Supporters of eco-towns should learn the lesson from the many experiments in China: smaller scale changes are often more effective

Throughout 2009 we can expect the debate around eco-communities, eco-villages, eco-towns and eco-cities to continue. From the UK to South Korea, plans are being drawn up, funds are being sought (something that just got a whole lot harder) and, occasionally, construction is starting.

But so far the concept of the eco-town – designed to minimise a community’s impact on the environment – has proved rather illusive. And in some instances, planners and developers have been, to use the late UK politician Alan Clark’s famous phrase, somewhat “economical with the actualité”.

China has been the focus of much of the eco-town buzz in recent years. Beijing has pronounced that it likes the idea of eco-towns; several have been planned, widely announced and promoted; and a couple of projects have actually got off the drawing board, although more have stumbled than stood up and walked.

With China being so crucial to any global solution to the questions of pollution reduction and sustainability, these projects have been grasped upon eagerly by many keen for a ray of hope and perhaps a solid example of what the country can do to address climate change.

But it has been far from plain sailing, even in a country where liberal democratic concepts of planning permission and consultation are virtually non-existent. As debates around eco-town projects rage from the English home counties to the Bulgarian Black Sea coast, and from Masdar in desert-dominated Abu Dhabi to heavily industrialised Korea, it is perhaps useful to look back at the developments of the past few years in China to see what, if anything, we can learn.


China is in many ways not just the world’s workshop and global factory, but also the testing ground for new technologies. This is one reason why those planning eco-towns have thought China might be prime real estate for their visions – as it has been for many modern architects. China is willing and able to invest in previously untried environmental technologies and ideas that can at times be harder to implement in the more sceptical and public-enquiry-prone west.

It has also been the case that China’s provinces and cities have been keen to demonstrate their bona fides with Beijing by launching high profile – some would say grandstanding – projects that capture the public imagination. In general Beijing has applauded these project announcements though rarely followed up to see if they actually happened and, if they did, what was to be learnt. In many cases the announcement of a new eco-town has been the start and the end of the project – Communist party cadres get patted on the back, promoted and applauded and then life moves on.

The rash of announcements of eco-town projects in the recent past has clearly pandered to the fantasies of central government officials by promoting the illusion that China has seized “global leadership” in environmental protection. Many western construction companies, architects and environmental technology firms have gushed over China with lavish praise, as they gaze upon the potential market of 1.3 billion customers.

So much talk, conferences, seminars, summits and announcements – but what of the actualité? The major lesson from China to date is that big, high profile eco-towns stack up poorly against more modest efforts to make existing urban infrastructure more efficient. Let’s take three of the most notable examples.

Huangbaiyu – high prices

Huangbaiyu is a poor village in north-east Liaoning province, chosen in 2003 as the site of China’s first “ecologically sustainable” model village. The project was sponsored by the Oregon-based China-US Center for Sustainable Development (CUCSD), and led by US architect William McDonough and Deng Nan, the daughter of Deng Xiaoping, the late leader of the Communist party.

The main aim of the Huangbaiyu project was to cut energy costs by building new houses out of hay and pressed-earth bricks (a new technology developed in the US). Designs would also incorporate full southern exposure, complete insulation, rooftop solar panels, radiant heat floors and pipes for bringing in cooking gas produced by a nearby methane-from-biomass plant. The village’s 370 scattered households would all be centralised so that farm plots could be consolidated and additional land made available either for farming or other development. In addition to CUCSD, major companies such as BP and BASF donated materials. The new houses were to cost $3,600 – a potentially manageable sum for the peasant-farmers of Huangbaiyu.

Things did not exactly work out as planned. The first 42 houses were completed in late 2006; only three used the eco-friendly bricks. The rest used bricks made of hay and compressed coal-dust – triggering a debate over whether the coal dust represented a health risk. Only one house had solar panels and none faced south. Inexplicably, the new eco-dwellings had garages, although no villager is anywhere close to being able to afford a car.

Thanks to cost overruns and the non-appearance of expected government subsidies, house prices soared to $20,000 – well beyond what villagers could afford. Villagers complained that they did not wish to move to the village centre and that they had never been consulted in the planning. With the local developer unwilling to fund further eco-dwellings, the local government refused to invest any more. With unhappy villagers, the project’s future remains bleak. The US helpers appear to have gone home and the villagers remain right where they were before they came.

Dongtan – dead duck?

After years of delay, construction is yet to start on Dongtan, a proposed eco-city on Chongming Island, near Shanghai. The project bills itself “the world’s first sustainable city”.

The Dongtan eco-city idea was originally hatched by consultants from McKinsey, and the project involved engineering and environmental technology from a host of UK groups: large engineering firm Arup, construction company Davis Langdon, environmental development firm Eco-Energy Cities, and the University of East Anglia, which initially contributed cutting-edge recycling technology.

If ever started, the development would cover 4,600 hectares and be powered by windmills and solar panels. Some 80% of solid waste would be recycled, organic waste would be composted or burned to supply heat and power, and only vehicles using electricity or fuel cells would be allowed. The initial population forecast of 20,000 in 2010 is planned to rise to 500,000 within 30 years. This goal is modest, considering that China’s best-known unplanned urban utopia, Shenzhen, started as a town of 20,000 in 1980 and took just 15 years to reach the million mark. However, with construction yet to start, these initial targets are now impossible.

The Shanghai government was at first keen to promote Dongtan to visitors, although it was slow to provide funding. Additionally the project’s major champions in the local Communist party have since been arrested, ousted and imprisoned after a major corruption trial. For the new leaders in Shanghai the project is seen as toxic: nobody wants to be seen to be revitalising projects started by disgraced former politicians.

More importantly, the net environmental consequences of Dongtan’s construction have never been clear. It intends to use previously undeveloped land that provided part of Shanghai’s shrinking “green lung”, and the island’s wetlands host several major bird sanctuaries. Arguably, the most eco-friendly use for Dongtan would be to leave it undeveloped and encourage the vital wetlands to grow rather than build on them.

Following a negative environmental audit of the project by a consortium of UK firms involved in the project, several, including the University of East Anglia, withdrew in 2006. Since then the project appears to be shelved, and Arup is remaining quiet about it after heavy publicity which has since led to a negative backlash when nothing, eco or otherwise, has risen out of the Dongtan wetlands.

Rizhao – rays of hope

So far, not so good with the high profile eco-towns. But that is only a small part of what is happening across China. Most of the rest is smaller scale, does not involve foreigners and gets little or no publicity, but is making a difference and offering a guide to the future.

Rizhao, for example, provides an interesting contrast as a rather ordinary city of three million on the Shandong coast that has been chosen not for a ritzy eco-town but simply to convert as much as possible of the city’s energy consumption to solar power. An impressive 99% of households in the city centre and 30% in the suburbs have solar panels that power their lights and heat their water. About 6,000 households also use solar power for cooking. Traffic signals, streetlights and most of the lighting in city schools rely on solar energy.

This impressive record was achieved not by an eco-city branding campaign or the enlistment of fancy foreign engineers. Rizhao went solar the old-fashioned way: with subsidies and cheap technology. The municipal government heavily subsidised solar water heaters, to make them cost less than electric ones. They also encouraged the use of hanging panels, which are cheaper and easier to install than traditional fixed panels.

The government estimates that running a solar water heater will save the average household $150 a year, more than 5% of average household income in the city. It ran information campaigns across the city to highlight the financial benefit of installing solar water heaters. To encourage continued development of solar energy, the government has mandated that all new houses must incorporate solar panels. It also led the way by installing panels in all government buildings.

The result has been a significant reduction in electricity and coal use: Rizhao has several times been listed by the State Environmental Protection Agency as one of the best 10 cities in China for air quality. Fringe benefits have included a boom in domestic tourism and the city’s emergence as a major centre for sailing.

Lessons for greens

The three very different cases above suggest some simple lessons from China’s recent experiences. Huangbaiyu shows that local community participation is crucial. Shannon May, a PhD student at the University of California at Berkeley, who lived in the village during the project, notes that while CUCSD blamed the problems on “structural challenges”, local residents complained about lack of consultation. Villagers at Dongtan also claim they have never been formally informed about, let alone consulted on, plans for an eco-city on their doorstep. Residents in Huangbaiyu agreed that energy-efficient houses would be nice, but felt that other problems were more urgent – healthcare, education and care of the elderly.

Both Huangbaiyu and Dongtan point to the perils of partnerships between governments and developers, which share a desire for these projects to be deemed successful, regardless of environmental reality. This is perhaps a particularly acute problem in state-controlled non-democratic China, but the shared dreams of government and developers the world over are evident.

Dongtan is in essence a partnership between Arup and the Shanghai Industrial Investment Company (SIIC), a city-controlled investment firm which owns most of the property interests in and around Dongtan. It has benefited immensely from a rise in land prices in the area, prompted by speculation about Dongtan. Regardless of whether Dongtan really becomes an eco-city, or simply another bit of Shanghai suburban sprawl, SIIC stands to profit handsomely.

For Arup, Dongtan is part of a portfolio of Chinese projects of decidedly mixed environmental credentials. The engineering firm has won contracts for several mainland airports and power stations, the City of Dreams Casino project in Macau, and the Rem Koolhaas-designed CCTV Tower in Beijing, as well as a city renovation project for Changchun and Beijing’s Dongzhimen public transport hub.

Rizhao tells a different and arguably more positive story: one of ground level official involvement, targeted subsidies and the investment that follows demonstrable environmental progress. A cleaner Rizhao has benefited from a range of inward investments: it was chosen to host one of the International Sailing Federation’s World Sailing Championships (which passed off well, compared with the green algae sludge scare at Qingdao, the 2008 Olympic sailing venue). And both Qufu Normal University and Shandong Institute of Athletics are setting up new campuses in the city. In each case, Rizhao’s environment was cited as a contributing factor.

Other Chinese towns attempting smaller scale changes than the Dongtan-style “grand projets” approach seem also to be finding success. For instance, Linfen, a coal town in Shanxi province, which regularly makes the top-10 list of China’s most polluted cities, is seeking to emulate Rizhao. It now blocks coal trucks at the city’s boundaries and has installed cleaner gas-fired central heating units in many apartment blocks. Now 85% of Linfen residents use natural gas rather than coal to heat their homes.

The evidence suggests that planners wanting to reduce pollution would do better simply to focus on improving the places where people already live. It seems urban planners and the government in China have looked at these high-profile projects and come to the same conclusions. The past 18 months have seen fewer announcements of large-scale Dongtan-like projects, while the government has obviously backed away from commenting on these types of projects in public.

Instead, small-scale initiatives are becoming more commonplace. In Shanghai, for instance, the street lights now come on gradually as darkness falls; buildings must ensure their electricity use is reduced through better management; and new regulations stipulate a 50% reduction in energy use in all buildings by 2010, and 65% by 2020.

The lesson from China: small, local and manageable projects yield far better results and make far more people aware of energy conservation than the handful of eco-beauty-pageants that have received so much publicity in the past few years.

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