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Can Ecocities Solve China’s Environmental Problems?

Meixi Lake Ecocity. Image: Nick Holdstock.
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China is building ecocities in droves. Dozens of these green-branded, new frontiers of urbanism are already in an advanced state of development and upwards of 200 more are on the way. In fact, over 80% of all prefecture level cities in the country have at least one ecocity project in the works, and it is estimated that over the coming decades 50% of China’s new urban developments will be stamped with labels such as “eco,” “green,” “low carbon,” or “smart.”

If any country is poised to lead the green urbanization movement, it’s China. This may seem counter-intuitive given the country’s recent environmental track record, but this is precisely why it is so: China really doesn’t have another choice. In its all out race to modernize, urbanize, and ascend economically, entire swaths of the country have been rendered ecological wastelands. The air is deadly, the soil is toxic, the water is undrinkable, the aquifers are being sucked dry, great lakes and rivers are disappearing, coastal wetlands have been decimated, and the cities themselves are becoming heat islands. Simply living in many of the China’s cities is a health hazard — and as awareness of this fact grows fewer and fewer people are willing to trade personal and environmental well-being for economic progress. China must do something about its cities.

To these ends, China is engaging in building legions of idealistic, completely new ecocities, which often go up as stand alone, self-contained satellite developments outside of much larger urban cores. Their aim is to mitigate the pernicious attributes of the current urban condition through creating smarter, better designed cities from the ground up — cities that are “designed, built, and managed at the absolute highest levels of efficiency,” according to Richard Brubaker, a professor of sustainability at China Europe International Business School in Shanghai.

Although the question must be asked: Is going out to the un-urbanized fringes — often to places that have never seen cities before — and clearing out massive swaths of farmland, demolishing rural villages, and relocating thousands of nearly self-sufficient peasants to build hundreds of new cities an effective way to improve environmental conditions? Are ecocities really the solution?

“The sustainability of cities is something we can work with, but building something from scratch and calling it an ecocity isn’t the answer,” Anna-Karin Grönroos, the director of Ecopolis, a documentary about China’s ecocities, stated decisively.

Richard Brubaker echoed this sentiment: “Will we ever have an ecocity? Like totally off the grid, everything natural? No. That will not sustain life for the billions that are going to move into the cities.”

In their current incarnation, ecocities are simply not effective engines for environmental betterment — even when built en masse, as they are being in China. They are just too small, not for enough people, too remote, too class exclusive and expensive, too prone to marketing gimmicks and economic/political subterfuge, and too self-contained to really have a decisive impact on the broader urban environment.

“If you go to China, the ecocity projects are autonomous entities, you always will find the project is just related to itself. The eco structure or water structure is not related to the outside,” said Joost van den Hoek, the director of urban planning at Urban Data.

The reality of the future urban condition in China are metropolitan areas of 10 to 50+ million people, not arrays of trendy upper-middle class satellite towns for 80 to 100 thousand. No matter how much green space Tianfu, Meixihu, or Nanhui have it’s all moot when mitigated against the broader urban matrix they’re soaking in, drowning them with excessive pollution of myriad varieties. At this stage, ecocities are not effective drivers of environmental change in their own right — regardless of how they’re marketed.

Although writing off China’s ecocities as nothing more than extravagant green-washing initiatives on an unprecedented scale isn’t completely accurate either. While some of the country’s so-called ecocities have failed miserably, being little more than “the same sprawling McMansions under a different name,” as put by Bianca Bosker, the author of Original Copies, there is another side to these places which, while far more subtle, could ultimately be far more beneficial.

“I think it is important to understand that there are two models of the ecocities,” began Eero Paloheimo, the visionary behind Beijing’s Mentougou eco-valley. “The first model is to do new cities that are different in all ways from the conventional cities, and then the bigger issue actually is to renovate the old cities so they get the new technology for traffic and all the infrastructure and the recycling and the building and so on. . . Ideally, the [eco] city will be a laboratory of clean technology.”

“In the greater scope of urban planning, the problem with ecocities has always been what are we going to learn in the ecocity that we can apply in the actual cities themselves?” Brubaker pointed out. “What are you going to apply at the city level when you’re building Chengdu and Xiamen and Hangzhou and Taizhou?”

Ecocities are catalysts for testing new designs, concepts, and technologies that are meant to improve the efficiency of urban space through reducing use, waste, and emissions. They are places for developing systems like seasonal energy storage and heat capture, rainwater collection, drinking water recycling and/ or desalination, gray and black water systems, urban agriculture, sky gardens, distributed energy plants, waste energy recovery systems, thermal insulation, traffic-less downtowns, new modes and methods of public transportation, as well as increasing dependence on renewable, low polluting energy sources, like wind and solar on the city scale. They are live test cases where all of the above can be introduced and tested, brought into the public consciousness, and then trickled across to the broader city beyond, gradually blurring the dichotomy between ecocity and conventional city beyond recognition.

If nothing else, China’s ecocities show us what’s wrong with our existing cities and set the bar a little higher for all other cities, everywhere.

“[Ecocities] should be the petri dish by which all lessons for the megalopolises are learned and scaled,” Richard Brubaker stated. “If we’re not learning anything and we’re not scaling anything then the ecocity is a distraction.”

A version of this article was originally published on CityMetric.

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Filed under: Articles, China, Urbanization

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 79 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3092 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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