A once poorly managed coal producing area in Lanzhou, capital of Gansu province, is undergoing environmental restoration that will balance economic development with living conditions.
Located in Lanzhou's Honggu district, Yaojie's mining history dates back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Centuries-long mining and excessive exploitation in modern times have caused great damage to its environment.
Widespread unregulated mining by private companies also created safety hazards, including clouds of dust, surface subsidence and resource exhaustion.
"The environment was at its worst in the 1980s and 1990s," said Su Shun, a 50-year-old Yaojie resident. "We never wore white shirts or shoes back then, because they would get very dirty."
Residents didn't dare open windows, no matter how hot it was, because of the dust, which would muddy roads on rainy days.
Though the area contributed to Lanzhou's economic development, producing a GDP of over 6.4 billion ($993 million) yuan in 2010－about 5.8 percent of the city's total－Honggu authorities decided to shut down private mining companies and restore the environment.
In October 2010, 29 registered private companies were shut down, while two State-owned companies were permitted to continue mining. The following year, the district began to transform its resource-intensive pattern of development to an eco-friendly one.
"It was a hard decision, as these private mining companies benefited the area economically and employed more than 30,000 migrant workers," said Ma Wenqiang, deputy director of the Lanzhou Department of Natural Resources' Hongpu Office.
He said that the advantages of closing the private mines outweighed the disadvantages.
"There were more than 200 private mines back in the early 1990s, and the mining area was as bright as day even in the middle of the night. The private mines were resource-intensive but low in production. They also damaged the tunnels of State-owned mines through improper practices," Ma said.
"Economic growth was the priority at the time, but the polluted environment and worsening living conditions forced us to change."
Since 2018, the central government has provided financial and policy support to the area.
According to the Lanzhou government, about 1.67 billion yuan ($259 million) in investments were earmarked for Honggu to improve infrastructure and living conditions.
Ma said that the local area is not suitable for farming, so it has been turned into woodland.
"It's step-by-step work. First, we'll tidy up the environment, and then we'll turn the area into an industrial heritage park for tourism, taking advantage of historical relics and modern industrial remains like steam locomotives," he said. "It will take time to make the changes, but I'm confident in the area's future, as we've already seen progress in environmental restoration."
According to a news release from the Lanzhou government, Honggu will focus on the recycling economy by developing new materials and biotechnology. It will also channel resources toward developing organic agricultural and industrial tourism.