Inside Beijing’s airpocalypse, a city made almost uninhabitable by pollution – ‘Now we have the dome, it’s perfect weather all year round’Posted by Jim at Sunday, December 21, 2014
By Oliver Wainwright
16 December 2014
BEIJING (The Guardian) – The scene could be straight from a science-fiction film: a vision of everyday life, but with one jarring difference that makes you realise you’re on another planet, or in a distant future era.
A sports class is in full swing on the outskirts of Beijing. Herds of children charge after a football on an artificial pitch, criss-crossed with colourful markings and illuminated in high definition by the glare of bright white floodlights. It all seems normal enough – except for the fact that this familiar playground scene is taking place beneath a gigantic inflatable dome.
“It’s a bit of a change having to go through an airlock on the way to class,” says Travis Washko, director of sports at the British School of Beijing. “But the kids love it, and parents can now rest assured their children are playing in a safe environment.”
The reason for the dome becomes apparent when you step outside. A grey blanket hangs in the sky, swamping the surroundings in a de-saturated haze and almost obscuring the buildings across the street. A red flag hangs above the school’s main entrance to warn it’s a no-go day: stay indoors at all costs. The airpocalypse has arrived.
Beijing’s air quality has long been a cause of concern, but the effects of its extreme levels of pollution on daily life can now be seen in physical changes to the architecture of the city. Buildings and spaces are being reconfigured and daily routines modified to allow normal life to go on beneath the toxic shroud.
Paper face masks have been common here for a long time, but now the heavy-duty kind with purifying canister filters – of the sort you might wear for a day of asbestos removal – are frequently seen on the streets. On bad days, bike lanes are completely deserted, as people stay at home or retreat to the conditioned environments of hermetically-sealed malls. It’s as if the 21-million-strong population of the Chinese capital is engaged in a mass city-wide rehearsal for life on an inhospitable planet. Only it’s not a rehearsal: the poisonous atmosphere is already here.
The British School is the latest of Beijing’s international colleges to go to the drastic lengths of building an artificial bubble in which to simulate a normal environment beneath the cloak of smog. Earlier this year, the nearby International School of Beijing lavished £3m on a pair of domes covering an area of six tennis courts, with hospital-grade air-filtration systems, following the lead of the Beijing satellite of exclusive British private school Dulwich College, which opened its own clean-air dome last year.
“Pollution is what all the parents are talking about,” says Nicole Washko, Travis’s wife, who also works at the school where their two daughters go, too. “More and more ex-pat families are leaving this country for the sake of their kids’ health. So if all the other schools have a dome, then we’ve got to have a dome.” A non-toxic learning environment is perhaps the least parents might expect, when they’re paying £20,000-a-year fees.
The British School has recently undergone a complete filtration overhaul, as if preparing for atmospheric armageddon, with new air curtains installed above the doors and almost 200 ceiling-mounted air purifiers put in to complement the floor-standing kind in each classroom. Windows must remain closed, and pupils must adhere to the strict air safety code. Reception classes stay indoors when the air quality index (AQI) hits 180 – measured on an official scale of 500 by various sensors across the city. For primary kids the limit is 200, while the eldest students are allowed to brave the elements up to 250. Anything above 300 and school trips are called off. The World Health Organisation, meanwhile, recommends a safe exposure level of 25.
“We were finding our sports fixtures were being cancelled so often, and kids were getting cabin fever from being kept in doors so much of the time,” says Travis Washko. “But now we have the dome, it’s perfect weather all year round.” [more]