China Reins in its Eco-city Plans
By Simon Montlake Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor/ December 23, 2008 edition
Chongming Island, China, December 23, 2008 - 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.
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