The breathtaking pace of real-estate development on the mainland has created wealth, but it has also exacted a price. In Beijing, part of that price is the destruction of historic architecture - notably the traditional hutong alleyways and the courtyard homes built around them. These homes used to number in the thousands. Now that economic growth and development have accelerated, so has the demolition of architecture that can date back 800 years. Even Unesco, the international agency tasked with protecting heritage sites around the world, is mulling the idea of stepping in to protect those near the Forbidden City which once served as homes for imperial court subjects. By some estimates, there may be only a few hundred courtyard homes left in the entire city. Whatever their number, the time has come for a more comprehensive conservation policy, one backed by ironclad legal protection and even government subsidies for restoration. Laws discussed over the past few years need to be brought into force, and an update provided for the inventory of historic homes remaining. Without such an all-out effort, the likelihood is that Beijing will be a showcase for the latest in modern architecture by the time the 2008 Olympics come around but little will be seen of the distinctive hutong architecture that sets Beijing apart and ties the modern city to its past. What is it going to take to save what is left of Beijing's historic hutong neighbourhoods and courtyard houses? A number of locals and foreigners have begun buying and restoring some, but these projects are small in number, especially compared to the number still being knocked down to make way for high-rise buildings and other new construction. A blanket ban on demolition might be impractical, but some attempt should be made to assess and catalogue those with high historic or architectural value. Also, any new plans need to strike the right balance between conservation and new development. City planners might cast an eye towards places such as Singapore's Chinatown, where government-funded preservation has gone hand in hand with commercial development and tourism promotion. An update should be provided of the hundreds placed on a protected list at the end of 2003. Unfortunately, even a number of these may have already bitten the dust. Clearly, the safeguards provided have not been strong enough. Many courtyard homes are dilapidated from decades of neglect and may lack basic services and facilities. Not all owners have the means to undertake extensive repairs, even of historic buildings, and provision needs to be made for this. Solutions could include low-interest loans, outright subsidies and allowing private transfer contingent upon commitments from the new owners to invest in restoration. Compared to the billions now being spent on infrastructure for 2008, the cost of funding such efforts could be minimal. Models for preservation can be found even within the city limits. A small number of historically protected areas have done well at keeping hutong walls intact and limiting development within to low-rise buildings in keeping with the style of the surrounding neighbourhood. Warnings about the disappearance of Beijing's ancient alleyways and courtyard homes are not new. As Tsinghua architecture professor Wu Liangyong put it some time ago, tearing down the hutong is like dissolving ancient paintings to make new paper. There is a loss of community and sense of history that goes along with this destruction. Beijingers may some day regret their rush to embrace the new at all costs. The difference now, however, is that there are even fewer houses and lanes left to preserve. Only a well-thought-out plan backed up by city planners and the courts will save what remains.