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.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    An artist rendering of China's Dongtan eco-city shows a lakeside dotted with micro windmills and low-lying buildings using special thermal technology to save energy. Originally scheduled to have its first phase completed by 2010, construction has stalled amid political and bureaucratic wrangling.
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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.

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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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