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: 

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Mention “green economy,” and almost automatically many people will think about alternative energy sources like wind and solar. Without question, the makeup of our energy system needs to change—badly. But other aspects of greening the economy shouldn’t get short shrift either. Changing the way we travel from point A to point B, limiting the voracious appetite of our buildings for heating and cooling, and making industries like steel, aluminum, and paper far more efficient are all essential tasks. In many cases, these activities might be pursued in parallel, as different “wedges” of a climate stabilization policy.

Better yet, such approaches can be combined in imaginative ways. One encouraging example is found in China, where solar energy and rail endeavors came together in a project inaugurated last month. A 6.68 megawatt photovoltaic system was installed on roofs and awnings of the recently completed Hongqiao Station, part of the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed rail line currently under construction.

The project’s 20,000 solar panels cover an area of 61,000 square meters, forming the largest standalone PV array in the world. The system cost about $23 million to install, produces enough electricity for 12,000 Shanghai households, will cut coal consumption by 2,254 tons, and will reduce carbon emissions by 6,600 tons.

The Hongqiao array is regarded as a pilot project. But given the massive expansion of China’s rail system, it holds enormous potential. Plans are to lengthen the total rail network from 92,000 kilometers today to 120,000 kilometers by 2020, a goal that may even be raised to 150,000 kilometers. The country’s high-speed lines are set to reach a length of 25,000 kilometers. Earlier this year, some 6,500 kilometers had already been constructed.

The rail station sits next to Hongqiao airport

There will be plenty of rail-station roofs to put solar panels on. For that matter, solar panels could be integrated into many more buildings in Shanghai and China’s other metropolises. China and Taiwan together now produce about half the world’s PV panels, but they export most of them. With the Hongqiao project, perhaps that will begin to change.

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I admit it was in part the thrill of speed that made me take the Maglev train from Shanghai to nearby Pudong International Airport. I was in town for a high-level symposium on economic recovery jointly organized by Germany’s Friedrich Ebert Foundation and the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies.

To my knowledge, there’s no other ground transportation system on Earth that comes close to the dash through the Chinese countryside that reaches a top speed of 431 kilometers per hour (267 miles per hour). Alternatively, I could have taken the metro—the No. 2 line was recently extended out to the airport, part of Shanghai’s rapidly expanding network. Instead, I took the No. 1 and 2 subways from the city center to Longyang Road, where metro and Maglev link up.

The metro ride to Longyang Road (which involved a total of seven stops) took about 40 minutes. The Maglev ride [YouTube video] lasted all of seven minutes covering 30 kilometers (19 miles), or about double the distance of my metro trip. With incredible acceleration, buildings and bridges fly past in a blur, and even at top speed there’s fairly little vibration.

Maglev train at Shanghai's Pudong airport

With the World Expo taking place in Shanghai this May through October, I suspect that Maglev ridership will expand, although ticket prices are about ten times as much as the (cheap) metro fares for a comparable distance. (This is still much cheaper and faster than taking a taxi to the airport.) China also just announced—as I coincidentally read in China Daily while riding the Maglev—that the Chengdu Aircraft Industrial Group in Sichuan province has completed the first domestically made Maglev train, a local version of the German technology used in the Shanghai line.

In truth, the Maglev technology—which relies on powerful magnets rather than on rail tracks—will probably always remain something of an exotic experiment. It’s expensive and you can’t use the technology to its full benefit in densely populated areas or on anything that deviates too much from a straight line. Public opposition has prevented the existing Shanghai line from being extended to the city of Hangzhou or even to Shanghai’s domestic airport, Hongqiao.

More conventional high-speed rail, in the meantime, has growing appeal in numerous countries around the world. China is not only investing vast sums of money in expanding its own network, but is fast becoming a serious competitor internationally. (Though its efforts to learn from and replicate foreign technology has led to angry charges from a Japanese competitor that the country is stealing technology.)

The New York Times recently reported that Chinese companies have already begun to build high-speed lines in Turkey, Venezuela, and Saudi Arabia and are looking for similar deals in other countries, including Brazil and the United States. As a sweetener in its efforts to win a contract in California against intense competition, China is offering to help finance construction of the planned line in the financially strapped state.

So, while you shouldn’t hold your breath waiting for a Maglev line near you to materialize, more conventional high-speed rail lines will likely become more and more prominent.

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