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The Reality Behind China’s Eco-city Hype

China is currently in the process of building 200 new eco-cities, but what are these places all about and do they actually provide the ecological benefits they promise?

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The words ‘eco’ and ‘city’ combined together seems like an unabashed oxymoron. “Tending to benefit or cause minimal damage to the environment,” the definition of ecological, just happens to be the polar opposite of what we know our cities to be. Urban areas are environmental hazard zones: their concrete suffocates the soil, their power plants turn the skies insidious shades of gray, their sewer systems pump pollutants into waterways, their factories turn fertile land into unlivable brownfields, their traffic fills our lungs with particulate matter — how can such a place ever be ecological?

Enter the eco-city: new urban developments that are meant to mitigate the ecologically pernicious, unsustainable elements of the typical city through improving efficiency, limiting resource consumption, and cutting back on pollution. They run off of renewable energy, recycle their water and waste, engage in urban agriculture, have resource efficient buildings, limit traffic, and have extensive public transportation networks. Ideologically, eco-cities attempt to usurp the timeless dichotomy between nature and city, and are meant to be the prototypes for a new “green” urban future.

“We are having an ecological crisis, and what we do with our cities is going to be the answer,” spoke Anna-Karin Grönroos, the director of Ecopolis, a documentary about China’s eco-cities.

Grönroos’s statement perhaps strikes China more poignantly than anywhere else in the world. This is a country that has urbanized faster and more extensively than any other country in history, a movement which has resulted in the creation of 600 new cities since the Communist Party came to power in 1949. Over the past 30 years China has seen 400 million people, more than the entire population of the United States, become urban and 170 municipalities with populations that exceed one million. By 2030, China is expected to have over a billion urban dwellers — which means that 1.4 million people, roughly the population of Estonia, will urbanize each month for the next fifteen years. Combine this with a master urbanization plan that will see the creation of 10 mega-regions (metropolitan areas of 20 to 100+ million people each) across the country, and China is treading into uncharted urban territory.

In no small way, China is a country that is plagued by its own urban creations, hamstrung by the the miracle of its own success. In its all out race to modernize, urbanize, and rise economically entire swaths of the the country have been rendered environmental wastelands. In 90 percent of China’s cities the air is harmful to breath, 50 percent of the drinking water is below international standards, and 20 to 40 percent of the arable soil is contaminated with toxins. This is combined with the destabilizing force of a discontented population that is becoming more aware of their country’s decimated environment and are no longer willing to sacrifice their health and well-being for breakneck economic progress and development.

To these ends, China has embarked upon what amounts to an eco-city extravaganza. Upwards of 200 new eco-cities are being built across 80% of the prefecture level cities in the country. Typically, these new eco-cities are built from scratch as self-contained, independent urban entities that sit adjacent to larger, conventional urban cores.

But are these eco-cities really environmentally beneficial urban alternatives or are they just an excuse to built yet another new city?

China’s track record with building eco-cities is spotty at best. Some end as failed construction projects while others are built but don’t live up to their eco-labeling. It has been estimated by Li Xun, secretary of the Chinese Society for Urban Studies, that only one in five of China’s eco-cities ‘actually match low-carbon or ecological ideals.’ While Bianca Bosker, the author of Original Copies, a book about China’s Western copycat towns, claimed that most of China’s ecocities are “the same sprawling McMansions under a different name.”

Dongtan, China’s original ecocity, was heralded as the future of urban life when it was first proposed in 2005, but instead ended up being “a masterpiece of greenwashing,” as put by Ethical Corporation, a corporate responsibility and ethical issues magazine. The original plan called for a new, energy efficient city for 50,000 people to be built on Shanghai’s last extant wetlands — a tinge of irony that was not lost on environmentalists and academics at the time who spoke out against the plan. Although as it panned out, Dongtan never actually threaten any wetlands, as the place was never actually built. Only a small array of face-saving conventional high-rises masquerading as “green” and a wind farm is all that this city of the future ended up becoming.

The ecological benefits of Nanhui, an ecocity with a unique circular street pattern built on land reclaimed from the sea 60 kilometers outside of Shanghai, are also not evident. For purposes of self-aggrandizement and marketing, local government officials wanted the artificial lake at the center of the new city to be larger than Hangzhou’s famous West Lake. So the original design was tampered with and the scale of the entire city was expanded to accommodate the larger sized lake. This, combined with massive green spaces obsessively inserted between all of the city’s various sections, led to a gargantuan, spread out, sprawling creation which virtually demands residents to drive cars anywhere they want to go — directly counteracting the city’s low carbon ambitions.

Huangbaiyu, an eco-village in the north of China designed by the Hollywood hobnobbing, green design “guru” William McDonough, doesn’t pollute, doesn’t have any cars, and doesn’t consume any resources. In fact, it doesn’t even have any people. It’s almost a moot point that this eco-village was poorly thrown together with shoddy materials and drastically compromised many of the innovative ecological ambitions of its original design, because nobody ever wanted to live there in the first place. It was a project designed by foreigners who didn’t take into account the needs and wants of the local people who they just assumed would inhabit it. They built houses with garages for people who didn’t have cars, didn’t providing space for gardens and livestock for peasants who depended on such, built a biogas energy plant that would run off of the corn cobs and stalks that the villages depend on to feed their Cashmere goats, and expected people who have a long tradition of building their own homes with materials they obtained from the surrounding forest to suddenly want to pay many times their yearly salary for a new modern house. Huangbaiyu is currently empty and rotting — which is perhaps the most ecological thing it can do.

Although many other eco-cities meet their ends well before they could disappoint. Beijing’s Mentougou eco-valley was never actually built; the Finnish visionary who designed it claimed that the money he invested mysteriously vanished in the black box of Chinese bureaucracy. Broad Group’s Sky City One, which was meant to be the world’s first sky city as well as the tallest building on earth, sent a shock wave through the global architecture circles when it was announced. It was supposed to have been a single, extremely energy efficient building with all the latest green gadgetry that could house over 30,000 people, cutting down on the amount of land per person 100 fold and eliminating the need to drive. After ceremoniously breaking ground in 2013 nothing was ever actually built.

At this time, the Sino-Singapore Tiangin Ecocity (SSTEC), a joint project between China and Singapore, is probably the best example of a functioning eco-city in China. Built on reclaimed industrial land in the middle of a heavily industrialized swath of Tianjin, which happens to be right next to the site of the massive chemical explosion on August 12th that sent fireballs shooting into the sky and killing over 100 people, parts of it were actually built and populated. Although it is still very much stagnant at a mid-point of development, the original vision having been toned down a few notches.

Austin Williams, a Jiaotong-Liverpool University architecture professor who is currently writing a book on China’s eco-cities, put SSTEC to the test by comparing its ecological attributes with that of London, a big, old, conventional city. He found that 90 percent of London’s commuters traveled by non-car means, which is roughly the same amount that Tianjin aspires for. In terms of carbon emissions, London’s are currently one third less than those projected for SSTEC. Since October 2011, all new domestic developments in London have a maximum water consumption rate of 120 liters per person per day, which is the same that the eco-city aims for in ten years. Even as far as green space goes — which China’s eco-cities cling to as a defining attribute — London pales SSTEC with almost nine times more per person. “It would seem that London is actually way ahead in environmental terms of a purpose-made Chinese eco-city,” Williams concluded.

“[China’s ecocities] have won a lot of awards, they’ve drawn attention, but the actual execution just isn’t there yet,” Richard Brubaker, a professor of sustainability at China Europe International Business School in Shanghai, stated.

It is precisely the labeling that is part of the problem with China’s eco-cities. There is no established standard as to what actually qualifies a place as an eco-city: there is no international eco-city seal of approval, no certification process. While China does have its “Three Star” Green Building Design Label rating system for individual buildings, its eco-cities remain less evaluated, and we often need to take the places that government officials, developers, and urban designers tout as eco-cities at face value.

“If you have a big piece of land you can fill it up with apartments 100%, but if you fill it up with apartments 50% and then have the rest be green space they call it an eco-city. That is what an eco-city is in China is right now,” Joost van den Hoek, the director of urban planning at Urban Data, stated skeptically.

Fanny Hoffman-Loss, an architect who has worked on the Nanhui eco-city, concluded that, ‘It’s difficult everywhere, all over the world, to develop something like cities in a sustainable way. So in many cases [eco-cities] just end up being some marketing thing. On the other hand, that’s how things start… it’s a step in the right direction.”

To date, not a single eco-city in China has been fully built and populated.

Read more about this topic at Eco-cities in China.

A version of this article was originally published on Reuters at China’s eco-cites are often neither ecologically friendly, nor functional cities.


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Filed under: Articles, China, Environment, New Cities, Urbanization

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3717 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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