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Which way China?

Dongtan, the world’s first eco-city, is leading the way in urban sustainability. Herbert Girardet hails a pioneering project – planned for Chongming island, near Shanghai -- which could provide a template for future urban design.
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China is a civilisation with a 5,000-year history of ever-growing inventiveness and refinement. From 600 until 1500 CE, it was the world’s most scientifically and technologically advanced society. It led the way in astronomy, mathematics, medicine, pottery and plant breeding. It invented the magnetic compass, gunpowder, cast iron, papermaking and printing. It alternated between being a closed, inward-looking society and a very open one that sought to link up with other civilisations.

China also built the largest and most spectacular cities before the modern era, with Beijing’s population reaching 2 million as long ago as the 17th century. However, it also continued to be a land of villages and farmers. Under Mao, this trend was strongly emphasised and China became a champion of village industries, collective farms and local self-sufficiency.

All that changed after Mao’s death. In 1978 Deng Xiaoping launched China on the “Open Door Policy”, focusing on rapid economic growth, a new role for markets, investment from the west and foreign trade. The world has watched in fascination and trepidation ever since, as pictures of vast factories and gleaming skyscrapers hit our television screens. Twenty-five years ago there was hardly any foreign investment, but by 2003 it amounted to US$680 billion. In a quarter of a century, China’s gross domestic product increased tenfold, from US$147 billion to over US$1.4 trillion. Its foreign trade grew more than forty-fold, from US$20.5 billion to US$850 billion.

But while China’s decision to industrialise and to urbanise has translated into a booming economy -- with western-style consumerism spreading across the country -- it has also generated major pollution problems. Sulphur and nitrogen oxides have turned China’s air into smog, and urban sewage, fertiliser run-off from farms and industrial chemicals are poisoning its rivers. There is also an increasingly global dimension: with one new coal-fired power station being built every week, and with China’s car production now nudging up to that of Japan, its CO2 emissions are catching up with those of the US. However, China seems to be learning the lessons of the limits to growth a lot more quickly.

When President Hu Jintao took over in 2003, searching questions began to be asked about the trajectory of China’s development. Since then a new policy emphasis on “harmony between humanity and nature” and on building “a conservation-oriented and environment-friendly society” has emerged. In recent speeches, Chinese leaders have insisted that “economic development must consider its impact on the environment and on society”.

There is growing evidence that these messages are increasingly informing the decisions of government officials and planners. One significant development is that the Shanghai Industrial Investment Corporation (SIIC) has commissioned the world’s first purpose-built eco-city -- Dongtan. It will be built on Chongming island in the Yangtze River delta on an area three-quarters of the size of Manhattan island - 86 square kilometers. By 2010 it will be a city of 25,000 people; by 2030 the population will reach some 500,000. It is designed to be a beautiful and truly sustainable city with a minimal ecological footprint. The goal is to use Dongtan as a template for future urban design. As China is planning to build no less than 400 new cities in the next 20 years, Dongtan’s success is of crucial importance.

I have had the privilege to be working as a consultant on the Dongtan project with the global engineering and design consultancy Arup. The first phase of Dongtan Eco-City is conceived as a town consisting of three compact, pedestrian “villages”, each with its own distinct character. The city will then continue to grow as a collection of towns connected by cycle routes and public transport corridors, allowing inhabitants access to different parts of the city by tram, bus and bicycle, as well as on foot. The aim is to ensure that people will have to walk for no more than seven minutes from any part of the city to reach a bus or tram stop.

Dongtan’s design is based on the principle that all its citizens can be in close contact with green open spaces, lakes and canals. Its buildings will be highly energy-efficient, and the city will be largely powered by renewable energy -- the wind, the sun and biomass.

Most of Dongtan’s waste output will be recycled and composted. The bulk of its organic wastes will be returned to the local farmland to help assure its long-term fertility and its capacity to produce much of the city’s food needs. Chongming’s existing local farming and fishing communities will have significant new marketing opportunities with the development of Dongtan, ensuring a high degree of local food self-sufficiency and enhancing the island’s long-term environmental and social sustainability at the same time.

Ironically, Dongtan is being built on an island in the Yangtze delta that is in itself a product of environmental catastrophe. In the last 50 years, Chongming island has become the world’s largest alluvial island, doubling in size, due to eroding soil from deforestation washing down in the headwaters of the river Yangtze. Chongming has grown from 600 square kilometers in 1950 to 1,290 square kilometers today.

One reason for the decision to create a new city of minimal environmental impact on Chongming island is the existence of a huge wetland area on the southern part of the island, which is a reserve for migrating birds and the largest of its kind in China. The wetlands will be preserved and will provide a strong visitor attraction. Vegetation from the wetland reserve will also permeate Dongtan, assuring that it becomes part of the island's natural habitat rather than a barrier to it.

With Dongtan, a sustainable future is not some distant dream, but a vision that is actually being realised. The strategy for Dongtan Eco-City is for it to be developed in several stages in the next 30 to 40 years. A tunnel and bridge, linking Chongming island to Shanghai, are already under construction. In 2010 Shanghai will host the World Expo, and the completion of the first phase of Dongtan will demonstrate that environmental sustainability and access to nature are very much part of new development in China.

Dongtan is a local project with a global perspective, designed to ensure that China will play a key role in the emergence of a world of ecologically and economically sustainable human settlements. It is becoming clear that the planet will not be able to cope if 1.3 billion Chinese and 1.2 billion Indians behave in the same way as only a few hundred million people have done so far: extracting resources, consuming and polluting. As high-population countries such as China and India catch up with Europe, North America, Japan and Australia, worldwide sustainable development is the only way to go.

Dongtan is intended to set an example. It will be a pioneering eco-city that could become a blueprint for sustainable urban development, in China itself and elsewhere in the world. It holds a promise of a high-efficiency, small-footprint urban design. By 2010, Dongtan will be a compelling model for how to build sustainable cities worldwide that may well be too persuasive to ignore.

Homepage photo by Yakobusan

The author: Herbert Girardet is author of Cities, People, Planet and chairman of Schumacher UK. Dongtan Eco-City, edited by Zhao Yan, Herbert Girardet et al., was published by Arup and SIIC in February 2006.

Reprinted with permission from Resurgence magazine www.resurgence.org 

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


东滩无论作为一个商业项目还是一个生态项目都是又一次国有企业的官僚作风的牺牲品。人们需要的是实实在在的兑现了的承诺, 不是一个有一个在天上飘的概念。老百姓是不需要通过吹一个又一个气泡来养活自己的!也希望作者能够珍惜自己的声誉, 不要在这里写这些不负责任的鼓吹文章!


Dongtan, whether it is a commercial or ecological project, is one more product of the bureaucracy of state-run enterprises.

What the Chinese people really want to see is the fulfillment of promises (by the authorities) instead of imaginary conceptions. Ordinary Chinese people cannot live on impractical ideas which will "burst easily like bubbles".

I suggest the author preserve his reputation and no longer write similiar irresponsible articles for advocacy purposes.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



How can this possibly provide a template for future planners?!

Dongtan is a new build and therefore comes with few, if any, existing environmental problems. But can China tear down all its cities and start again? Of course not.

What planners need to do is come up with a plan that integrates environmental planning into project that are now being implemented where millions actually live - in Shanghai, Beijing, Guangdong, Wuhan, Xian, Tianjin, Hangzhou,.....

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Be Positive

Creating sustainable communites is not a bubble that will burst but a necessity for the future of humankind. it is true that retro fitting old cities with new technology is important. this new technology can be tried and tested in such new builds as Dongtan. Matt

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Maybe a bit exaggerated

“World’s first purpose-built eco-city”, sounds a bit exaggerated. With only 86 square kilometres you can hardly call it a city, a township may be more appropriate. Allowing public open spaces in the community and preserving the natural amenities and habitats with high ecological values are just common sense when planning for development in western countries. Also provision of high quality municipal infrastructure to small community is often costly and cannot be afforded by the local community, government subsidy or citywide funding is normally required. “Dongtan” may be a template for future urban design in green field development, but definitely not a solution to the existing urban problems confronted with China. I do hope “Dongtan” is carefully designed and can be truly sustainable as it is proclaimed.

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匿名 | Anonymous

想到Jane Jacobs

Jane Jacobs在《美国大城市的死与生》中的观点:一是保持街区有多种功用。混合功用能保证在不同的时间吸引不同的人,保持从早到晚都有人在街道上活动。二是保持街道的小尺度。好处是尺度小比较亲近人,还可以增加人们接触的机会而且走不同的路线都可以到达目的地。三是保留老房子。不同年代的房子能吸引不同的人,而不同租金的房子也能满足不同经济活动的需要。四是保持高密度。她认为城市之所以有活力,是因为有大量的人口,这样才有各种活动构成社区。如果市中心的人口不能达到一定密度,就不能吸引更多的人.商业活动将无法进行。她的这些城市多样性思想对20世纪90年代兴起的“新城市主义”(New Urbanism)影响很大。简在她的书中也多次强调了公共参与对城市规划和社区发展的重要性。
中国正在经历城市化高速发展时期,在许多城市中也出现了类似美国20世纪50, 60年代“城市更新“时发生的大规模拆除老街区的现象。然而在美国的城市更新过程中.出现了以简•雅各布斯为代表的’‘批判性思想家’‘他们以自己的思想和人格魅力带动了整个社会对“城市更新‘’的反思,并最终制止了大规模城市改造。但是在今天的中国.我们自己的简•雅各布斯在哪儿呢,在简和其他人的批评下,美国的一批规划师们开始自我反省并通过反省提出了新的规划理念并积极付诸实施,如社区规划公共参与新城市运动等,在今天的中国开始反省的规划师们在哪儿?美国的政治家们最终投票终止了《城市更新法》而在今天的中国,有魄力停止大规模城市改造计划的政治家们在哪儿?也许大规模城市改造是难以避免的但问题是:这种改造什么时候能停下来.我们的学费到底要付到哪一天?

Jane Jacobs and urbanism

Jane Jacobs in the "Life and Death of Great American cities" says firstly that in cities we should maintain particular districts' many functions. Mixing up functions can be guaranteed to attract different people at different times, there are people who keep these activities from morning to night. Secondly, she advocates maintaining small streets. Smaller streets increase the opportunities for people to take different routes to reach their destinations. The third is to retain old houses. The house can attract different generations of people, with differing rents the house can satisfy the needs of different economic groups. The fourth is to maintain a high population density. She holds that a vibrant city has a lot of people, leading to the various activities of the community. Though if the town's population reaches a certain density, it cannot attract more people and commercial activities will be impossible. Jacobs' diverse cities make one think of the 20th century rise of "New Urbanism", on which she was a significant influence. In her book she repeatedly emphasized public participation in urban planning and community development. China is undergoing a rapid development of urbanisation, in many cities this is similar to the 1960s "urban renewal" phenomenon in the US. But in response to urban renewal, Jacobs emerged as 'critical thinker', and encouraged opposition to this massive urban transformation. However, in today's China. In today's China where is our Jacobs? American planners embarked on a period of self-reflection and self-examination and put new planning ideas into practice.And American politicians finally voted to terminate the "Urban Renewal Act". In China today, is there a possibility of stopping large-scale urban renewal projects? Perhaps it is difficult to avoid large-scale urban transformation, but when will it end?

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


我们讲可持续发展从初中到大学, 总该来点实验性的新点子吧. ecocity 不论从各个方面说都是一个美好的计划,虽然ecocity本身不一定对大规模的人口产生影响,但在这个模型中,人们一定能获得对未来有积极作用的改革性的经验。

Practice tests theory

Sustainable development has been promoted in education ranging from secondary schools to universities in China. So far, it is time to experiment with trying new practices.

To build ecocities is an constructive action from whatever aspects we talk about it.

Though ecocity construction won't be necessiarily effective for a large number of populations, lessons and experience which will lead to revolutionary changes could be learned from building ecocities.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




The idea of an eco city is a good one on paper! But when the city is being built, is all the machinery going to be eco-friendly too? There is much more research to be done in this area but lets hope that a dream can become a reality for the sake of the environment.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



People are crucial to the failure or success of the 'city of biodiversity'.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous





Eco totalitarianism?

"Though eco city construction wont be necessarily effective for a large population..."
Can it really be considered sustainable then? If this lifestyle is only accessible for the rich, then what use is it. May as well kill off all the poor and forget about eco-footprints... What happens to these people? The real problem here is social. Do cities like these create more reductions of freedom, where the rich get away with extravagant lifestyles while the poor are forced to give up more of their lifestyles to suit?

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Not totalitarianism

No one ever said this type of city would exclude the poor. It would be designed to be a sustainable community, meaning the tax revenue from the production of the goods by the citizens would be used to maintain the city. There would most likely be a range of socio-economic classes filling in different roles in the city. The idea of the city would be to provide an eco-friendly city with a hgih quality of life for all of its inhabitants because of the pre-planning of the city.