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Whatever Happened to Dongtan?


Gothamist
June 24, 2008


A few kilometers northeast of Shanghai, developers have been dreaming of a
400,000-citizen sister city. Rapid development is nothing new in China, as this
recent cement-production graph shows. And, as the global community is more and
more quick to point out, all those new factories, highways and residences do
considerable damage to the whole world’s environment. But this new city comes
with a catch — it will be powered entirely by renewable energy.

Ten wind turbines have already built on the boundaries of the future Shanghai
Dongtan Eco-City, slated to take up about 30 square kilometers of what is
currently marshland. Running not only on wind power but also solar energy and
fuel extracted from municipal waste, the aim is for a carbon footprint 40
percent less than that of comparable developments. But since the project was
blessed by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2005 it has hit a number
of roadblocks.

Still, the ambitious plan has ever higher stakes as China seems to be turning
more of its attention to the previously-neglected issues of environmental
sustainability and global warming. With the Olympics looming, Beijing has been
forced to confront massive air pollution problems, announcing yesterday that it
would enact serious measures to limit the number of cars on the area’s roads,
with the municipal government taking the lead: half of its cars will be barred
from the streets between now and July 19. Proposals to bring that percentage to
70 and limit civilian traffic are also in the works.

Meanwhile, environmentalists are advocating more aggressive protection of the
country’s greatest natural wonder, Mount Everest. A major clean-up operation and
strict limits on visitor capacity are both slated for 2009, officials said
yesterday.

But Dongtan faces some serious obstacles. Delays have already pushed the
construction start date back from 2006 to 2009, with no end in sight until 2050.
Skeptics raise a number of issues with the project, ranging from commuting
trouble (40 minutes to Shanghai by ferry, with a tentative tunnel planned for
2009) to doubt that such a fantastic community could ever be replicated on a
large scale. Another factor is the blunt truth that such a community will only
be affordable for the uber-wealthy. With building costs 30 to 40 percent higher
and the increased costs of eco-friendly energy generation, the price tag for the
project, and for its residents, could be quite substantial. A local professor
puts it more bluntly:

"'Zero-emission' city is pure commercial hype," said Dai Xingyi, a professor
at the department of environmental science and engineering at Shanghai's Fudan
University.

"You can't expect some technology to both offer you a luxurious and
comfortable life, and save energy at the same time. That's just a dream," he
said.

But the project’s organizers counter that the long-term savings, financial and
ecological, will quickly outweigh initial costs and thrust China into a new age
of green development. Roger Wood, associate director of the project’s British
design team, sees Dongtan as the beginning of a new era of Chinese
eco-leadership, declaring "China is moving from an industrial age to an
ecological age.”

Maybe so, but they’ll have to make sure none of the Beijing athletes collapse
with asthma attacks first.


 

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