loved, that around this time last year, when the local gov’t planned the removal of 600 trees for subway stations, people protested and managed to get the officials to redraw their plans to limit the effect on the trees (Nanjing has 15 additional lines planned for the next 18 years). The protest was unique in that it was not related to health concerns as other environmental campaigns have been, but that people simply enjoyed the shade and beauty of the trees more than the convenience a metro would bring. The report quoted a man who said, “They are the pride of the city, we can’t accept the fact that they will disappear.”

But now with the Youth Olympic Games just two years away, the gov’t is feeling the need to modernize (or has an excuse to push through troublesome projects).

The first big step is to make sweeping changes to the infrastructure of the city. This past weekend a viaduct was demolished to make way for a future tunnel, that will supposedly be able to handle traffic better (To my knowledge, no study has been done comparing the cost of enforcing traffic laws to building bigger roads which accommodate crazy drivers). Three more viaducts will be demolished in the near future as well. As one man said to reporters from China Daily, the viaducts only served 16 of their potential 30 years and added, “It’s a huge waste of resources, and I feel sorry for the viaduct.” The report also points to gov’t subsidies promoting car ownership as a possible cause of the current traffic.

Then last night as I was on my way home, I saw the trees coming down. Normally, when I talk with cabbies, I solicit their opinions first and try to hide my own, but I didn’t manage that last night.

“Why are they doing this?” I asked the driver.

“To make space for a bigger road,” he said.

“But Nanjing is famous for its trees. This is a very sad thing.”

“Yes it is,” he said, “we should protect our trees.”

I got out and took a few pictures, and as I did I noticed a number of other locals shaking their heads as they walked past the scene. Some stopped to question whether or not it was really necessary, but it was clearly already too late to petition. Totally more than 50 trees were marked for removal.

While it did seem that some of the trees were being prepared for relocation, the last time the gov’t took such actions roughly 1/3 of the relocated trees died in the process.

When I showed these pictures to a co-worker this morning she shook her head. “Now it’s going to be even hotter this summer with no shade.” The other let out a pained moan, before adding, “What a pity, these trees are a symbol of Sun Zhongshan (Sun Yatsen’s mausoleum is located in the city).”

At the moment, most protests in China are related to land grabs and health concerns, but it looks like the near future will bring an increasing number of protests related to quality of life issues like the shade of old trees and the other intangible benefits of living in an ancient place.

8 responses to ““We can’t accept the fact that the trees will disappear” – the intangible costs of development”

  1. 34f67dg72 says:

    “But Nanjing is famous for it’s trees.” its trees

  2. Andrew The says:

    “A thing is about to happen that has not happened since the Elder Days. The Ents are going to wake up and find that they are strong.” –Gandalf <>

    ( So I’m a nerd. 🙂 )

  3. H. Lincoln says:

    Last year on an unnamed Nanjing-based listserv one of my Chinese friends sent out the message: “I thought you guys would not have any interests about this issue. However, as you all realized this situation right now, I just want to notice you that there is going to be a sit-down strike/action at 南京图书馆, 3pm this Saturday(March 19th). You are welcomed to join me if you are brave. On another hand, you are noticed to keep certain distance away from that area.”

    He was taken in for “tea” with the cops afterwards.

    I saw some of the relocation happening. They cut out the roots. I was walking down Qingdao Lu and saw big trucks carrying trees for replanting, but it was a total farce, because they were cut above ground-level. Almost as good as the foundation on the Beijing-Xi’an high-speed rail.

    As your pictures show, this was all done at night. I was walking home from the bar at 2 AM when I saw this.

    15 MORE subway lines? What the hell?

    • dudepp says:

      To be fair and be clear, they done this at night so traffic isn’t disrupted during day, not to be all ninja and what not 😀

      • Tom says:

        I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive.

      • dudepp says:

        Agreed tom, but just wanted to point there are sometimes other social factors which reason working at night besides espionage and deception.

  4. BB says:

    What a waste. Surely they could have either moved the planned metro lines a bit or spent more money on excavating the tunnels while preserving the trees (and as they’ve shown by their demolition of the viaducts, money is not an issue).

  5. […] Perhaps this is why I was so frustrated by what I saw in the countryside. Yes, there is still clearly a need, and yes, China is still funding infrastructure with billions of dollars, but a tiny percentage of that is reaching those who live in poverty. These optimistic economists fail to ask whether or not these resources are being used to fulfill actual needs, or if they are being wasted on vanity projects (like turning bridges into tunnels). […]

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