In 2014, my school moved my office to a small building on the banks of Weiming Lake. Flanked by rows of tightly packed cypress trees, the lake is one of the most beautiful spots on the Peking University campus, but my good fortune ended up being a double-edged sword. The next spring, I had a severe allergy attack. The following year, I was diagnosed with asthma. To this day, spring is a painful time of year for me: My anticipation of the change in season is increasingly outweighed by my apprehension of the symptoms I know it’ll bring.
I’m far from alone. This spring, seasonal allergies seemed to reach epidemic levels, with social media users complaining about high pollen counts and sharing videos of sneezing fits that wouldn’t stop. This isn’t merely anecdotal: China’s allergy problem really does seem to be getting worse. According to a paper published by Zhang Luo, a leading expert in allergies with the National Health Commission, the percentage of survey respondents with self-reported hay fever symptoms increased by 50% between 2005 and 2011, and signs of the trend were detected in every region of the country.
What’s behind this nationwide rise in seasonal allergies? We can attribute much of the problem to choices made over the course of China’s urbanization, and more specifically, how the country has gone about “greening” its urban landscapes.
Contemporary China’s passion for greenery can be traced to the early 20th century. In 1924, the revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen proposed a massive afforestation program across northern and central China to mitigate the floods and droughts that had long plagued the region. (China later designated the day of Sun’s death — March 12 — as Arbor Day.) After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, northern China continued to face serious problems such as soil erosion and sandstorms, which had been exacerbated by damage from years of war. The new government made “greening the motherland” a priority, seeing it as a way to simultaneously improve people’s living conditions and China’s national image. In 1956, it launched a 12-year greening campaign, planting trees on barren hills, in rural areas, and along city roads.
This campaign inadvertently resulted in a rapid increase in the number of highly allergenic trees and other plants in China’s cities. Particularly in North China, where water is scarce, the hardy but allergenic cypress was a go-to choice for afforestation and greening campaigns. Poplars and willows were also popular choices, as they are attractive, grow quickly, and are cheap to maintain — even if they also produce clouds of catkins. The effects of this and other campaigns are so notable that you can sometimes pinpoint the age of a Beijing neighborhood’s green spaces by looking at its tree cover: Cypresses suggest the first half of the 20th century, willows the 1950s, and poplars, along with yet more cypress trees, point to the 1970s.
A boy walks through catkins in Beijing, April 19, 2021. Cheng Feng/IC
Elsewhere, the problems stem from lessons learned from the West. Influenced by European practice, cities like Shanghai embraced the French parasol tree. The tree’s strong roots and hardy branches make it safe for pedestrians, even on windy days, but the fluff it produces has become such a problem in recent years that residents of some municipalities, including the northwestern city of Xi’an, have called for a “French parasol tree boycott.”
I’m not in favor of a blanket elimination of French parasol trees — there are few better options for lining streets. However, that doesn’t mean city managers should just sit back and let them wreak havoc on people’s sinuses, especially since their fluff can be controlled by regular pruning and smart planting practices.
Unfortunately, few Chinese cities have that kind of expertise or awareness. Since the 1980s, cities embraced an approach to urban beautification best encapsulated by the slogan “flowers in three seasons and green all year round.” Evergreen trees like pines and cypresses have been planted all over cities to give the impression of a more verdant urban landscape, as have large numbers of flowering and leafy plants. Many of the most popular options, including ginkgo, lilac, glory tree, Chinese ash, photinia, goldenrain, and ailanthus, are allergenic.
The old fixation on “greening the motherland,” coupled with the contemporary obsession with beautification, has resulted in the mindset that “green is always good.” The idea is self-reinforcing: Most Chinese cities, even in the North, already had flowers in three seasons and were green all year round. Yet now, after repeated publicity campaigns, people’s expectations of how green their city should be have become warped. And the more residents and officials focus on greening rates and visual appearance at the expense of other considerations, the greater the risk to residents’ health, urban biodiversity, and even municipal budgets.
At present, there is little impetus for change. Municipal design, construction, and research departments all have a vested interest in keeping the urban landscaping funds flowing, while initiatives like the much-coveted official “civilized city” designation continue to incentivize the indiscriminate building of green spaces. According to Beijing municipal regulations, “allergy risk” is not a valid reason to transplant trees. And even if a plan is approved by the bureau, efforts to reduce or transplant trees in an area often run into resistance from landscapers and even members of the public, many of whom have grown understandably attached to the trees in their neighborhood.
There are reasons for hope, however. Take the central city of Changsha, for example. After local residents and kindergarteners in a newly built community reported being affected by the dense planting of French parasol trees along a nearby road, the city consulted with experts and ultimately decided to relocate 444 of the trees from around the community and replace them with camphor laurel and other less allergenic varieties of tree.
No one wants to live in an ugly, polluted city. But the correct answer here is to protect cities’ preexisting woodlands and wetlands, rather than paving them over and replanting them with non-native species. I hope stories like Changsha’s replanting will inspire more cities to protect their resident allergy-sufferers — especially near schools and residential areas — and perhaps even consider reallocating resources away from runaway greening projects and toward public health, adequate tree management, and rewilding.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhou Zhen.
(Header image: A woman covers her face while riding through a cloud of catkins in Beijing, 2014. Legal Evening News/People Visual)