Can hundreds of new "ecocities" solve China's environmental problems?

The vision for Meixi Lake ecocity, in Hunan province. Image: Kohn Pedersen Fox Associated.

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 per cent of all prefecture level cities in the country (the administrative division below “province”) have at least one ecocity project in the works. Over the coming decades, it has been estimated, 50 per cent 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 urbanisation 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 modernise, urbanise, 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 that end, China is engaging in building legions of idealistic, completely new ecocities, many of which are stand-alone, self-contained satellite developments outside of much larger urban cores.

The Meixi Lake ecocity, as it is now. Image: Wade Shepard. 

Their aim is to mitigate the pernicious attributes of the current urban condition through creating smarter, better designed cities from the ground up. They will use renewable energy, urban agriculture, rainwater collection and a host of other technologies, all intended to create communities cleaner and more sustainable than the vast majority of Chinese cities. Ecocities, in the words of Richard Brubaker, a professor of sustainability at China Europe International Business School in Shanghai, will be “designed, built, and managed at the absolute highest levels of efficiency”.

But all this raises a question. Is going out to the un-urbanised 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 actually an effective way to improve environmental conditions? Are ecocities really the solution?

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

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, too remote, too class-exclusive and expensive. They are also too prone to marketing gimmicks and economic or political subterfuge, and too self-contained to really have a decisive impact on the broader urban environment.

Nanhui New City, in the Pudong area of Shanghai, is built on a network of rivers and canals. Image: Wade Shepard. 

“If you go to China, the ecocity projects are autonomous entities, you always will find the project is just related to itself,” says Joost van den Hoek, the director of urban planning at Urban Data. “The eco structure or water structure is not related to the outside.” In other words, however green the eco city, the metropolis just over the horizon will be as dirty as ever.

The reality of the future urban condition in China is that most people will live in metropolitan areas of 10m to 50m people – not arrays of trendy upper-middle class satellite towns for 80,000 to 100,000. No matter how much green space Tianfu, Meixihu, or Nanhui have, it’s all moot when compared to the broader urban matrix that surrounds them, 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.

“The eco city will be a laboratory of clean technology”

All that said, it’s not completely accurate to write off China’s ecocities as nothing more than extravagant green-washing initiatives on an unprecedented scale either. Some of the country’s so-called ecocities have failed miserably, being little more than “the same sprawling McMansions under a different name,” as Bianca Bosker, the author of Original Copies puts it. But there is another side to these places – one which, while more subtle, could ultimately be far more beneficial, too.

“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. 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.”

Brubaker agrees. “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?” he points out. “What are you going to apply at the city level when you're building Chengdu and Xiamen and Hangzhou and Taizhou?”

Ecocities will be 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 a host of new environmental systems: 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. They will help increase China’s use of renewable, low polluting energy sources, like wind and solar on the city scale, too.

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,” says Richard Brubaker. “If we’re not learning anything and we’re not scaling anything, then the ecocity is a distraction.” 

Wade Shepard is the author of "Ghost Cities of China".

 
 
 
 

A growing number of voters will never own their own home. Why is the government ignoring them?

A lettings agent window. Image: Getty.

The dream of a property-owning democracy continues to define British housing policy. From Right-to-Buy to Help-to-Buy, policies are framed around the model of the ‘first-time buyer’ and her quest for property acquisition. The goal of Philip Hammond’s upcoming budget – hailed as a major “intervention” in the “broken” housing market – is to ensure that “the next generation will have the same opportunities as their parents to own a home.”

These policies are designed for an alternative reality. Over the last two decades, the dream of the property-owning democracy has come completely undone. While government schemes used to churn out more home owners, today it moves in reverse.

Generation Rent’s new report, “Life in the Rental Sector”, suggests that more Britons are living longer in the private rental sector. We predict the number of ‘silver renters’ – pensioners in the private rental sector – will rise to one million by 2035, a three-fold increase from today.

These renters have drifted way beyond the dream of home ownership: only 11 per cent of renters over 65 expect to own a home. Our survey results show that these renters are twice as likely than renters in their 20s to prefer affordable rental tenure over homeownership.

Lowering stamp duty or providing mortgage relief completely miss the point. These are renters – life-long renters – and they want rental relief: guaranteed tenancies, protection from eviction, rent inflation regulation.

The assumption of a British ‘obsession’ with homeownership – which has informed so much housing policy over the years – stands on flimsy ground. Most of the time, it is based on a single survey question: Would you like to rent a home or own a home? It’s a preposterous question, of course, because, well, who wouldn’t like to own a home at a time when the chief economist of the Bank of England has made the case for homes as a ‘better bet’ for retirement than pensions?


Here we arrive at the real toxicity of the property-owning dream. It promotes a vicious cycle: support for first-time buyers increases demand for home ownership, fresh demand raises house prices, house price inflation turns housing into a profitable investment, and investment incentives stoke preferences for home ownership all over again.

The cycle is now, finally, breaking. Not without pain, Britons are waking up to the madness of a housing policy organised around home ownership. And they are demanding reforms that respect renting as a life-time tenure.

At the 1946 Conservative Party conference, Anthony Eden extolled the virtues of a property-owning democracy as a defence against socialist appeal. “The ownership of property is not a crime or a sin,” he said, “but a reward, a right and responsibility that must be shared as equitable as possible among all our citizens.”

The Tories are now sleeping in the bed they have made. Left out to dry, renters are beginning to turn against the Conservative vision. The election numbers tell the story of this left-ward drift of the rental sector: 29 per cent of private renters voted Labour in 2010, 39 in 2015, and 54 in June.

Philip Hammond’s budget – which, despite its radicalism, continues to ignore the welfare of this rental population – is unlikely to reverse this trend. Generation Rent is no longer simply a class in itself — it is becoming a class for itself, as well.

We appear, then, on the verge of a paradigm shift in housing policy. As the demographics of the housing market change, so must its politics. Wednesday’s budget signals that even the Conservatives – the “party of homeownership” – recognise the need for change. But it only goes halfway.

The gains for any political party willing to truly seize the day – to ditch the property-owning dream once and for all, to champion a property-renting one instead – are there for the taking. 

David Adler is a research association at the campaign group Generation Rent.

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