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Can China’s eco-cities bridge fantasy with reality?

By Leah Lamb

Shanghai–Within a day of visiting China’s cities, you will probably wake to a sore throat from air pollution. That night when you shower, you may be surprised to see how much dirt washes off of you. After a few days, you may find yourself fantasizing about catching a glimpse of blue through the murky sky line. It won’t be long before you start wondering how life might have been had things gone differently.

China has the land, resources, desire, and money to experiment with creating a more sustainable way of living. Architects from around the world are answering the call and are exploring the realm of the eco-city, a fantasy place where new transportation systems, new energy systems, even new systems of engaging with community are ready and waiting to be invented.

It’s not about want, it’s about need

In a nation that can’t drink its own tap water or swim in its rivers or ocean, the statistic (reported in the journal Human Ecology in 2007) that 40 percent of world deaths is due to environmental degradation is intimately understood. “People here don’t care about polar bears, they care about clean water, clean air, and clean food. Climate change isn’t about an intangible concept about CO2, it is about the very tangible pollutants that are already here: drought, desertification, air quality, food quality,” said Richard Brubaker, founder and managing director of Collective Responsibility.

The scale of urbanization in China is staggering. “It’s not the butterfly effect , it’s the sledgehammer effect,” said Peggy Liu, chairperson of the Joint US-China Collaboration on Clean Energy (JUCCCE).

According to the McKinsey Global Institute, “350 million [people] will be added to China’s urban population by 2025 (more than the present population of the United States) and 221 Chinese cities will have 1 million-plus living in them (Europe has 35 today). (McKinsey Global Institute.: “Preparing for China’s Urban Billion“)

Combine those numbers with a rising middle class that can afford to waste energy for the first time, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that the energy crisis is only part of China’s problem.

Game-changing moment: When government goes green

“The world is at war with energy, and China is our battlefront.”–Qiu Bao Xing, China’s Vice Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Construction.

The drive toward a greener future doesn’t stem from idealism. It’s about meeting the central government’s commitment to increase the GDP.

In 2000 President Hu Jintao committed the country to quadrupling the GDP by 2020. Brubaker explains the surge of environmental policy that followed. “The key to economic ability is connected to the environment. If they don’t find a way to do things efficiently, they are seeing it will take away from their growth.”

Also in 2000, the State Council advocated the “energetic establishment of eco-provinces, eco-cities, eco-counties and eco-townships.” In 2002 The Cleaner Production Promotion Law and the Environment Impact Assessment Law was passed to address pollution generated from production. However, it was the 2008 amendment to China’s Energy Conservation Law that upped the ante and held local government officials accountable for managing environmental standards.


The race to save China’s blue skies is on. As of 2009, 40 eco-cities were in development (4 smart-grid pilot cities, 21 LED-street-light cities, 13 electric-vehicle cities), the Economist reported. With or without eco-cities, there is potential to create 170 mass transit systems and 5 million buildings (50,000 of those buildings could be skyscrapers, equivalent to constructing 10 cities the size of New York City).

“China is the planet’s petri dish for experimentation and innovation,” said Brubaker. Peggy Liu explains the recipe that makes China ideal for cleantech experimentation: “Pilots can be deployed faster in China. Once China finds a solution that works, it deploys at an unimaginable scale, there is less liability and more willingness to experiment, there are lower costs to implementing,” she told me.

Fantasy of the future: The sustainable city

The race is on to design and build a self-sustaining city that can generate, minimize, and reuse all sources of energy while removing the option to pollute.

James Brearly, founder and lead architect at Brearly Architects and Urbanists, explains the components of the eco-city his team designed in Hangzhou Xiaha. The design places light industry in close proximity of residences, encourages walking to work, water conservation is addressed by cleaning waste water before placing it in wetlands, the houses collect rain water, and energy is generated by wind and solar farms that are placed within city limits so that citizens connect with their energy source. Waste and rubbish disposal is processed on site, and food waste is reintegrated into the onsite urban farm.

“Anything is Possible in China. But Nothing is Easy.” Thisis a common mantra for the entrepreneur in China.

The motivation to innovate is pressing forward at a furious pace. There are as many problems as solutions. While architects from around the world are developing new urban designs, the local labor force does not have the technical skills to implement these visions. While there are goals, policy, and local lore about political leaders being held accountable for environmental fallacies, developers are designing without guidelines for size, emissions, or population rates.

Several projects have gone awry, the most recent being the UK-designed eco-city that was destined to become Dongtan. The project was widely publicized as the first eco-city in China, and was scheduled to be available during the World Expo. Due to local politics, the city has yet to be built, and the permits have lapsed.

Then there is Huangbaiyu. Often exemplified as a failure in communication, the eco-city was designed by sustainability leader and author William McDonough’s firm. The chasm between the initial vision and the final product is shocking and has been an easy target for critics.

James Brearly explains some of the complications McDonough’s firm faced. “You need to understand the amount of people who become involved once you hand over the plans. In that case it seems most east- and west-facing buildings were not built because they did not follow [practice of orienting] south to adapt to Feng Shui principles.

“My plans for cities have been changed by city officials, without consultation with us; [built] by inefficient and under skilled builders. There is no respect for professionals or academics, and there is a devastating lack of creative thinking in the urban planning arena,” he told me

Racing to save the planet or racing to destroy the planet?

“It’s still about developing faster,” Brearly said. “How can you create a sustainable town when you can’t build a sustainable building,” questions architect Ryan Dick. “What’s missing are tools, platforms, and collaborations and systems of accountability.

“China is expected to build entire eco-cities without the necessary tools to build or understand them. China’s eco-cities are, understandably, just as consumptive, toxic, and ecologically harmful as other instant cities that are being built.

“Understanding how to build eco-cities will take time, too much time if designers approached [it] as a problem in its entirety. Making materials to have a positive impact (clean air, water and soil) will have a much larger impact than a few eco-cities–even if they are built well.”

“The difficult element in creating massive change in the energy sector, unlike the Internet boom, is that you have to engage government and big business,” said Liu. “In fact, every stakeholder needs to change their behavior because we are all part of an eco-system. And eco-systems are only as strong as their weakest link.

“Energy innovation requires that all of the stakeholders work in a coordinated fashion, but there are few facilitators (especially in a non-centralized system). Government needs to set good energy savings and environmentally friendly policies, companies need to limit their local impact, skilled workers need to be trained for design/deployment/operations of clean tech, consumers need to buy to drive value up for green products and buildings, media and celebrities need to advocate a green value system.”

The road to making the dream a reality

Brearly notes, “The so called democratic nations are impotent when it comes to making urgent necessary changes. China can change systems that will serve the good and aren’t depending on the will of the people or business to be altruistic.”

Case in point: “Last year the central government banned the distribution of free plastic bags in grocery stores…[eliminating] 3 billion bags every day, and the consumption of 5 million tons of refined crude oil every year for plastic bags alone,” said Liu in a debate in the Economist. In the past 20 years, China’s one-child policy is estimated to have reduced population growth by 300 million people–almost the population of the United States–and CO2 by 1.3 billion tons in 2005.”

Throughout the day-to-day challenges, the optimism and excitement about finding the solution China’s environmental problems (and potentially influence the world) is contagious. “I probably won’t stay here forever, but I know I will look back at this time and say that I was part of history in the making in one of the most critical moments in what will become one of the most influential places in the world.” said Chitra Hepburn of China Greentec.”

If Liu gets her way, China’s image will change from the factory of the world to the clean tech laboratory of the world. Brubaker is realistic about the scale, “China is changing it’s systems, investing in the long term. It is a process that many see through the investment in wind energy, the “cleantech war”, but it is more than that. It is about highspeed rail…upgrading economic activities, improved agricultural technologies. It is systemic.”

Dick said the design community remains confident. “We have the opportunities to test ideas, work quickly, learn, and try again.”

As the world watches and waits to see if China’s race to innovate will pay off, the voice of 22-year-old environmental organizer, Flora Lanfeifei, lingers: “Pessimism is for those who don’t make a plan to influence the future.”

Leah Lamb.jpg

Leah Lamb was the founding online producer for the green channel for Al Gore’s media company, Current LLC, was the community engagement specialist for Active Voice, and has consulted with filmmakers on how to use films to motivate and mobilize their audience (Strange Days on Planet Earth and American Blackout). She has served on the on the advisory board of the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation as their Arts and Dialogue Specialist, founded The Performance Initiative which was designed to utilize the arts for social change, and wrote and produced the award winning environmental Ecospot, “I Did Noth’n”. She blogs regularly for The Huffington Post.