Special Reports
China to Build First Eco-City

By Jean-Pierre Langellier and Brice Pedroletti
The Guardian
May 7, 2006

Imagine it is 2010. The place is Dongtan, the world's
first purpose-built eco-city. It stands in the middle of
the marshes at the eastern tip of Chongming, China's
third-largest island, at the mouth of the Yangtse river.

None of the buildings is more than eight storeys high.
Turf and vege­tation cover the roofs, a natural form of
insulation that also recycles waste water. The town has
six times more space for pedestrians than Copen­hagen,
one of Europe's airiest ­capitals. Pollution-free buses,
­powered by fuel cells, run between neighbourhoods. An
intranet service forecasts travel times and connects
people who want to share a car. ­Traditional motorbikes
are for­bidden, replaced by ­electric scooters or
­bicycles. The roads are laid out so that walking or
cycling to work is quicker than ­driving.

(This artist's rendering shows what Dongtan Eco City
will look like in the future. In planning stages, first
phase to be completed in 2010 Developed by the Shanghai
Industrial investment Corp., Dongtan Eco City, roughly
the size of Manhattan, will be the world's first fully
sustainable cosmopolis when completed in 2040. Like
Manhattan, it's situated on an island -- the
third-largest in China. Located on the Yangtze River,
Dongtan is within close proximity of the bustle of
Shanghai. Photo: Beijing Evening News/File)

Up to 80% of solid waste is re­cycled. Organic waste is
burned in an incinerator, catering for part of the
town's electricity requirements. Other burners consume
rice husks, which ­produce a lot of heat and are
plentiful in China. On the outskirts giant ­windmills,
driven by the sea breeze, produce electricity too. Each
building is fitted with photovoltaic panels and its own,
smaller windmill.

Dongtan stands on the shores of a canal, in the middle
of a designated nature reserve with outstanding
­biodiversity, and is one of the main attractions for
visitors to the inter­national Expo in Shanghai. The
­journey to the metropolis, via a ­huge bridge and
tunnel complex, takes only 45 minutes.

Returning to the present day, the Dongtan project is an
attempt to solve an increasingly pressing problem. China
has so far given priority to the quantity of
construction, but now it must focus on quality. This
means a radical change in town planning strategy and a
switch to sustainable development, even though the
country is in the grip of one of the most spectacular
migratory movements in the history of mankind. Between
now and 2020 China needs to build 400 new towns - nearly
30 a year - to accommodate more than 300 million people
from the countryside. Hence the decision to build a
model city on Chongming Island.

The contract for the project was awarded to the Shanghai
Industrial Investment Corporation (SIIC) seven years
ago. It appointed Arup, a ­British-based engineering
consult­ancy, to design Dongtan. Arup, which has been
working in China for the past 20 years, contributed to
the ­construction of amenities for the ­2008 Beijing
Olympic Games. To demonstrate the political
­significance of the Dongtan scheme, the contract was
signed in November at 10 Downing Street in the presence
of the ­British prime minister, Tony Blair, and the
visiting Chinese ­president, Hu ­Jintao. The Chinese
authorities have commissioned two other eco-cities.

It is part of a plan to develop ­thousands of square
kilometres of the mouth of the Yangtse, which includes
building a deep-sea harbour for Shanghai 30km out in the
East China Sea. This is the biggest single development
anywhere in the world.

At present about half a million people live in the
district of Chongming, travelling to the outskirts of
Shanghai on speedboats and ferries. They occupy two
small towns and a myriad of little villages, as yet
spared by the building frenzy of neighbouring districts.
A motorway, which is often deserted, already crosses the
island. Dongtan, which will be built nearby, will have a
population of 50,000 to 80,000 by 2010, rising to
500,000 by 2040.

"In 20 years," says Ma Chengliang, the manager of SIIC
Dongtan, "the Chinese economy has grown so fast that we
are already suffering energy shortages. To maintain our
current growth rate, we must opt for sustainable
development. In Dongtan we want to demonstrate what can
be done in terms of renewable energy, clean transport
systems and sustainable lifestyles. The model was
designed so that it could be extended to the rest of
Chongming, serving as a prototype for the whole country."

Standing on the site of the new town, ­Alejandro
Gutierrez, Arup's senior architect, explains: "Dongtan
will be compact, inspired by traditional Chinese towns
in which water plays an important part. Social factors
are essential. It will have a diverse population,
affordable housing, at least 30,000 jobs on the spot,
schools and a hospital, to ensure it is not dependent on

The most original feature of Dongtan is its eco-friendly
design. It will have an ecological ­footprint (the total
area of land required to sustain an individual) of two
hectares per person, three times less than Shanghai,
London or Paris.

Dongtan is surrounded by miles of wetland, vital for
birds migrating between Australia and Siberia. It is
determined to preserve the quality of its air, so motor
vehicles must be ­carbon-neutral and the plans provide
for the construction of hydrogen filling stations for
fuel cells.

To meet the town planners' require­ments, Arup has even
designed small, lightweight vehicles that consume little
energy and travel almost bumper-to-bumper, taking up
little room on the roads. Dongtan aims to be energy
self-­sufficient, meeting all its requirements with
renewable sources - solar, wind and biomass.

However, the design team ­realises that it will have to
overcome many obstacles before achieving its ideal.
"Even if, with the right design and materials, you
manage to build homes that operate at only two-thirds of
current energy levels, ­individual behaviour may
completely upset your plans," says Gutierrez. "That is
why we need a combination of rules, outreach and price
incentives to educate the occupants and halt excessive

Once the authorities give the green light to Arup's
master plan this year, things should happen quickly,
with the town scheduled to be built in less than four

So, can we look forward to ­hundreds or even thousands
of Dong­tans in other parts of the world? Peter Head,
Arup's director, is sure it is possible. The materials
and design would be different, but the under­lying
principles and method would be the same. Providing, he
adds, that people believe in this sort of project and
support it wholeheartedly, as is the case in China.


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