Wednesday, Jul 26, 2017, 8:44 PM CST – China

Society

Eco Park

RUSH JOB

The Tianjin government’s haste to build an ecological park on the site of the port city’s deadly August blast has generated safety concerns and criticism over the memorial’s design

A light rail train station that was seriously damaged by the blast in Tianjin undergoes renovation, November 17, 2015

Three months after the August 12 chemical warehouse explosion that rocked the port city of Tianjin and claimed at least 160 lives, construction began on an “ecological park” located on the site of the blast. On a fall day in 2015, construction workers were busy laying turf at the disaster site, while a dozen excavators clawed at the earth in order to replace the contaminated soil.

Meanwhile, residents whose homes were damaged by the blast are moving back in following government-backed renovations. Official data have shown that more than half of the residents affected by the explosion have agreed to return to their homes.

Plans for the park have stirred up controversy ever since they were announced in September. Critics expressed concerns that the soil in the area may still be contaminated with cyanide, condemning the government for its haste to construct the park, particularly at a time when the exact cause of the accident remains unknown.

Haste

The 24-hectare park will be built on the site of the blast and its surrounding area, with a focus on four concepts: “ecology, activity, daily life and memorial,” according to the Binhai New Area Planning and Land Resources Administration (BNAPLRA). (Binhai New Area is the name of the Tianjin district where the explosion took place.) The organization is also planning to build other facilities at the location, including an experimental elementary school, a kindergarten, five roads and several greenbelts. These will occupy a total area of 43 hectares.

Guo Zhigang, head of the administration’s planning department, told NewsChina that the park is expected to be completed by the end of July 2016. He said that after a week of soliciting public opinion on the project, the administration had already received about 450 calls and emails, with 90 percent of them “in favor of the construction plan.”

Yet the officials’ haste in executing this project may have caused more problems than they have admitted. A BNAPLRA official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told NewsChina that the plans for the undertaking began taking form on August 20, eight days after the blast, even though details of the casualties were still unknown at the time. Several senior designers told our reporter that the park design left much to be desired and some necessary procedures had been skipped. For example, if land used for industry is to become a green space, plans first needs to be approved by legislators of the Tianjin People’s Congress, and that has yet to happen in this case.

What’s more, as a large public project, the government has to release a 30-day invitation for bids. The enterprise that wins the bid should spend at least one or two months devising its design before submitting it to expert review. This entire process typically requires at least half a year.

In 2007, the Tangshan Urban Planning Bureau announced a request for proposals for what would become the Tangshan Earthquake Memorial Park, a site that commemorates the 240,000 people who died in the 1976 natural disaster. The bureau received 276 design proposals from 17 countries, with the winning design choosing to preserve a number of relics from the earthquake to illustrate the devastating impact of the disaster to visitors. The 40-hectare memorial park took two and a half years to complete.

Amid the post-Tianjin park announcement uproar, Guo Zhigang explained that the construction plan was just a preliminary idea that was made to invite public discussion, so two weeks were sufficient. He added that the plan was revised several times after receiving feedback from the public. “The revisions include adjustments to the park entrance, the landscape design, the kinds of trees [to be planted] as well as the parking lot,” he said.

Design

According to the local Tianjin government, the park’s design and construction took a relatively short time to initiate because of its smaller scale – the most considerable task was the planting of trees, grass, and flowers. The memorial, designed by the Tianjin Academy of Fine Arts, is made up of five sculptures split into two groups that memorialize fallen firefighters. At least 96 firefighters were killed in the explosion, and eight remain missing.

“It is easy to complete the landscape work and to put up the sculptures after they’re made. The ecological park is not to be designed and built like the 9/11 Memorial park in the US,” Guo Zhigang told our reporter, referring to a project which took years of planning and construction before it became open to the public.

Guo said that the authorities are very clear about the design and purpose of the memorial park, which were both finalized after taking into account comments from members of the public, especially those who live in the area. He added that many respondents were against the plan to build a memorial, a monument or even sculptures; some said they wanted nothing more than a park where they can “walk their dogs, or exercise.”

“Among the people who are in favor of building the park, local residents accounted for 70 percent, and we have to take their opinions into account,” Guo said.

Many residents living in the area told our reporter that they do not want to see the monument when they leave their homes, but at the same time they would like the park to have some commemorative significance. “Artistic design can make a difference,” one resident said.

A designer who is familiar with the ecological park’s layout told NewsChina that, while the best way to memorialize an incident is putting up appropriate sculptures, the sculptures and monument planned for the ecological park are too big. This will give them impressive visual impact, but will also generate a sense of distance from the disaster. Also, concentrating solely on the casualties obscures other aspects of the incident, such as its cause, significantly weakening the message of caution and learning from the past.

For the designer, it is a second-rate plan for nothing more than a common urban park. “Even in a second-tier city [competition], this kind of design would not be likely to win the bid [under normal circumstances],” he said.

During an interview with NewsChina, another government official from the BNAPLRA who spoke on condition of anonymity said it is just a park, rather than a complicated project, and it is only “important because an explosion hit the area.”

Environment

The excavators at the park site were digging 30 centimeters deep to remove the blast zone soil so that workers could clean and replace it, in accordance with the park plan. Guo Zhigang said that the Tianjin Eco-city Environmental Protection Co. is taking care of the soil restoration. He said the company has already tested the soil and the contamination is less severe than originally thought. It will take two months to finish replacing the soil, at which time winter planting will commence.

In the opinion of a soil treatment expert who preferred to remain anonymous, it is more difficult to control and treat polluted soil than water and gas, because the process requires the identification of the type and density of pollutants in different areas before chemical degradation measures can begin. After a while, a new round of surveys must be conducted to test the validity of the original evaluation.

“It could never be finished within two months,” he said, adding that if polluted materials are not disposed of properly, it is likely to “result in secondary pollution.”

According to a survey by the Tianjin Environment Monitoring Center conducted on August 19, a week after the deadly blast, eight monitoring spots within the evacuated area detected excessive amounts of cyanide – the highest level was 356 times the maximum level allowed under national safety regulations.

Experts first gathered to evaluate the design of the park on October 8. They unanimously approved the plan, agreeing that no similar meeting would be necessary afterward. According to a notice on the BNAPLRA website posted shortly afterwards, the experts said that “the explosion has affected a limited area, and the contamination can be treated through physical, chemical and biological methods.”

Guo Zhigang told our reporter that it would take time to see whether the park will be popular amongst local residents; in fact, the government is not optimistic about a large number of visitors because the park is far from the city center. Besides, it is not likely to generate any tourism revenue, which also “motivated the government to choose the current design.”

Guo said that officials were not rushing to build the park in order to complete construction before the blast’s first anniversary, although they are on track to do so. He recognized that the one-year timeframe is a bit short. “But the design and the timeline are not dependent on us,” he added.

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