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Pop-Up Cities: China Builds a Bright Green Metropolis


By Douglas McGray
Wired Magazine
April 24, 2007


"Dongtan was a rare chance," Alejandro Gutierrez says, "to demonstrate that
growth could happen a different way."

Three years ago, Alejandro Gutierrez got a strange and tantalizing message from
Hong Kong. Some McKinsey consultants were putting together a business plan for a
big client that wanted to build a small city on the outskirts of Shanghai. But
the land, at the marshy eastern tip of a massive, mostly undeveloped island at
the mouth of the Yangtze River, was a migratory stop for one of the rarest birds
in the world the black-faced spoonbill, a gangly white creature with a long, flat beak.

McKinsey wanted to know if the developer, the Shanghai Industrial Investment
Corporation, could bring businesses to the island without messing up thet bird
habitat. The consultants thought Gutierrez's firm could figure it out.

Gutierrez, an architect and urban designer for engineering and design giant
Arup, didn't know anything about birds. But he was a veteran of several big-city
design projects in his native Chile and something of a young star at Arup's
London headquarters. The scope of the idea awed him. A whole new city? Were they
serious? More important, could Arup get in on it? He quickly caught a flight to Shanghai.

Today Gutierrez and a team of Arup specialists from Europe, North America, and
Asia are finalizing a plan for a scratch- built metropolis called Dongtan.
Anywhere else in the world, it would have been a thought exercise, done up
pretty for a design book or a museum show. But Shanghai's economy is growing
three times faster than the US economy did at the height of the dotcom boom.
More than 2,000 high-rises have gone up within city limits in the past decade.
The city's most famous stretch of skyline, including the jewel-box-like Jin Mao
Tower and the purple rocket-shaped Pearl TV Tower, was a rice paddy just 20
years ago. Now some 130 million people live within a two and a half hour drive
of downtown. Even the wild ideas get built here.

Dongtan breaks ground later this year on a plot about the size of Manhattan on
Chongming Island. The first condos and commercial space will hit the market by
2010, around the time a 12-mile bridge and tunnel combo and subway extension
will link the city to Shanghai's new international airport (45 minutes away) and
financial district (30 minutes). By 2050, Dongtan will have a half-million
residents, more than Miami or Atlanta today.

That may count as a cozy little town in a country of 1.3 billion people. But
Dongtan is a dramatic gambit, and not just because a whole city will rise, fully
realized, from nothing. With Dongtan, Arup is testing a radical new approach to
urban design, one that suggests cities across China and the rest of the
developing world can actually get greener as they grow. "Norman Foster, Richard
Rogers, SOM, HOK are all doing better or worse design," Gutierrez says, subtly
dismissing some of the architecture world's biggest names (including at least
one that angled for the Dongtan job). "But they're not addressing the central
problem of this age resource efficiency and how it relates to cultural,
social, and economic development."

Mao Tse-tung believed the natural world was all that stood between Communist
China and its industrial future. His country, he said in a 1940 speech, "must
use natural science to understand, conquer, and change nature." And conquer it
did. Forests were razed, up to 90 percent of the trees in some provinces. The
government, in a scheme to accelerate steel production, forced Beijing residents
to smelt metal in hundreds of thousands of polluting backyard furnaces. New
factories dumped untreated waste into the rivers until they turned a deep,
noxious black. When China's economy began to take off in the 1980s, conditions
got worse. Foreign firms put their most toxic manufacturing operations in China.

Sudden prosperity, and a rush to boomtowns like Shanghai, drove energy demand
well beyond what the grid could provide. Today, China opens an average of one
new coal-fired power plant per week, the main reason it will pass the US in the
next two years as the world's biggest source of CO2 emissions. Since 2001, China
has increased its emissions more than every other industrialized country in the
world combined.

The plan was never to pollute forever; it was to chase wealth at any cost and
clean up later. And that made some sense. Even now, after three decades of rapid
economic growth, more than 160 million Chinese still live on less than a dollar
a day. The trouble is, environmental degradation has become a drag on China's
development. The government revealed last year that environmental damage costs
the economy $200 billion a year, a full 10 percent of China's GDP. The cost to
public heath and quality of life may be even greater. Overcultivation,
overgrazing, and massive timber consumption have turned a quarter of China's
land into desert. Over 400 million Chinese drink contaminated water. When still
air settles over Shanghai, the sky turns thick and white, the horizon the color
of a nicotine stain. The government figures that 300,000 people die prematurely
each year from polluted air. When I visited the neighborhood surrounding
Shanghai's oldest power plant a maze of narrow streets and tiny homes that
seem piled one on top of the another I caught a breath of warm air from a row
of exhaust vents, coughed until my chest burned, and then gagged.

Arup believes good design can do something about this mess. Dongtan's master
plan hundreds of pages of maps, schematics, and data has almost nothing to
say about architectural style. Instead, it outlines the world's first green
city, every block engineered in response to China's environmental crisis. It's
like the source code for an urban operating system. "We're not focused on the
form," Gutierrez explains. "We're focused on the performance of the form." He
and his team imagine a city powered by local, renewable energy, with
superefficient buildings clustered in dense, walkable neighborhoods; a recycling
scheme that repurposes 90 percent of all waste; a network of high tech organic
farms; and a ban on any vehicle that emits CO2.

From the beginning, the operation has been risky. Foreign architects can quickly
lose control of their Chinese projects and lose face when developers decide to
cut costs and redesign on the fly. Many glimmering Shanghai towers look like
Tokyo on the outside but Moscow on the inside. And China loves its monuments.
Dongtan could easily devolve into a Potemkin eco-village, a show-offy display of
green technology that fails as a living, working community. "We were dubious, of
course, at the beginning as to whether the client was really committed,"
Gutierrez says. And even if SIIC stayed idealistic, nobody had ever designed and
built a green city before. Arup could get it wrong and simply push sprawl into
one of the few remaining green spaces around Shanghai. But China is in a
position to chart a smarter path, not just for its own exploding cities but for
the booming urban hubs around the world Dubai, Khartoum, Lagos, Mumbai, Rio de
Janeiro where populations are set to double in the next 30 years. "We thought
Dongtan was a rare chance," Gutierrez says, "to demonstrate that growth could
happen a different way."

When he sees Shanghai for the first time, in May 2004, Gutierrez is wide-eyed
with excitement and wide-awake with jet lag. He meets an SIIC delegation
downtown, and they drive an hour north, through Shanghai's brutal traffic, to
the Yangtze River. There, the group sets off on a ferry for Dongtan.
Inside the crowded cabin, a television plays soap operas. Outside, men in
baseball jackets and fake leather bombers line the railing and smoke. The water
is a milky brown, full of silt from upriver that, about a millennium ago, began
to pile up where the river and ocean currents meet a sandbar that has grown
into a 470-square-mile alluvial island.

The SIIC group drives Gutierrez through the island's biggest port, a short strip
of low concrete boxes where locals sell vegetables, sugarcane, and cold drinks.
Pedal-powered rickshaws outnumber automobiles, making Shanghai's neon swagger
seem far away. They turn onto a narrow, newly paved road to Dongtan, and
development disappears. Flat fields of bok choy and swampy rice paddies stretch
to the horizon, crisscrossed by long irrigation canals carved out by banished
Shanghai intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution. The site is gigantic. And
except for the occasional, rickety shed, built for farmworkers who stay in the
fields overnight, it's completely empty. Because Gutierrez came here to think
about bird habitat, they drive to the marsh at the eastern edge of the island, a
huge expanse of tall, golden grass that seems to extend over the horizon into
the East China Sea.

Nearly all land in China is owned by the state. But SIIC, the second biggest
builder in China, owns Dongtan. In the 1990s, when China's business climate was
less liberal than it is today, many Chinese firms ran parallel businesses in
Hong Kong, where it was easier to attract foreign capital. SIIC was the Shanghai
mun icipal government's Hong Kong operation, a public-private pharmaceutical and
real estate company. When most of Asia's economy tanked in the late 1990s and
Hong Kong had it especially rough many of the businesses in that city went
under. To replenish SIIC's shrinking assets, Shanghai gave the company a piece
of Chongming Island. That land ownership allows SIIC an unusual degree of
freedom to think longer-term and do something bold.

Shanghai's bureaucrats let it be known that Chongming Island must stay green,
and SIIC agreed. The developer commissioned a series of ecological studies. Then
it invited Philip Johnson, the late icon of American architecture, to design a
master plan. SIIC showed Johnson's staff the site and briefed them on the
environmental constraints. For months, designers flew back and forth to the
site, making plans for a leafy, low-density garden suburb built around a huge
man-made lake. Finally Johnson's team arrived in Shanghai to present its plan
and found it was not alone. London-based Atkins and Paris-based
Architecture-Studio, both giants in the architecture world, had also created
master plans for SIIC. Nobody knew it was going to be a competition. Dinner
afterward was awkward, and none of the proposals went anywhere.

Part of the problem was that SIIC wasn't sure yet what it wanted. Its people
talked about Dongtan as an eco-city, but they also talked about it as a quaint
green suburb or as Shanghai's Hamptons, a place for the city's wealthy to flee
for the weekend. They seemed to have good intentions but little direction.
That night of Gutierrez's trip to Chongming Island, Arup's team huddled in their
Shanghai hotel rooms, calling colleagues in London and Hong Kong. They had
decided to do the bird thing for McKinsey, but they would also shop some bigger
ideas directly to SIIC. Dongtan could be the kind of grand project Arup had been looking for.

Founded by engineer Ove Arup in the 1940s, London-based Arup has 86 offices in
more than 30 countries and a staff of nearly 9,000, including 1,500 in China.
The firm dispatches engineers and architects but also economists, environmental
scientists, MBAs, energy experts, transportation gurus, and cultural
anthropologists to projects around the globe. Still, its work is often
anonymous: When a famous architect designs a dramatic skin for some big
building, Arup designs the guts. It engineered the overlapping shells of the
Sydney Opera House and figured out how to turn a building inside out when it
worked on the Centre Pompidou in Paris.

Gutierrez, though, was part of an ambitious new initiative at Arup, a kind of
skunkworks, organized around something the firm called "integrated urbanism."
Instead of focusing on something like water or stadiums or waste management,
this team would pull expertise from every corner of the firm. If the idea
worked, Arup could get in earlier on big planning projects. This way it could
help design cities that work better not just as grids or transport networks or
skylines but as ecosystems engineered from the start to foil gridlock, energy
waste, pollution, even economic inequality. Instead of sketching out the look of
a future city, Gutierrez would avoid form altogether. He'd focus on coming up
with the rules and standards Arup would follow to deliver a city. SIIC was intrigued.

Later that May, Gutierrez joined a team back at Arup's headquarters near the
University of London, across an old stone courtyard from a house where Virginia
Woolf and George Bernard Shaw had once lived (at different times). There was
Roger Wood, a manager who joined Gutierrez in Shanghai; an environment expert
from the Newcastle office; a pair of economists; some urban designers; and of
course, the bird guy. They were also about to get a boss: Arup hired Peter Head,
a prominent member of the London Sustainable Development Commission and green
guru for London's Olympic Construction task force, as the firm's first director
of Planning and Integrated Urbanism. He would negotiate a contract to design
Dongtan. Gutierrez and the rest of the team had to turn abstract concepts of
urbanism into a real city. The team began to gather around a long table and
debate. Gutierrez would usually lead the conversation, sketching the group's ideas on copier paper.

Their first decision was big. Dongtan needed more people. Way more. Shanghai's
planning bureau figured 50,000 people should live on the site they assumed a
green island should not be crowded and the other international architects had
agreed, drafting Dongtan as an American-style suburb with low-rise condos
scattered across the plot and lots of lawns and parks in between. "It's all very
nice to have little houses in a green field," Gutierrez says. But that would be
an environmental disaster. If neighborhoods are spread out, then people need
cars to get around. If population is low, then public transportation is a money loser.

But how many more people? Double? Triple? The team found research on energy
consumption in cities around the world, plotted on a curve according to
population density. Up to about 50 residents per acre, roughly equivalent to
Stockholm or Copenhagen, per capita energy use falls fast. People walk and bike
more, public transit makes economic sense, and there are ways to make heating
and cooling more efficient. But then the curve flattens out. Pack in 120 people
per acre, like Singapore, or 300 people, like Hong Kong, and the energy savings
are negligible. Dongtan, the team decided, should try to hit that sweet spot around Stockholm.

Next, they had to figure out how high to build. A density rate of 50 people per
acre could mean a lot of low buildings, or a handful of skyscrapers, or
something in between. Here, the land made the decision for them. Dongtan's soil
is squishy. Any building taller than about eight stories would need expensive
work at the foundation to keep it upright. To give the place some variety and
open up paths for summer wind and natural light, they settled on a range of four
to eight stories across the city. Then, using CAD software, they started
dropping blocks of buildings on the site and counting heads.

The results were startling. They could bump up Dongtan's population 10 times, to
500,000, and still build on a smaller share of the site than any of the other
planners had suggested, leaving 65 percent of the land open for farms, parks,
and wildlife habitat. A rough outline of the city, a real eco-city, began to
take shape: a reasonably dense urban middle, with smart breaks for green space,
all surrounded by farms, parks, and unspoiled wetland. Instead of sprawling out,
the city would grow in a line along a public transit corridor.

That was pretty much it for the easy stuff.

Arup had to figure out how to keep Dongtan above water. Chongming Island is flat
and barely higher than sea level. The previous planners, thinking defensively,
had pulled development back to the middle of the site, imagining Dongtan as an
island city with no harbor, no waterfront caf s, no ocean-view condos. Gutierrez
thought that was kind of a waste.

"We went back to the site," he recalls, "and, being completely ignorant
Westerners, we asked the client, 'Have you seen Venice?'" Gutierrez had been
sketching Venice's waterways and floodgates. "They said, very politely, 'Yeah,
we know about Venice,'" Gutierrez recalls, smiling sheepishly. "Then they took
us to see these fantastic, beautiful water towns in the Yangtze River Delta that
are much older. They have decks and terraces and promenades that are very close
to the water," Gutierrez says. "In one part of a town, they developed a pond to
control water levels, in another they had a wider canal, in another they
developed a lake. They had a much more fine-tuned understanding of how to manage
water than the Italians did."

Inspired by those ancient Chinese water towns, Gutierrez began drawing canals in
one zone, ponds in another, and a big lake in a third. He designed courtyards
and lawns to drain away from buildings. And he created flood cells within the
city, like chambers in a submarine, so if Dongtan got slammed by a
once-in-a-century storm, the seawater would stay in a single cell. At the
water's edge, instead of a high levee, he drew a gentle hill that would recede
into a wide wetland basin a park, bird habitat, and natural storm barrier.

Next, the city needed green power. But the planning process grew complicated. A
city is a huge mess of dependent variables. The right recycling facility can
turn trash into kilowatts. The right power plant can convert waste energy into
heat. The right city map will encourage people to walk to the store instead of
drive. "These are things people don't normally plan together," Gutierrez says.

They needed something they started calling an "integrated resource model,"
something to show how each change would ripple across the city plan. So Arup's
programmers wrote software that stitched together databases detailing the inputs
(say, the cost of photovoltaic panels) and outputs (electricity generated per
panel) of any facility, process, product, and human activity on the island. If
the team moves an office park a mile, the software can recalculate average
walking distances for commuters, figure how many people will drive or take
public transit instead of walk, and then add up the ultimate change in energy
demand. Maybe more important, the software makes it easy to spot places where
one process creates waste that another process could recycle. "Design was very
trial-and-error," Gutierrez says. "The only thing we knew was that we wanted to
connect things, to create virtuous cycles."

A power scheme started to take shape. Dongtan's plant would burn plant matter to
drive a steam turbine and generate electricity. What to burn, though? They could
have planted miscanthus, a tall, feathery grass. It sprouts fast and burns
clean. But if Arup planted miscanthus fields, it would sacrifice lots of land to
a single purpose. Then it struck them: rice husks. China already grows mountains
of rice, and farmers just trash the husks. Dongtan could take a useless
byproduct and use it to light the city.

Instead of building the plant far away and out of sight, Arup would put it up
near the city center, capture waste heat, and pipe it throughout the town. With
good insulation and smart design, the plant could heat and cool every building
in Dongtan. "We can get something like 80 percent efficiency in our fuel
conversion," says Chris Twinn, the Dongtan team's energy chief. "The Prius is
probably only 20 percent efficient. The rest is wasted. Why are we satisfied with that?"

Between biomass, a big wind farm, and numerous tiny contributions to the grid
including photovoltaic panels and small wind turbines Arup figured Dongtan
could get 60 percent of its energy from renewable sources when the city opened
in 2010, and 100 percent within 20 years.

As the plan expanded, so did Gutierrez's team, from about a dozen in May 2004 to
more than 100 today. And as they pulled in new experts from around the firm,
they saw new virtuous cycles. Arup investigated hollowing out the hills at the
edge of the city and installing underground "plant factories" stacked trays of
organic crops, growing under solar-powered LEDs, that seem to yield as much as
six times more produce per acre than conventional farming. Arup would run twin
water networks throughout the city: one that supplies drinking water to kitchens
and another that supplies treated waste water for toilet flushing and farm
irrigation. Trucks delivering goods from across China would park at
consolidation warehouses on the edge of the city, then load up shared, zero-
emission delivery trucks to reduce traffic and save gas. Waste would be either
recycled or gasified for energy, and the captured heat would be converted into
more power; no more than 10 percent of the city's trash would be permitted to
end up as landfill. To invite in cooling summer breezes, block winter winds, and
reduce demand for heat and air-conditioning, they would position trees
strategically and persuade the client to twist the city grid slightly off a
traditional north-south axis (a feng shui idea that has become an almost
inviolable rule of Chinese city planning). Meanwhile, traveling spoonbills would
find their marshy grassland undisturbed far from the center of town and
sheltered from people and industry by a wide buffer of farmland.
Dongtan was looking less like a city, at least the urban resource hogs that
exist today, and more like an ecosystem, a closed loop. "It's a green island
that shows you can decouple economic development from environmental impact," Gutierrez says.

In October 2005, armed with a city design and a strategy to build it, Gutierrez,
Head, and a handful of specialists returned to Shanghai and presented their
plans to SIIC. Dongtan will go up in three phases, each one adding a new,
mixed-use neighborhood, complete with condos, offices, and retail space that
will all sprout up at once. Gutierrez cleverly designed each neighborhood with
two downtowns: one at the center, modest and intimate, within easy walking
distance from homes and offices, and one at the edge. The three at the edges
will overlap and gradually grow into metropolitan Dongtan. "Our worst-case
scenario is that Dongtan starts out as a tourism-based settlement," Gutierrez
explains, "but grows over time to include other industries." Best-case scenario:
China's huge market for renewable energy and Dongtan's bright-green reputation
persuade clean technology firms to set up labs and commercial outposts in the city.

The presentation lasted a couple of hours. When it was over, SIIC's chair spoke.
He liked Arup's plan a lot. But he wanted Dongtan to draw every bit of its power
from local renewable energy starting the first day. "We had been very proud that
we could get 60 percent of our energy from renewables!" Gutierrez says, smiling.
"But the client said that's not good enough." Arup was thrilled kind of. If
anything, the firm expected pressure to simplify Dongtan, not to make it more ambitious.

The answer, the team decided, was building up the green power infrastructure
faster and slashing energy demand further. A recent change in China's energy law
would allow Dongtan's power company to sell surplus green energy to Shanghai's
grid, justifying the expensive new hardware until the new city grew into its
supply. Reducing demand was harder. But Arup hit upon a clever solution. Instead
of hiding indecipherable energy meters behind buildings, it would put a simple
meter in an obvious location like a kitchen or office. Residents could track
their own use and get regular reminders over SMS and email. Up to a reasonable
limit, energy is pretty cheap. Go over and the price spikes.

SIIC approved Arup's master plan last summer: hundreds of pages covering
everything from the permissible range of heat transfer through condo walls to
the surface area of ponds and canals that must feature native aquatic plants. By
the end of the year, builders will begin installing the city's infrastructure,
and SIIC will hire architects to start planting buildings in Arup's ecosystem.
Arup, meanwhile, is already considering a pair of modest Dongtan sequels a
small neighborhood outside Shanghai and a town near Beijing and is working on
several other green communities across China, plus one in St. Petersburg, Russia.

This year, for the first time in history, the majority of the world's population
lives in cities. By 2050, two-thirds will call a city home. Most of that urban
growth will happen in the developing world. "Tokyo, London, and New York are
extremely interesting," says Ricky Burdett, director of the Cities project at
the London School of Economics. "But their massive development has already
happened in London, 150 years ago, in New York, 100 years ago, in Tokyo, 50
years ago." Shanghai represents the forward edge of the planet's next urban explosion.

These new megacities could evolve into sprawling, polluting megaslums. Or they
could define a new species of world city. Unlike New York or London, they are
blank slates less affluent, perhaps, but also free from legacy designs and
technologies tailored to the world of the 19th and 20th centuries. That is a
huge advantage. It took Boston 20 years and more than $14 billion just to
reroute a freeway underground. New York can hardly install a second network of
water pipes. Most of Los Angeles is too spread out for fast public transit or
combined heat and power plants. And because these cities are so isolated from
agricultural land, most of the food that locals eat gets shipped hundreds of
miles. "Shanghai today is making 90 percent of the mistakes that American cities
made," Burdett argues spreading out, building up single-family homes,
replacing naturally mixed-use neighborhoods with isolated zones for living,
shopping, and working, and connecting it all with car travel. But fixing these problems is still possible.

If Dongtan lives up to expectations, it will serve as a model for cities across
China and the rest of the developing world cities that, given new tools, might
leapfrog the environmental and public health costs that have always come with
economic progress, a relationship Gutierrez calls "the nightmare of the 20th
century." Even old American and European cities may find bits and pieces of
Dongtan that they can use, especially when they redevelop industrial plots or
build out at the edges. Arup would like to apply lessons from Dongtan to a pair
of new developments in San Francisco and Napa County. Parts of urban Europe are
approximately the right density for a combined heat and power system to work.
London mayor Ken Livingstone visited Dongtan hoping to get inspiration for a
huge zero-emission development about to break ground in East London.
"Shanghai will grow," Gutierrez says. "The question is how it will grow. We can
program into its DNA a sustainable growth pattern. We have to make cities, as
much as we can, future proof ."

Douglas McGray, a fellow at the New America Foundation.

 

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