Special Reports
In China, Overambition Reins in Eco-City Plans

The Christian Science Monitor
By Simon Montlake
December 23, 2008

Chongming Island’s planned community remains a gleam in the eye. But China is
making progress on green design codes.

Chongming Island, China

If all had gone to plan, by now the first residents of China’s newest city would
be unpacking boxes. An experiment in sustainable living, Dongtan was billed as a
urban center where green technologies and smart design could slash the carbon
footprint of up to a half-million people.

On recent rainy afternoon, the onsite view was less electrifying: miles of
sodden farms and wetlands, and not an ecobuilding to be seen.

It’s unclear if any will be built. The state-owned developer has torn up a
timetable to accommodate 50,000 residents by 2010. Some permits for the project
have already lapsed.

In a country overloaded with environmental challenges, Dongtan is a symbol of
political overreach that straddles nearby Shanghai and Britain, the home base of
Arup, the firm that dreamed up Dongtan. Its failings show the limits to getting
bold ideas off the drawing board, even in China’s top-down political culture,
where outsized schemes get traction.
Housing’s heavy carbon footprint

As the Chinese try to house an urban population that may reach 1 billion by
2030, where and how they live are questions with global repercussions. China is
among the world’s largest producers of greenhouse gases, and its demand for new
buildings further strains resources. One study found that erecting and running
buildings accounts for over half of China’s energy-related carbon emissions.
The proportion of Chinese living in urban areas more than doubled between 1980
and 2005, to 44 percent. As that trend accelerates over the next 20 years,
McKinsey Global Institute predicts that China will need to build almost 40
billion square meters of floor space in some 5 million buildings.

Environmentalists fear the planet can’t sustain that pace at current levels of
energy, water, and soil usage.

“Anyone who hopes for a sustainable future cannot fail to see China as an
opportunity for dramatic steps forward,” says Kira Gould, a spokesperson for
William McDonough + Partners, a US architectural firm active in ecodesign in China.

The impact of a warming earth – which scientists trace, in part, to atmospheric
gases that trap heat – would be felt in Shanghai, a city of 17 million that is
vulnerable to rising sea levels. That made the promise of a low-carbon community
on Chongming Island, a 30-minute boat ride across the Yangtze River, all the
more appealing to former Shanghai mayor Chen Liangyu.

His enthusiasm was catching. Other Chinese cities are planning their own
ecocommunities, including an Arup-designed project outside Beijing. While their
scale varies, what these proposals have in common is a desire to use renewable
energy to heat, cool, and power homes, while discouraging car-oriented sprawl.
In 2005, then-Prime Minister Tony Blair hailed Dongtan as a symbol of
British-Chinese cooperation during a state visit to London by President Hu
Jintao. Successor Gordon Brown has continued to plug the project – most recently
on a visit to Shanghai in February – and frame it as a model for future British ecotowns.

But the arrest in 2006 of Mr. Chen for property-related fraud appears to have
sunk the eco-city. Suspicious of Shanghai’s political clout, the ruling
Communist Party purged the city’s leadership and changed how land deals are done.

Roger Wood, an associate director of Arup, says Dongtan is still on track even
though its developer, SIIC, has put construction on hold. He admits that the
change of leadership has “delayed the decisionmaking process” and as a result,
“there isn’t much to say” about its implementation.

That hasn’t stopped Arup from promoting Dongtan as a vision of a green future,
says Paul French, a director of AccessAsia, a consultancy in Shanghai, and a
project critic. “They’re still getting mileage out of it, even though it’s dead
in the water,” he says.

Other countries have their own eco-dreams: Abu Dhabi plans to build an elevated,
carbon-neutral city by 2016 at a price tag of $22 billion. Like Dongtan, it aims
to attract clean-energy companies and research institutes.

While ecocities offer a bold leap forward, China is making tangible progress in
other green design issues, such as building codes to promote efficient use of
water, soil, and energy. Some developers are applying international standards to
construct and retrofit buildings, though these are voluntary, and such buildings
are few. Many cities have their own codes.

Over time, energy-efficient buildings recoup their initial higher investment in
lower bills. But few developers in China hang onto their projects after
completion, says Kevin Edmunds, an executive of Hong Kong’s Business
Environmental Council, a nonprofit organization.

What qualifies as ‘eco’?

Nor is there much clarity in China about what exactly is green design, as
eco-labels are freely applied to apartment complexes with parks and sea views.
On Chongming Island, which has a new bridge and tunnel link to Shanghai,
developers are trying to sell vacation homes as ecocommunities.

The Dongtan master plan, by contrast, envisions living and working on the
8,600-hectare site. Mr. French and others argue that CIIC is more likely now to
turn it into an upscale dormitory town for Shanghai. CIIC declined to comment.
On a more modest scale, William McDonough + Partners designed an ecovillage of
400 households in northeast China, of which 42 houses have been built. The plan
called for affordable solar-powered bungalows using local materials in a bid to
free more land for farming. Instead, the developer built suburban-style tract
homes that most local families have shunned, according to a PBS documentary
earlier this year.

Ms. Gould concedes that mistakes were made in the design and construction of
Huangbaiyu, the village. One complaint was that it didn’t create enough jobs.
But that was never part of the project, says Gould. “We came to learn that
economic development and sustainable development were often being used
interchangeably,” she says.


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