A number of planned ‘eco-cities’ in China have been scrapped or scaled back due to concerns about their design or implementation. According to Environment 360, from Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, one major project — Dongtan Eco-City on Chongming Island, off Shanghai, was highlighted as a sort of utopian green city, but a new mayor in Shanghai may mean the project is on hold indefinitely. In another project cited by Environment 360, the Huangbaiyu project in northeast China’s Liaoning province, a small village was to be transformed into a more energy-efficient community. Instead, much of the original plan was abandoned because of a mismatch between the original plans and actual materials on the ground. Additionally, many residents either couldn’t afford the new residencies, or believe they didn’t fit their lifestyle.
Environment 360 said: “Dongtan and other highly touted eco-cities across China were meant to be models of sustainable design for the future. Instead they’ve become models of bold visions that mostly stayed on the drawing boards — or collapsed from shoddy implementation. More often than not, these vaunted eco-cities have been designed by big-name foreign architectural and engineering firms who plunged into the projects with little understanding of Chinese politics, culture, and economics — and with little feel for the needs of local residents whom the utopian communities were designed to serve.”
Environment 360 argues that the lack of local participation in design created problems for the Huangbaiyu project. ”Part of the vision was to use special hay and pressed-earth bricks for construction. Unfortunately, of the first 42 homes completed in 2006, only a handful were built with the custom bricks. As the magazine Ethical Corporation has reported, cost overruns made the homes unaffordable to many villagers. In other instances, although homes were available, the farmers refused to live in them, complaining that the new yards weren’t large enough to raise animals and sustain a livelihood. Some of the homes in Huangbaiyu were built with garages, although villagers don’t have cars. Among the problems besetting the project were “technical inexperience, faulty materials, lack of oversight, and poor communication.”
While corruption in the Shanghai government is seen as playing a role in ending the Dongtan project, some Chinese environmentalists place part of the blame on the shoulders of international consulting, planning, and architectural firms, which have all been involved in conceiving or planning eco-cities in China. In the article, Wen Bo, a Beijing-based environmentalist and co-director of Pacific Environment’s China programs, said less ambitious plans may have a more positive impact: “Enforceable green building codes, with the designers’ and planners’ willingness to follow them, is very important. Such grand eco-city plans themselves are not eco-friendly.”
Also, check out an ASLA analysis and planning honor award project by SWA group on Chongming Island, the greater island where the planned Dongtan eco-city would have been located. The SWA project focused on restoring the critical wetlands and ecology of the North Lake region of the island, and is separate from the Dongtan eco-city project. In reference to the relationship between the eco-city and the island’s ecology, The Economist, in a recent article on Dongtan, wrote: “critics point out that building an eco-city on farms near hugely important wetlands, which attract rare migrating birds (and birdwatchers), was always dubious.”
Image credit: SWA Group