Looking north from the top of the Bell Tower in Beijing, one can see in the foreground a maze of traditional courtyard houses and hear bicycles and tricycles bouncing through the hutongs. Where the grey-walled residences come to an abrupt stop, a new thoroughfare appears, tree-lined, pointing straight into the horizon. At the end of it, on an evening with little haze and few clouds, one can see the Ling Long Pagoda, flashing proudly in an array of rainbow colours. The 160-metre broadcast tower is the only building in the Olympic Park that is tall enough to stand out in the city's skyline. The 'Bird's Nest' National Stadium is nestled on the right side of the thoroughfare, and the Water Cube aquatics centre on the left. 'The Olympic venues extended the city's important central axis to the north,' said Niu Yantao, an official guide at the Bell Tower. For Beijing, last year's Olympic Games was much more than a sporting event; it carried great expectations of propelling the city into modernity. 'More so than any other host city of the Games, the planning for the Olympics has been considered an integral part of the city's development right from the beginning,' said Shi Nan, editor of City Planning Review magazine under the Ministry of Construction. From sports facilities to public transport, from sewer relining to vehicle emissions control, from 22 million new trees to 11 new satellite towns, Beijing has undergone an overhaul in the past eight years. Landmark buildings such as the National Theatre, the new China Central Television headquarters and Terminal 3 at the airport were all built between 2001 and last year. The event even transformed the city's economic structure - with the closing of factories and power plants. 'It helped realise Beijing's role as a political and cultural city, rather than an economic one,' Dr Shi said, adding that it was particularly important in light of the city's lack of natural resources such as water and land. The Games helped foster the mindset of 'first plan, then build', Dr Shi said, and encouraged other Chinese cities to judge the merits of hosting a big event in terms of how it could improve the city, as Shanghai is doing for next year's World Expo. The change more than symbolically connects the Olympic venues with Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City along the city's 800-year-old central axis. Retired chief architect for Beijing's City Planning Design and Research Institute, Wang Dong , said the post-Games use of the sports venues had been a major consideration from the beginning; they are therefore spread out over the city, and many are situated on university campuses. 'More importantly, this emphasis on sports facilities will extend to the building of cultural facilities and other public service facilities,' Professor Wang said. The Olympic Green, for example, is now also home to the new China Science and Technology Museum and the city's biggest exhibition centre. Professor Wang said the Olympics had a 'catalytic role' in modernising Beijing, 'but at the same time, it also raised a series of questions on how Beijing can become a better city to live in. The road is still long, but we now have the goal of a high-efficiency, low-emission and habitable city to work towards.' Professor Li Dexiang of Tsinghua University, who specialises in environmentally friendly architecture, said the Olympics had introduced to Beijing, and the country, the concepts of 'eco-city' and 'green buildings'. Urban green coverage in Beijing grew from 36 per cent in 2000 to 43 per cent before the Olympics - the equivalent of adding 35 Olympic Greens, each of 680 hectares, every year. 'The Olympics came at the right time for the city,' Professor Li said. 'Without it, the promotion of sustainable development would have been delayed for several years.' No doubt Beijing's bad traffic and pollution are still two glaring, unresolved problems. Hutong activists also said that the Games did not bolster heritage protection of the disappearing grey-walled courtyard houses. But Olympic officials promised that the city's improvements would not stop after the Games. 'I did not notice a great deal of increase in green areas before the Olympics,' Mr Niu, a Hubei native who moved to Beijing four years ago, said while visiting the Bell Tower. 'However, the increase seems more obvious now in the run-up to the 60th anniversary!'