China’s eco-cities are often neither ecologically friendly, nor functional cities

September 22, 2015
To match feature CHINA-ECOCITY/

A model of the Dongtan Eco City is displayed in the developing centre in Dongtan, on Chong Ming Island southeast to Shanghai in this January 21, 2008 file photo. REUTERS/ Nir Elias/Files

The words ‘eco’ and ‘city’ combined together seems like an unabashed oxymoron. The term “ecological“ is the polar opposite of what we know our cities to be. Urban areas are environmental hazard zones: their concrete suffocates the soil, their power plants turn the skies insidious shades of gray, their sewer systems pump pollutants into waterways, their factories turn fertile land into unlivable fields, their traffic fills our lungs with particulate matter — how can such a place ever be ecological?

Enter eco-cities: new urban developments meant to mitigate the ecologically pernicious, unsustainable elements of the typical city. They run off of renewable energy, recycle their water and waste, engage in urban agriculture, have resource-efficient buildings and have extensive public transportation networks.

“We are having an ecological crisis, and what we do with our cities is going to be the answer,” said Anna-Karin Grönroos, the director of Ecopolis, a documentary about China’s eco-cities.

Grönroos’s statement perhaps strikes China more poignantly than anywhere else. This is a country that has urbanized faster and more extensively than any other country in history. Six hundred new cities have been created since the Communist Party came to power in 1949. By 2030, China is expected to have over a billion urban dwellers.

Yet China is a country that is plagued by its own urban creations, hamstrung by the miracle of its own success. In its all-out race to modernize and urbanize, entire swaths of the country have devolved into environmental wastelands. The air in nearly all of China’s cities is harmful to breathe, half the drinking water is below international standards, and 20 to 40 percent of the arable soil is contaminated with toxins. And today’s Chinese population is no longer willing to sacrifice its health for breakneck economic progress.

To these ends, China has embarked upon what amounts to an eco-city extravaganza. Upward of 200 new eco-cities are being built across the country. Typically, these new eco-cities are built from scratch as self-contained, independent urban entities that sit adjacent to larger, conventional urban cores.

But are these eco-cities really environmentally beneficial urban alternatives or just an excuse for urban-enamored China to build yet another city?

China’s track record with building eco-cities is spotty at best. Some end as failed construction projects. Others don’t live up to their eco-labeling after construction is completed. It has been estimated that only one in five of China’s eco-cities “actually match low-carbon or ecological ideals,” according to Li Xun, secretary of the Chinese Society for Urban Studies. Bianca Bosker, the author of Original Copies, a book about China’s Western copycat towns, calls eco-cities “the same sprawling McMansions under a different name.”

Dongtan, China’s original eco-city, was heralded as the future of urban life when it was first proposed in 2005. Instead, it ended up being “a masterpiece of greenwashing,” according to Paul French of Ethical Corporation, a corporate responsibility magazine. The original plan called for a new, energy-efficient city for 50,000 people on Shanghai’s last wetlands — a tinge of irony that was not lost on environmentalists and academics who spoke out against it at the time. In the end, no wetlands were hurt as the place was never built. This city of the future became a small array of face-saving conventional high-rises masquerading as “green” and a wind farm.

The ecological benefits of Nanhui, an eco-city with a unique circular street pattern built on land reclaimed from the sea roughly 35 miles outside of Shanghai, are also not evident. For purposes of self-aggrandizement and marketing, local government officials wanted the artificial lake at the city’s center to be larger than Hangzhou’s famous West Lake. So the original design was amended and its scale was expanded to accommodate the larger-sized lake. This, combined with massive green spaces obsessively inserted between the city’s various sections, led to a gargantuan, sprawling creation that virtually demands residents drive cars anywhere they go — directly counteracting the city’s low-carbon ambitions.

Huangbaiyu, an eco-village in the north of China designed by Hollywood hobnobbing, green-design “guru” William McDonough, doesn’t pollute, doesn’t have any cars and doesn’t consume any resources. In fact, it doesn’t even have any people. It’s almost a moot point that this eco-village drastically compromised the innovative ecological elements of its original design, using shoddy materials: Nobody ever wanted to live there in the first place. It was a project designed by foreigners out of touch with the needs of locals. They built houses with garages for people who didn’t have cars, failed to provide space for gardens and livestock for peasants who depended on such, built a biogas energy plant running off of corn cobs and stalks needed to feed the village’s economically vital Cashmere goats and expected people who have a tradition of building their own homes to suddenly want to pay many times their yearly salary for housing. Huangbaiyu is currently empty and rotting — which is perhaps the most ecological thing it can do.

Many other eco-cities were over before they even started. Beijing’s Mentougou eco-valley was never actually built; the Finnish visionaries who designed it claimed that the money they invested mysteriously vanished in the black box of Chinese bureaucracy.

Broad Group’s Sky City One, intended to be the world’s first city-in-a-building and the tallest building on the planet, sent a shockwave through global architecture circles when it was announced. An extremely energy efficient building, Sky City One was supposed to house over 30,000 people, cutting down on the amount of land per person 100-fold and eliminating the need to drive. But after ceremoniously breaking ground in 2013, nothing was ever actually built.

At this time, the Sino-Singapore Tiangin Eco-city (SSTEC) is probably the best example of a functional eco-city in China. Built on reclaimed industrial land in the middle of a heavily industrialized swath of Tianjin, next to the site a massive chemical explosion this summer that sent fireballs shooting into the sky and killed over 100 people, parts of it were actually built and partially populated. Even so, this project has stagnated.

Even more disappointing: SSTEC may not be any more ecologically friendly than some of the world’s traditional urban centers.

Austin Williams, a Jiaotong-Liverpool University architecture professor and expert on China’s eco-cities, put SSTEC to the test by comparing its ecological attributes with London. He found that 90 percent of London’s commuters traveled by non-car means — roughly the same amount that Tianjin aspires for. In terms of carbon emissions, London’s are currently one-third less than those projected for SSTEC. Since October 2011, all new domestic developments in London have a maximum water consumption rate of 120 liters per person per day, which is the same that the eco-city aims for in 10 years’ time. Even in green space — which China’s eco-cities cling to as a defining attribute — London trounces SSTEC with almost nine times more per person. “It would seem that London is actually way ahead in environmental terms of a purpose-made Chinese eco-city,” Williams concluded.

“[China’s eco-cities] have won a lot of awards, they’ve drawn attention, but the actual execution just isn’t there yet,” said Richard Brubaker, a professor of sustainability at China Europe International Business School in Shanghai.

It is precisely the labeling that is part of the problem. There is no established standard as to what qualifies a place as an eco-city: no seal of approval, no certification process. While China does have its “Three Star” Green Building Design Label rating system for individual buildings, its eco-cities remain less regulated. Worse yet, we’re forced to take what government officials, developers and urban designers claim to be “eco-friendly” at face value.

“If you have a big piece of land you can fill it up with apartments 100 percent, but if you fill it up with apartments 50 percent and then have the rest be green space they call it an eco-city. That is what an ecocity is in China is right now,” Joost van den Hoek, the director of urban planning at Urban Data said.

”It’s difficult everywhere, all over the world, to develop something like cities in a sustainable way,” said Fanny Hoffman-Loss, an architect who has worked on the Nanhui eco-city. “In many cases [eco-cities] just end up being some marketing thing. On the other hand, that’s how things start… it’s a step in the right direction.”

To date, not a single eco-city in China has been fully built and populated.

The economics of eco-cities

With this apparent eco-incompetence, it’s easy to wonder why China continues to crank out eco-cities. The answer is simple: They make money.

“If a place has eco elements the price [of real estate] is bumped up,” Marco Zhou from Colliers, a global real estate services company, said.

China is trying to drive environmental consciousness by making it profitable. This is encouraged from the top-down by China’s central government, which is currently pumping massive amounts of subsidies into developments, buildings and technologies that carry the “green” label.

“Being an eco-city makes it easier to get funds from the central government,” said Daan Roggeveen, the founder of the Shanghai based MORE Architecture, “which is important, since many cities do not have the funds to improve their livability.”

Today, supporting eco-labeled development initiatives is a part of the criteria for promotion within the Communist Party. The impetus to ”build green” is greater than ever.

In part, eco-cities allow China to put off the social and political pressures resulting from pollution while keeping the wheels of urbanization spinning. Urbanization in China has become a runaway train, with real estate is responsible for 16 to 25 percent of the country’s total GDP. What’s more municipalities in China must fund 80 percent of their expenses while only receiving 40 percent of the country’s tax revenue, according to the World Bank. That deficit is in largely made up for by selling land to developers. Building new districts and cities is essential to the solvency of China’s municipalities.

China building new cities in the name of environmentalism is like Coca-Cola creating the Beverage Institute for Health & Wellness: It’s a marketing exercise that tries to spin something bad in a positive light. If China’s sole intention was to mitigate the environmental impact of its cities then it would introduce policies to make existing buildings more efficient – not build useless and wasteful faux-green projects.


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Here’s the problem with the final sentence of this opinion piece. Making current Chinese buildings more “efficient” is far more complicated than this author seems to suggest. In densely packed Chinese cities, the vast majority of residential complexes belongs to two categories. First there are those 20-30 floors tall highrises within communities of half a dozen such buildings. Second category involves shorter buildings around 4-6 floors tall and those communities usually have a dozen or more such complexes. Lastly, there are also mega communities containing 20+ buildings of both types.

My point is this. How can China upgrade these buildings to meet energy efficiency standards without wholesale evictions (temporary or otherwise) of thousands? When China forcibly moved some people during the construction of the Three Gorges Dam and later the Shanghai World Expo, the West had a field day criticizing them for ‘human rights’ abuses. This will just be a replay of those events so essentially, China can’t win.

Posted by blah77 | Report as abusive

“The words ‘eco’ and ‘city’ combined together seems like an unabashed oxymoron.”
Why? Urban areas are typically more environmentally friendly per-person than rural area. For example, the number of auto miles driven per person is much lower in the city. Large urban buildings are more energy-efficient than freestanding rural buildings, etc.

Posted by Calvin2k | Report as abusive