In China, overambition reins in eco-city plans
Chongming Island’s planned community remains a gleam in the eye. But China is making progress on green design codes.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.