When it comes to building giant, high-profile urban construction projects, China is one of the world’s leaders, but few of the country’s cities or industrial parks were built with the environment in mind.
Recently, however, Chinese ambitions have turned toward sustainable architecture, and in this, China has the opportunity to surpass the West to become the first nation to build a large-scale, operational "eco-city." While an ideal eco-city is supposed to be a closed ecological cycle, consuming everything it produces, including trash and atmospheric and water pollution, the term is used loosely – there is no regulated definition of what is or is not an eco-city.
To date, Chinese efforts to create eco-cities have failed at the implementation phase, some with a whimper, others with a bang.
The much-heralded Dongtan Eco-City project, for example, was to be the sustainable crown jewel of Shanghai’s 2010 World Expo. Started in 2005, it was planned in cooperation with British engineering firm Arup, and hailed around the world as a revolutionary approach to sustainable urban planning.
The project, sited on Chongming Island at the mouth of the Yangtze River, was to be buffered by natural and manmade wetlands. According to Arup’s description, Dongtan would have produced its own energy from wind, solar, bio-fuels and recycled city waste, use hydrogen fuel cells to power public transport, and reduce or eliminate private car usage by implementing a network of foot and bicycle paths throughout the city. Farms on the site would use organic methods.
Unfortunately, Dongtan’s lofty ambitions were stymied by pedestrian matters of state and society. Former Shanghai Communist Party chief Chen Liangyu – one of the driving forces behind the project, who linked it with the state-owned Shanghai Industrial Investment Corporation – was fired in 2006 on charges of real estate corruption, convicted, and sentenced to house arrest. According to reports, Chen managed to build only a business center and a hotel on Chongming Island, which locals claimed served as his private villa.
Deprived of Chen’s support, the construction permits were allowed to lapse. Arup’s ambitious plans for another four Chinese eco-cities based on the Dongtan model have yet to break ground.
"There are too many dependencies, too many stakeholders," said Joint US-China Cooperation on Clean Energy (JUCCCE) Chairperson Peggy Liu. Plans for eco-cities get people excited, but they are often too over-the-top to work, she said.
Nevertheless, enthusiasm has yet to wane. Arup, for one, has still not lost hope. Peter Head, head of global planning for Arup, says the company still plans to complete Dongtan and he is philosophical about the delay: "The stuff we do in China is never run-of-the-mill, and it is often very difficult to complete."
Nor is Arup the only optimist in the market. On the western coast of the Bohai Bay, one of the world’s most polluted seas, the Tianjin Eco-City is currently under construction. Leaders of the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City (SSTEC) project, in partnership with Shanghai-based property developer Shimao Group, have already applied to the central government for permission to provide special incentives for companies considering setting up shop in the future city. Project leaders are hoping to attract at least US$1.46 billion in investment this year.
"I do think this project is among the most serious, and is perhaps one of the few that has actually broken ground," said Julian Wong, senior policy analyst at the think tank Center for American Progress, who focuses on international environmental policy.
However, it is unclear whether this project’s prospects are any better than its predecessors.
First, the necessity of public-private partnerships can cause confusion. One of the main problems with previous projects was the "expectation gap" between the parties involved, said Wong. For example, while Arup considered its role limited to design, its Shanghai counterparts were expecting the company to bring in funding as well.
Incentives also matter, but China needs to do more than give tax breaks to companies willing to set up shop in eco-cities, said Wong. Foreign companies are aware of previous snafus, and want assurance of good governance, contracts that will be honored, transparent working relationships and the opportunity to to enter the China market.
Zoning processes are another bottleneck, said Li Fan, urban planner at the National Research Center of Historic Cities at Shanghai Tongji University. Since most eco-city plans require large swathes of land to be set aside for future construction, their requirements must be incorporated into a city’s five- or 10-year plan. This adds even more time for approval and implementation.
Planners may be scaling back. Arup’s current project is less ambitious than Dongtan, retrofitting a "brownfield" site outside Beijing, which it calls a "low carbon community." The site will get 15% of its energy from renewable sources while producing 50% fewer carbon emissions. Targets for the Tianjin project are also more modest. SSTEC plans to get 20% of its energy from renewable sources, 5% higher than the 2020 national target.
JUCCCE’s Liu, however, questions whether such concepts are worth building at all. Upgrading existing cities to be more environmentally friendly is a faster, more productive and cost-effective way to change China’s environment, she said.
Arup’s Head, however, disagrees. In China, urbanization is only half-complete, he said. China wants to avoid the mistakes of urbanization made in Africa and India, where a lack of adequate built housing engendered slums; China must build, not just refurbish. "And if you’re going to building huge projects anyway, why not build eco-cities?"