Green Design Faces Gray Reality for China’s “Eco-Cities”


By Haibing Ma and Lini Fu  

China has launched more than 100 ”Eco-City” initiatives in recent years, according to a 2009 World Bank report—more than any other country worldwide. These efforts have proven to be an investment hot zone and appear to be a timely mechanism for building China’s sustainable future, particularly as the country urbanizes rapidly. But actually implementing these diverse projects has hit its own sustainability snags, putting a halt to or even shelving several initiatives and putting many others in serious question. 

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Finnish professor Eero Paloheimo, in his pioneering book on the concept, Syntymättömien sukupolvien Eurooppa (The Way Towards a New Europe), observes that most existing theories and designs for Eco-Cities worldwide share a common goal: to enhance the wellbeing of citizens and society through integrated urban planning and management that fully harnesses the benefits of ecological systems, and protects and nurtures these assets for future generations. According to Paloheimo, an Eco-City should embrace the two basic features of: 

  • Being economical in all aspects, and
  • Releasing no pollution to its surroundings.

Paloheimo is, not surprisingly, a major force behind several of China’s Eco-City initiatives, including the Tianjin Eco-City project, which is being co-developed with Singapore’s government and is widely viewed as one of the most promising of these efforts. The Tianjin municipal government hopes to build a self-sustaining, 30-square-kilometer city that could accommodate 350,000 residents within 10 to 15 years. As of the end of 2010, some 14 residential community projects were under development in this “land of hope,” with a goal of welcoming the first group of “green citizens” in the second half of 2011. 

Other projects face dimmer futures. China’s first Eco-City project, Dong Tan district on the nation’s third largest island (Chong Ming), has failed to accomplish its phase-I goal of building a residential “green-design” community that can hold at least 10,000 residents. Even after a three-year delay in launching, the project hadn’t placed a single brick on the ground by the end of 2010. Wan Zhuang, another Eco-City project that two years ago set out to achieve the highest sustainability standards, now boasts only a crumbling, cocoon-like structure to remind visitors of its grand ambitions (see photo on right and read this contrast of plan versus reality [in Chinese]). Other Eco-City projects across China, as eye-catching as their development plans are, have seen little progress beyond blueprints on paper. 

Maybe it is still too early to draw conclusions, but it isn’t hard to be concerned about the future of these projects—especially about whether they can actually live up to the Eco-City indicators articulated by Professor Paloheimo. 

It’s not that the designs themselves are not “green” or that local governments haven’t been actively involved. According to its development plan, the Wan Zhuang project aims to be 100-percent powered by renewable sources and to have a completely closed system for water and waste recycling. Similarly, Dong Tan aims to achieve a 60 percent energy savings, 88 percent water savings, and 83 percent reduction in solid waste compared with the average Chinese city. Local governments, too, have been desperately reaching out, seeking investment for these projects and advertising their “bright futures.” 

In short, the goals are appropriately aligned and the support is there. So what is hindering local officials from implementing certain projects, particularly in a government-driven society like China? 

The reality, of course, is that like many countries, China is far more complex than it appears at first glance. Sustainable development plans, like the Eco-City projects spread across the country, ultimately depend on the sustainability of the policymaking process itself and the relevant support system. 

It’s likely that most of China’s Eco-City projects are facing at least one of the following challenges:  

Shifting political leadership  

In China, dedicated support from a top political leader can make a huge difference to any local or regional project. A common characteristic of the existing Eco-City projects is that they all were blessed with enthusiastic endorsement from local heads of government, which explained the quick launch of these projects in the first place. However, given that a Eco-City initiative typically takes at least a decade or more to carry out, this high-level support needs to be continuous throughout the deployment period. 

In most cases, Chinese local officials, especially those in the top ranks (i.e., Secretary-Generals of local party committees and/or local mayors) have service terms of five years, and can serve for a maximum of two terms. So if a local leader resigns or is transferred elsewhere, this could signal termination of the local Eco-City development plan that the leader originally supported. This happened to the Dong Tan project when former Mayor and Party Secretary-General of Shanghai, Chen Liangyu, was removed from his position in 2006 due to corruption charges. Dong Tan has since had trouble bringing in additional investment to continue the project, and  some previously committed investment was withdrawn because donors did not want to be connected with projects supported by a convicted leader. 

Even in times of normal, smooth leadership transition, the policy continuation problem might persist because succeeding leaders wish to promote their own agendas rather than carrying on inherited unfinished projects. In this regard, all of China’s ongoing Eco-City projects will face a “destiny test” once the current leaders are no longer in power. 

Non-green incentives  

Green design never comes free. Large-scale development projects like Eco-Cities require significant investment that generally exceeds the financial capacity of local governments. As a result, governments typically bid out the development rights to business groups, which are tasked with investing in and building out components of the project under the government’s macro-management. Out of self-interest, business developers tend to start with sub-projects that guarantee the quickest and highest return on investment, which in the current economic situation usually means residential housing units. 

It’s no wonder, then, that most ongoing Eco-City initiatives are actually real estate projects. Some are indeed built in adherence with strict green codes, but others are purely commercial facilities with no specific environmental or ecological goals. For example, there were reports (see one of the report here [in Chinese]) that some of the projects under Wan Zhuang Eco-City’s development plan were actually for private golf clubs. Moreover, because many of the residential communities that have been built with concrete environmental standards are significantly more expensive than their non-green counterparts, China’s Eco-Cities might eventually become enclaves for high-income households only. This raises the question of whether this is in line with Eco-City principles, or, more profoundly, whether access to green goods or services creates an unjustified gap between urban dwellers.  

A convenient truth  

The fact that China’s existing Eco-City projects tend to focus largely on real estate development also raises a quality-control question at the conceptual level: does a green-designed residential community even count as an Eco-City? By definition, a city should be able to accommodate a full range of functions covering all the major aspects of its residents’ work and life. Under Paloheimo’s definition, an Eco-City is designed to be a closed system (on the resource and material level) and doesn’t address such qualification questions. 

Maybe the Eco-City concept isn’t really relevant when applied to existing cities. But in China’s case, where a significant share of these projects is based on the development of previously non-existent city districts, the question becomes crucial. It’s hard to imagine an Eco-City where most of its population would have to travel in-and-out of city bounds frequently to earn a living (green or otherwise). 

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Reviewing all of the so-called “Eco-City” initiatives on China’s map (see right), we couldn’t help but notice that this moniker is being conveniently added to any urban development plan, as long as the planned municipality boasts some “low-carbon economic sectors” such as tourism, recreation, and information technology, and that it vows to depend to some degree on renewable energy and a closed-cycle material management system. 

If this is accomplished and operates strictly as planned, then these newly built cities might generate minimum or even zero environmental impact. But it seems that none of these plans opted to internalize the wider costs associated with urban development, specifically the tremendous materials and energy needed to build up the infrastructure of these Eco-Cities. Certainly, tourism or recreation alone would generate far fewer carbon emissions. But if the environmental and energy costs of developing these low-carbon sectors were included, it is unlikely that any of these Eco-City projects (from a life-cycle perspective) could achieve carbon neutrality, much less their intended goals of reduced carbon emissions and energy use. 

Bigger ecological concerns  

Even if life-cycle analysis proved that China’s Eco-City projects themselves would result in near-zero environmental impacts, these efforts would likely present other ecological impacts that are not currently factored into the equation. Developing a new Eco-City could easily eat up hundreds of square kilometers of land that might be of indispensable ecological or other value to China or the world. One of the reasons that the Dong Tan project was put on hold is that the planned Eco-City would have been built on valuable farmland, which China is now viewing as a strategic asset in terms of food security. 

In addition, Dong Tan is an important stopover for migratory birds, including 12 endangered species and dozens of other birds listed in the National Protected Animal Catalog. The potential impacts on migration patterns of the region’s Eco-City and other large-scale urban planning projects has yet to be assessed. In 1998, years before the inception of the Eco-City, more than 326 square kilometers of Dong Tan was established as a National Nature Reserve to protect area wetlands—a potential conflict that local government officials must have been aware of before they started conceiving the Eco-City idea. 

In principle, cities can be ecologically or environmentally friendly, but a long-term green vision alone is not enough. Project implementers and local officials need to pay special attention to the steps that they are taking to achieve those goals. Most importantly, green concepts like Eco-Cities should not be used as an advertising tactic to attract outside investment for less environmentally friendly, more traditional development. In short, to build a sustainable future, the approaches and processes being utilized should be sustainable in practice as well. 

Worldwatch Institute is dedicated to exploring a comprehensive green economy approach that addresses the full range of sustainability issues such as climate change, resource degradation, population growth, and rural development. With support from the Finnish government, the Institute is specifically examining China’s green economy potential and its future role in helping other developing countries pursue sustainable development. We will release our first report on the topic this spring. We welcome the opportunity to continue working closely with regional and local governments in China to help build a green future in a sustainable way.

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