Report from the Chongming Eco-island Forum

Delegates from all over the world recently gathered at the Chongming Eco-island Forum. Rifat Kandiyoti was in attendance, and reports here on the Chinese government’s vision of ecologically sound urban planning.

Just one hour’s ferry ride from downtown Shanghai where the Yangtze River (Chang Jiang) drains into the Yellow Sea, sit three islands – Chongming, Changxi and Hangsha. Farmland flanked by conifer forests and wetlands teeming with birds dominate the landscape. Islanders there make a living selling meat, fruit and vegetables to Shanghai. Living standards, predictably, cannot compare with their wealthy neighbour, but the landscape is unspoilt.

Metropolis under strain

Shanghai suffers from the opposite. Rampant industrial development has created an abundance of wealth – local GDP is the highest in all China – but the environmental cost has been catastrophic, leaving Shanghai’s planners preoccupied with more pressing needs than fruit and vegetables.

Close to seven million tons of solid waste is produced annually and less than 5% is incinerated to produce energy. More than four million tons of raw (untreated) sewage is pumped into the surrounding rivers and the sea. The air is thick with sulphur dioxide and nearby power stations pump fine particulate matter into the atmosphere.

Heavy traffic, land and energy shortages further hamstring development. And as the population continues to rise the prohibitive costs of land means that there is nowhere else to go but “up”.

New vision of urban planning

As urban planners work at their desks with the backdrop of high-rise that dominates the Shanghai skyline, minds have drifted towards the concept of “islands” – a vision of clean air, clean drinking water, and where a combination of good design and public awareness protect the environment. Chongming Island and its two neighbours, whose combined population of 700,000 is still in decline, could, by 2010, be the living answer.

New infrastructure, which should reduce travel time to central Shanghai to less than 40 minutes by 2010, fuelled the original interest in the three islands which, by chance, sit on the path of the planned tunnel system and bridge. This is expected to release a little of the port congestion in Shanghai, but the new road, which links the eastern tip of Pudong district with Jiangsu Province in the north, is also the foundation of the Chongming project and vital to the future success of the islands.

Reshaping the economic and social life of the three islands became a strategic goal of authorities in Shanghai Municipality in 2004, on the back of president Hu Jintao’s now celebrated visit to Chongming Island to push forward the official vision of new urban development: high value economic activity coupled with ecologically sound, new modern agriculture and clean energy.

The Eco-island Forum 2006

Plans to make the new vision a reality are now well advanced. According to the master-plan, the main island, Chongming, will be divided into five blocks, four of them covering the main points of the compass and one central zone given over to a forest and recreational centre. All future construction, planners say, should be constructed and operated in harmony with Chongming’s natural features and an eco-index has been proposed to aid watch over the effects of urban encroachment.

The recent “Chongming Eco-island Forum 2006” showed delegates around four major projects, including an experimental “Wetland Ecology Recovery” project, a lake park that is powered by various forms of renewable energy, a pungent-smelling organic agricultural demonstration area that grows rice and the Dongtan Wetland Natural Protection Area, not far from the planned construction site of the Dongtan “Eco-City.”

If or when the plan is put into action, the outcome could energise an area that began to attract settlers in the Tang dynasty nearly 1,300 years ago and boost local incomes which are low for eastern China and just one fifth of the average wage in Shanghai.

Officials are hopeful that the blueprint could also trigger the construction of a string of new towns in the southern zone, high technology industrial parks and new commercial and recreational areas in the east and west, with the northern sector devoted to “massive…ecological agriculture.” Tourism, too, is being mentioned. Clean waters surrounding the Island, planners say, could soon be brimming with fish.

Does it all add up?

Inevitably, participants at the forum raised questions, ranging from concerns over the islands’ geological stability and vulnerability to flooding to how present inhabitants fit into the visionary plans.

Job creation on Chongming is inevitable, particularly in services and light industry, and planners would dearly like the island to become China’s new “Silicon Valley,” but how much of this new development will benefit locals is unclear. High energy demands from new industry means importing from the mainland will be necessary. Shanghai is also expected to supply a large complement of the skilled manpower for new business development – dangers to which the local government officials appeared sensitive.

In addition, the motivation for Chongming is not all ecological. More port capacity is needed in Shanghai and deep water ports, capable of docking vessels of 300,000 tons, typically oil tankers, are planned at Changxi and Hangsha where land is cheap.

Nevertheless, to the visitors at the forum it was clear that “a start” had been made, even if the rapid succession of briefings by local officials introduced a futuristic vision which necessitated a little more reflection.

On paper, the diverse plans for Chongming sound impressive but not all at the forum were convinced that the total sum of these ideas match up – particularly if wealthy Shanghai discovers the delights of a really quiet evening at home.

The author: Rifat Kandiyoti, a Turkish national, received his BSc in Chemical Engineering from Columbia University (1965) and PhD from Imperial College London (1969), where he has served as a Professor since 1980. He has also taught in Chemical Engineering Departments at universities in Ankara and Istanbul, is an honorary Professor of the Taiyuan University of Technology in China and authored over 300 publications, including a recent book on fuel characterisation.

Homepage photo by Joshua Wickerham