Audio Transcript:

Magistad: The city of Beijing has ancient roots, and a layout designed centuries ago, on a north-south axis, to curry the favor of heaven. The imperial city also had a strict social hierarchy, and strict rules for who could live in the capital.

Beijing teahouseBeijing teahouse

Magistad: At a teahouse near Tiananmen Square, Yang Yizong, a rickshaw driver and descendent of a Ming Dynasty chef, pines for those days:

Yang YizongYang Yizong

Yang: "Back then, there were strict guidelines for how to lay out the city, how to build and decorate everything from royal palaces to ordinary people's homes. There were codes of conduct, telling people how to live. This was part of our cultural and social identity, and a nation with such a long history should not have been changed by one person's will."

Magistad: The 'one person' Yang is talking about is Mao Zedong, Mao tore down Beijing's ancient city walls, built factory complexes within the city, and subdivided courtyard homes, throwing strangers in with the families who'd lived there for generations.

But Beijing's biggest changes have come in the three decades since Mao died and economic reform started. They've only sped up since 2001, when Beijing won the right to host this year's Olympics. Even the neighborhood where Yang's ancestor, the imperial chef, once lived hasn't entirely been spared - and Yang offers to show me what's happening there.

Hutong trafficHutong traffic

I hop onto his rickshaw, and we pedal down a narrow alley just south of Tiananmen Square. It opens into a lane of courtyard houses, called a hutong. Old men sit on tiny stools, shooting the breeze. Women haggle at a corner shop, where freshly slaughtered chickens hang by their necks. A man pedals by on a bicycle cart, calling out for iron to recycle.

Magistad: This is Qianmen, a neighborhood that goes back centuries. The government is turning it into a kind of Disneyfied version of a hutong.

Magistad: Workers are busy tearing down many old buildings, and then rebuilding them, as old buildings. Another part of Qianmen has been leveled and turned into an artificial period complex of upscale restaurants and shops�a stop for tourists during the Olympics. Yang isn't impressed:

Yang: �All these new buildings coming up in Beijing are like the jeans that people in foreign countries wear - they have nothing to do with our traditional Chinese culture, and they've destroyed Beijing's layout and cultural atmosphere."

Magistad: There's a belated new emphasis among Beijing's city planners on preserving at least some of the city's traditional layout and flavor. But already, most of the old courtyard neighborhoods have been destroyed, their tight-knit communities scattered.

The loss of community is a real loss, says Zhou Rong, a 40-year-old architect at Beijing's Qinghua University. But he thinks there's a lot of romanticizing of the way of life of the old hutongs:

Zhou: "Can you imagine hundreds of people sharing only one toilet? So every morning, it's a very, very long line. This is miserable, very cold, the heating system, in that toilet. Very miserable. This is the deep impression of what I remember of the hutongs."

Architect Zhou: "The contemporary Chinese city is very bad."Architect Zhou: "The contemporary Chinese city is very bad."

Zhou now lives in a modern apartment building, with its own bathroom, and central heating. And he wouldn't trade that for anything. But one thing he misses about the Beijing neighborhoods he knew as a child, is the camaraderie:

Zhou: "The modern city, the contemporary Chinese city, is very bad. People become more and more unfamiliar with each other. I don't know even one of my neighbors�I don't know their career, their names, how many people live next door.
Magistad: What if, when you move in, you knock on people's doors and say, 'hi, I'm Zhou Rong. I just moved here, I just want to introduce myself. How would they react?
Zhou: "They maybe think I am a crazy person. (Laughs) Because this kind of culture is not, how to say, promote people live in a very friendly way. You have to make your personal space, they rob the space from the city, as much as possible, you know. And at the same time, you have to refuse other people to share this space with you. "

Magistad: The idea of walling yourself off from others does have roots in old Beijing and other Chinese cities - where walls kept outsiders away. That was true both of city walls and of courtyard houses. They were built to look inward, with high walls and only a windowless door opening to the street. In modern Beijing, the walls are now around upscale gated communities.

Schmidt: "For me, that is one of the biggest problems in Beijing, that makes it in a way more and more gated and hostile.

Magistad: That's architect Andre Schmidt, who has co-written a book on Beijing's development., called "Big Bang Beijing." He says the city's turning into a series of residential and commercial islands, separated by parking lots and moats of green space that passersby can look at but can't use:

Schmidt: "It makes the city divided into a much larger grid, referring back to the need for cars, and a not-so pedestrian -friendly situation."

Andre SchmidtAndre Schmidt

Magistad: Schmidt says this as we walk across a chaotic eight-lane road, and under a flyover. The air is thick with exhaust. In a few short years, Beijing has gone from being a city of bicycles to a city of three and a half million cars - many of them idling in gridlock when they aren't trying to take over bicycle lanes. The World Bank has estimated that some 700,000 Chinese die prematurely each year from illness related to air and water pollution. City planner Tan Xuxiang says the Beijing government has noted the problem, and is working on it:

Tan: He says, the government has imposed strict emissions controls on vehicles. It's building several new subway lines, and encouraging Beijing's ever-growing urban population to move to self-contained suburbs and new towns on Beijing's periphery. Many of them are designed to be more pedestrian-friendly, built on a human scale.

Magistad: That would be a welcome development for architect Zhou Rong. He says, too much of Chinese urban planning, throughout history, has been more about power than about enhancing human experience:

Zhou: "Chinese cities are treated like a ritual symbol, you know, a kind of symbol of authority, the power of the country, the highest place of the emperor and the country. Chinese always treat the city as a symbol, not as a place you live in. "

Magistad: Zhou says successive rulers in Beijing have tried to build the city as their own utopia - first the Beijing of emperors, with its precise symmetry and strict hierarchy. Then, the Beijing of Mao Zedong - with imposing buildings and the massive Tiananmen Square. Now that Communism is dead in all but name, he says, China's leaders are chasing a new myth, of city as capitalist utopia:

Zhou: "The city is kind of a god. You have to obey every demand from the city. In the name of the city, the government can demolish everybody's home, for any reason. The reason is for urbanization. You can't go against that god."

Magistad: There's another god, Zhou says, and that's money. He says too many cities around China are run these days like profit-seeking corporations, with municipal officials doing secret deals with developers without thinking much about how all this will affect residents' intereactions or mobility or even aesthetic enjoyment of the city. Drive around Beijing, and you'll see mostly a relentless landscape of towers and concrete. Many of China's provincial cities have copied this model, and have lost their own unique flavor in the process.

Hutong storeHutong store

Magistad: The city still has a few of its backstreets left, where neighbors sit outside, playing mahjong and swapping gossip. But it's an ever shrinking part of an ever more modern city - and much of the new generation that's grown up in it, like 17-year-old Yu Zhong Yue, doesn't entirely know or care what's missing:

Yu: "I think the way Beijing is now is much better than my parents' Beijing. Back then, life was really bitter. I like Beijing's buzz, its towers and shopping malls and edgy fast pace. It takes me a long time to think of anything that might have been better about the way Beijing was before��.. The environment, yeah, I guess the air was cleaner back then."

For The World, I'm Mary Kay Magistad in Beijing.