China’s leading property developer commits to “Swift-friendly” buildings

“We have designed and built buildings for over 20 years. Our focus has always been on humans and how to make our lives better. In the future, we need to consider biodiversity and to create a better living environment for both citizens and wildlife, such as the Beijing Swift.”

– Pan Shiyi, Chairman of SOHO China

On Thursday 27 June 2019, Mr Pan Shiyi, Chairman of SOHO China, the leading property development and management company in China, met with four student “Beijing Swift Ambassadors” from Beijing schools. In response to their presentations about the Beijing Swift – its lifestyle, its migration, the falling population and what schools were doing to help – and a video message of support from Hank Paulson, former Treasury Secretary and Chairman of the Paulson Institute, Mr Pan made three major commitments:

First, to trial the retrofitting of swift boxes on two of its buildings in Beijing

Second, to consider incorporating of biodiversity criteria into new building design

And third, to promote biodiversity among the building sector in China.

That’s quite a statement. And, as a prominent figure in Chinese industry and a national celebrity with more than 19 million followers on Weibo (China’s version of Twitter), this big announcement by Mr Pan will reach far and wide and, we hope, influence the business community not only in China but overseas.

BEI Zhilei explaining the difference between Swallows and Swifts
CHEN Yanzhi explaining the incredible migration of the Beijing Swift
JING Sicheng spoke about how the number of nest sites had fallen in the city due to the loss of traditional buildings
GAO Chuxuan briefing about school’s efforts to make and erect nest boxes for the Beijing Swift.
Hank Paulson, former US Treasury Secretary and Chairman of the Paulson Institute, recorded a special message of support for the SOHO China Beijing Swift Project
Pan Shiyi setting out SOHO China’s commitments following the Beijing Swift Ambassadors’ presentation and the message from Hank Paulson.

The roots of this initiative go back to December 2013 when, by chance, I had a conversation with Dick Newell at a BirdLife International reception in London about the potential to track the Beijing Swift’s migration, until then a mystery. Back in Beijing, after a few conversations, a project was born and, in May 2014, a team of volunteers from the China Birdwatching Society, the Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Center and the Summer Palace joined Dick, Lyndon Kearsley and I to fit geolocators to 31 Beijing Swifts. A year later, after re-trapping 13 of the original 31 birds, we were able to prove for the first time that these special birds migrated to southern Africa for the northern winter.

Since then, I have visited more than 20 schools to tell the story of the Beijing Swift and, invariably, when the students hear about the population decline caused by the loss of nest sites due to the demolition of traditional style buildings, they want to help. Many schools have set up projects to make and erect artificial nest boxes on their school campuses (just this spring, we received exciting news from ISB – the International School of Beijing – that they had been successful in attracting swifts). Then, at one school, a young girl put up her hand and asked if we could write to the bosses of the building companies to ask them to make new buildings friendlier for swifts.

What a fabulous idea!

And so, student “Beijing Swift Ambassadors” wrote a letter to Mr Pan Shiyi, Chairman of SOHO China, asking him to help and yesterday they were invited to meet him to make the case.

After a scene-setting clip from the BBC Natural History Unit about the Beijing Swift, recorded in the capital last year as part of the “Wild Metropolis” series, the meeting began with a short introduction by Terry, followed by a video message of support from Hank Paulson, former US Treasury Secretary and Chairman of the Paulson Institute. The floor was then given to the student Beijing Swift Ambassadors to set out their case. They were eloquent, passionate and very persuasive.

The Beijing Swift Ambassadors (from left to right): Chen Yanzhi, Keystone Academy, GAO Chuxuan, No.13 Middle School, BEI Zhilei, The High School Affiliated to Renmin University of China and JING Sicheng, No.2 Middle School Affiliated to Beijing Normal University.

Mr Pan listened carefully and responded with his groundbreaking commitments, including presenting the students with signed, handmade swift boxes made by Mr Pan personally from recycled wood reclaimed from SOHO China’s building sites. In return, the students presented Mr Pan with a signed certificate, awarding him the title “Beijing Swift Ambassador”.

Mr Pan signed a handmade box for each Swift Ambassador
Mr Pan receiving his “Beijing Swift Ambassador” certificate from his fellow Ambassadors

After the presentations, guests were invited to the roof to watch the Beijing Swifts wheeling around Zhengyangmen Gate at the southern end of Tiananmen Square. This must be one of the best places in the world to view the Beijing Swift!

The SOHO China Beijing Swift Project logo
The view across Tiananmen Square is made even more impressive by the sight and sound of screaming Beijing Swifts
Mr Pan pointing out Beijing Swifts from the rooftop overlooking Tiananmen Square

This initiative could not be better timed. Next year, governments will meet in Kunming, China, to agree new targets to slow and stop the decline in wildlife at the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. This meeting happens in the context of a biodiversity crisis – according to best estimates, we have lost around 60% of wildlife on Earth in the last 50 years. But whilst the governmental meeting is crucial, it is clear that governments alone cannot tackle the biodiversity crisis. All sectors of society including cities, regions, communities, NGOs and business must find ways to incorporate biodiversity criteria into their daily activities.

That is why this initiative by SOHO China and Mr Pan is so important. It shows that we can develop, we can have cutting-edge design and functionality and, at the same time, make a positive contribution to biodiversity. It is leadership of the highest order and will send a strong signal to business in China and overseas.

With the world’s spotlight on biodiversity next October, if you were a CEO, wouldn’t you want your company to have a good story to tell about how its supporting wildlife?

Huge thanks to the Beijing Swift Ambassadors, without whom this project would not have been possible. Their professional and slick presentation was exceptional. And a big thank you to Hank Paulson for his strong message of support; it was very special for the Swift Ambassadors and for SOHO China to hear these words of encouragement from a person of his stature. We are, of course, indebted to SOHO China, especially Pan Shiyi and Charlie (Tang Yin), who not only put on a special event but ensured it was backed up by lasting, meaningful commitments. Thank you to Dick Newell for providing technical advice to SOHO China about swift boxes and for being so encouraging. We are grateful to the BBC Natural History Unit for providing the clip of the Beijing Swift and to my colleague, Luo Peng, at EcoAction who worked hard to help prepare the students and to the SEE Foundation for their support for the project. Finally, I’d like to say a huge thank you to Wendy Paulson for initially connecting me to Pan Shiyi and Zhang Xin and for her unstinting support.

Beijing: could it be the capital of biodiversity?

When you think of Beijing, what image comes into your head?  The Great Wall? Maybe Tiananmen Square? Or maybe air pollution?  For those of a more mature generation, maybe even the picture of a city full of bicycles..?  Whatever the image, I suspect that for most people, birds or wildlife might not be front and centre.

That could be about to change.

In 2020, Beijing will host the Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).  This clumsily-named UN convention meets every two years and I suspect most people not directly involved with the process would be hard pressed to say much about any of the previous meetings or what has been achieved.  However, the 2020 meeting promises to be different.  It is the time when governments are due to conclude an agreement on targets and measures to slow, stop and eventually reverse the loss of wildlife on Earth.

The meeting will take place in the context of the most recent Living Planet index showing that, since 1970, we have lost more than 60% of the animals on our planet.  That is a shocking statistic and should be a wake-up call for governments and the public everywhere.

As host of the CBD, the Chinese government will want a successful outcome and, with recent progress towards President Xi Jinping’s vision of ‘ecological civilisation’ including a ban on further reclamation of intertidal mudflats and nomination of key coastal wetland sites for World Heritage status, the creation of a national park system, species-specific conservation work, e.g. on Baer’s Pochard and Scaly-sided Merganser, the country is creating the foundation for a positive story to tell.

But what about the host city?  Could hosting the CBD be an opportunity to change the global image of Beijing from one of a crowded, polluted, grid-locked city to one of the world’s best capital cities for wildlife?

Beijing is already one of the best major capital cities in the world for birds, with around 500 species recorded.  And in case the Mayor of Beijing is reading, here are some ideas that would require very limited resources but which could have a major impact on Beijing’s image:

Idea 1: A world-class wetland reserve in Beijing

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Beijing had a large waterbody that could be an important stopover site for migratory birds, including cranes, geese, ducks, shorebirds and others?  Well, just 75km from Tiananmen Square lies Miyun Reservoir.  It is Beijing’s largest drinking water reservoir and, until public access was prohibited in April 2016, it was the best birding site in the capital attracting flocks of cranes, bustards and large numbers of waterfowl, not to mention huge numbers of buntings in winter.   However, after a large fire in the area and concerns about water quality, much of the land around the reservoir – ideal habitat for shorebirds, cranes, bustards, birds of prey, buntings and pipits – has been cleared and planted with mostly non-native trees in monocultures.  This policy has undoubtedly had a negative impact on birds.  Whilst it is understandable to prioritise water quality, this need not be at the expense of wildlife.  Internationally, there are examples of reservoirs being managed for both water quality and wildlife.  One example is Rutland Water, England’s largest drinking water reservoir.  In fact, Rutland Water is managed for three objectives – water quality, birds and recreation.  If we can share this experience and demonstrate that a large water body can be managed as a place for wildlife as well as water quality, there would be an opportunity to develop a management plan for Miyun Reservoir that maintained a high standard of water quality whilst attracting world-class numbers of cranes and other waterbirds and providing limited public access, attracting millions of visitors each year and an associated boost to the local economy.  Given the CBD conference will likely be in the last quarter of the year, the Beijing government could even invite international media to see the large flocks of cranes that would almost certainly be present if the area was managed sympathetically.

Potential benefits:

– High standard of water quality

– Providing a refuge for thousands of waterbirds, including threatened and endangered species such as cranes and bustards

– Providing opportunities for the urban population to connect with nature

– Through the visiting public staying in local hotels and eating in local restaurants, bringing income to the local people in relatively poor Miyun county

 

Idea 2: 10% Wild

The Summer Palace, Beijing..

Beijing enjoys some large and expansive green spaces.  Parks such as the Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace, Yuanmingyuan (Old Summer Palace) and the Olympic Forest Park are all hugely popular places providing urban Beijingers with opportunities to enjoy the outdoors.  Anyone who has visited these parks will know that they are heavily manicured with an army of staff ready to collect any leaf that falls or any blade of grass that grows in one of the cultivated flower beds.  These parks are over-managed to the extent that they are not as friendly for wildlife as they could be.  One idea is for the management of these spaces to leave “10% wild”.  This would mean no significant active management of an allocated part of the park – no use of insecticides, no removal of native plants and no cutting of grass or removal of fallen leaves.  Each park could partner with a local school, the students of which would be invited to undertake surveys of biodiversity – insects, birds and plants – and compare the “10% wild” with other managed parts of the park.  Interpretation signs around the allocated area could promote this experiment to visitors, publishing the results of the student surveys and helping to engage the public about wildlife.  After two years there could be a review to assess the results and to explore whether the experiment should be expanded.

Potential benefits:

– More and better habitat for wildlife in urban Beijing

– Students at local schools become citizen scientists

– Public engagement on the role of parks in providing homes for wildlife in cities

– Fewer resources needed for park management

 

Idea 3: Urban wildlife oases

An urban oasis in Shunyi District

Beijing lies on the East Asian-Australasian Flyway and, every spring and autumn, millions of birds pass the Chinese capital on their way to and from breeding grounds to the north and wintering grounds to the south.  To make these remarkable journeys, birds require places to rest and refuel along the way. The trans-continental journeys, such as those of the Beijing Swift and Beijing Cuckoo, are challenging for the hardiest of birds, and the challenges are only increased as vast areas of natural habitat along migration pathways are altered or eliminated, making it difficult for exhausted birds to find suitable places to rest and refuel.

“Urban wildlife oases” could provide ‘stepping stones’ for migrating birds to cross urban areas where there is limited quality habitat.  Each community has the potential to provide important habitat for native birds – and a richer, more beautiful place to live for people.

To illustrate the potential, I’d like to convey my experience with a patch of land close to my apartment in Shunyi District.  Surrounded by new developments, including apartments and shopping malls, this 1km x 1km patch of land, very close to the airport, has yet to be developed and, in the two years since I moved to the area and in almost 100 visits, I have recorded 156 species of bird, five species of mammal and nine species of butterfly.  Highlights have included Band-bellied Crake, Pallas’s Rosefinch, Siberian Thrush and Rough-legged Buzzard, demonstrating the importance of the site to migratory birds.

The Shunyi patch is a small area (1km x 1km) of undisturbed land close to Beijing Capital International Airport. The 156 bird species recorded (of which at least 140 are migrants) in just over 2 years shows how important such areas are for migratory birds.

Maintaining a patchwork of urban oases across the city, potentially with some limited public access, would cost little – beyond the opportunity cost of the land – and provide significant benefits to both wildlife and people.

Potential benefits:

– providing shelter and food for some of the millions of migratory birds that pass through the capital each spring and autumn; plus important areas for breeding and wintering species

– with limited public access, these sites could provide the public with access to wild spaces and places for students from local schools to become citizen scientists

– interpretation would mean that these urban oases could act as outdoor classrooms for Beijing’s urban population

 

Idea 4: Adopting the Beijing Swift

A typical track of a Beijing Swift.

In 2015, a project involving Beijing Birdwatching Society and international experts discovered, for the first time, the migration route and wintering grounds of the Beijing Swift (Apus apus pekinensis).  It was a hugely popular story, covered by mainstream media – both print and broadcast – and engaged millions of people, most of whom would never ordinarily take an interest in birds.  The Beijing Swift is the perfect symbol for modern Beijing.  One of the old names for Beijing is Yanjing, which, in Chinese, breaks down to “燕” (Yan) and “京” (Jing).  The first character, “燕” means “swift” or “swallow”, so the name Yanjing could be interpreted as “Swift capital”.  This bird also links China with Central Asia, the Gulf and Africa, aligned with the much-touted “One Belt, One Road” initiative to revive old trade routes.  Why not formally adopt the Beijing Swift as the official bird of the Chinese capital?  There can be no more appropriate candidate.

Potential benefits:

– Associating Beijing with a bird of endurance, elegance and global reach

– Greater public awareness about the wildlife of Beijing

– Encouragement to businesses and communities to help stem the decline of the Beijing Swift – caused by the demolition of traditional buildings – by erecting artificial nest boxes at suitable sites and encouraging the inclusion of Swift-friendly designs in new buildings

 

Idea 5: Removing the invisible killer: mist nets at China’s airports

When thousands of environmentally-minded people arrive in Beijing for the UN Conference on Biological Diversity, the first thing they will see is lines and lines of mist nets alongside the runway at Beijing Capital International Airport, many of which will hold bird corpses dangling in the wind.  China’s policy to address the (serious) risk of bird strikes is to line each runway with several kilometres of mist nets.  This method is only effective against small birds which, unless in large flocks, represent almost no risk to aircraft.  Nets at ground level are ineffective against the more significant risks associated with flocks of large birds such as geese, swans or herons.  In fact, guidance by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) makes no mention of mist nets as a way to mitigate the risk of bird strikes.  Recommended good practice is to undertake a risk assessment at each airport to identify the unique risks from wildlife and take appropriate measures to address these specific risks.  Non-lethal methods such as managing habitat, playing distress calls, using birds of prey etc are the most effective methods.  China, with more than 300 airports, takes a general approach of simply erecting lines of mist nets.  It’s lazy and ineffective.  Could CBD be the catalyst for a review of this policy?

Potential benefits:

– stopping the unnecessary killing of millions of birds each year

– more effective management of the risk of bird strikes

– a better international image for China and Beijing

 

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With two years to go until Beijing hosts what will probably be the world’s largest governmental conference on biodiversity, there is ample time to develop a strategic plan that would make Beijing one of the world’s most wildlife-friendly cities.  Instead of “smoggy Beijing”, wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to label Beijing as the capital of ecological civilisation?  These are just five ideas.  If you have more, please comment and let us know.. you never know who might be reading.

 

For a helpful general overview of the CBD process and the current status, read this article by Jonathan Watts.