Which way China?

Dongtan, the world’s first eco-city, is leading the way in urban sustainability. Herbert Girardet hails a pioneering project – planned for Chongming island, near Shanghai -- which could provide a template for future urban design.

China is a civilisation with a 5,000-year history of ever-growing inventiveness and refinement. From 600 until 1500 CE, it was the world’s most scientifically and technologically advanced society. It led the way in astronomy, mathematics, medicine, pottery and plant breeding. It invented the magnetic compass, gunpowder, cast iron, papermaking and printing. It alternated between being a closed, inward-looking society and a very open one that sought to link up with other civilisations.

China also built the largest and most spectacular cities before the modern era, with Beijing’s population reaching 2 million as long ago as the 17th century. However, it also continued to be a land of villages and farmers. Under Mao, this trend was strongly emphasised and China became a champion of village industries, collective farms and local self-sufficiency.

All that changed after Mao’s death. In 1978 Deng Xiaoping launched China on the “Open Door Policy”, focusing on rapid economic growth, a new role for markets, investment from the west and foreign trade. The world has watched in fascination and trepidation ever since, as pictures of vast factories and gleaming skyscrapers hit our television screens. Twenty-five years ago there was hardly any foreign investment, but by 2003 it amounted to US$680 billion. In a quarter of a century, China’s gross domestic product increased tenfold, from US$147 billion to over US$1.4 trillion. Its foreign trade grew more than forty-fold, from US$20.5 billion to US$850 billion.

But while China’s decision to industrialise and to urbanise has translated into a booming economy — with western-style consumerism spreading across the country — it has also generated major pollution problems. Sulphur and nitrogen oxides have turned China’s air into smog, and urban sewage, fertiliser run-off from farms and industrial chemicals are poisoning its rivers. There is also an increasingly global dimension: with one new coal-fired power station being built every week, and with China’s car production now nudging up to that of Japan, its CO2 emissions are catching up with those of the US. However, China seems to be learning the lessons of the limits to growth a lot more quickly.

When President Hu Jintao took over in 2003, searching questions began to be asked about the trajectory of China’s development. Since then a new policy emphasis on “harmony between humanity and nature” and on building “a conservation-oriented and environment-friendly society” has emerged. In recent speeches, Chinese leaders have insisted that “economic development must consider its impact on the environment and on society”.

There is growing evidence that these messages are increasingly informing the decisions of government officials and planners. One significant development is that the Shanghai Industrial Investment Corporation (SIIC) has commissioned the world’s first purpose-built eco-city — Dongtan. It will be built on Chongming island in the Yangtze River delta on an area three-quarters of the size of Manhattan island – 86 square kilometers. By 2010 it will be a city of 25,000 people; by 2030 the population will reach some 500,000. It is designed to be a beautiful and truly sustainable city with a minimal ecological footprint. The goal is to use Dongtan as a template for future urban design. As China is planning to build no less than 400 new cities in the next 20 years, Dongtan’s success is of crucial importance.

I have had the privilege to be working as a consultant on the Dongtan project with the global engineering and design consultancy Arup. The first phase of Dongtan Eco-City is conceived as a town consisting of three compact, pedestrian “villages”, each with its own distinct character. The city will then continue to grow as a collection of towns connected by cycle routes and public transport corridors, allowing inhabitants access to different parts of the city by tram, bus and bicycle, as well as on foot. The aim is to ensure that people will have to walk for no more than seven minutes from any part of the city to reach a bus or tram stop.

Dongtan’s design is based on the principle that all its citizens can be in close contact with green open spaces, lakes and canals. Its buildings will be highly energy-efficient, and the city will be largely powered by renewable energy — the wind, the sun and biomass.

Most of Dongtan’s waste output will be recycled and composted. The bulk of its organic wastes will be returned to the local farmland to help assure its long-term fertility and its capacity to produce much of the city’s food needs. Chongming’s existing local farming and fishing communities will have significant new marketing opportunities with the development of Dongtan, ensuring a high degree of local food self-sufficiency and enhancing the island’s long-term environmental and social sustainability at the same time.

Ironically, Dongtan is being built on an island in the Yangtze delta that is in itself a product of environmental catastrophe. In the last 50 years, Chongming island has become the world’s largest alluvial island, doubling in size, due to eroding soil from deforestation washing down in the headwaters of the river Yangtze. Chongming has grown from 600 square kilometers in 1950 to 1,290 square kilometers today.

One reason for the decision to create a new city of minimal environmental impact on Chongming island is the existence of a huge wetland area on the southern part of the island, which is a reserve for migrating birds and the largest of its kind in China. The wetlands will be preserved and will provide a strong visitor attraction. Vegetation from the wetland reserve will also permeate Dongtan, assuring that it becomes part of the island’s natural habitat rather than a barrier to it.

With Dongtan, a sustainable future is not some distant dream, but a vision that is actually being realised. The strategy for Dongtan Eco-City is for it to be developed in several stages in the next 30 to 40 years. A tunnel and bridge, linking Chongming island to Shanghai, are already under construction. In 2010 Shanghai will host the World Expo, and the completion of the first phase of Dongtan will demonstrate that environmental sustainability and access to nature are very much part of new development in China.

Dongtan is a local project with a global perspective, designed to ensure that China will play a key role in the emergence of a world of ecologically and economically sustainable human settlements. It is becoming clear that the planet will not be able to cope if 1.3 billion Chinese and 1.2 billion Indians behave in the same way as only a few hundred million people have done so far: extracting resources, consuming and polluting. As high-population countries such as China and India catch up with Europe, North America, Japan and Australia, worldwide sustainable development is the only way to go.

Dongtan is intended to set an example. It will be a pioneering eco-city that could become a blueprint for sustainable urban development, in China itself and elsewhere in the world. It holds a promise of a high-efficiency, small-footprint urban design. By 2010, Dongtan will be a compelling model for how to build sustainable cities worldwide that may well be too persuasive to ignore.

Homepage photo by Yakobusan

The author: Herbert Girardet is author of Cities, People, Planet and chairman of Schumacher UK. Dongtan Eco-City, edited by Zhao Yan, Herbert Girardet et al., was published by Arup and SIIC in February 2006.

Reprinted with permission from Resurgence magazine www.resurgence.org