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".

 
 
 
 

Network Rail let me have a play on Manchester’s new rail bridge. Here’s what I learned

The new bridge in all its glory. Image: Network Rail.

By the time the railways arrived in Manchester, the city was already built up, forcing trains to finish their journey on the edge of the urban area. To this day, it still has two main stations: Victoria, which sits on the northern edge of the city centre, and serves destinations across the north; and Piccadilly, which serves a smaller chunk of the north, but also provides trains to Birmingham, London and points south.

There are many ways in which this situation is less than ideal. For a start it means that travellers get off a train, only to find they’re still surprisingly far from the city centre. For another, terminating services take up more space (because you need more platforms) and time (because crews need to change ends) than through ones.

Then there’s Manchester Airport, the busiest in the north, used by travellers right across the region. But that’s to the south of the city, on a line into Piccadilly, which makes it annoyingly hard to get to by train.

The proposed PiccVic tunnel. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

So what with one thing and another, linking up Manchester’s two stations in some way has been an ambition for decades. In the mid-1970s, there was a plan for a “Picc-Vic” tunnel, which would have served five underground stations in the city centre – but that, inevitably, got cancelled due to lack of funds. The city council instead started to focus its efforts on the new Metrolink tram network; but while that’s been great for locals and commuters, it’s not done much for longer-distance travellers

A few weeks from today, though, trains will travel directly between Piccadilly and Victoria for the first time. To do so, they’ll use existing lines to the south and west of the city centre, as well as 300m of new track, known as the Ordsall Chord.

And, for reasons that aren’t exactly clear, the nice people at Network Rail let me have a go on their new bridge. Here I am, in my fetching new personal protective equipment:

Jacket, trousers, boots, gloves, eye protection, hard hat: all present and correct. Ability to take a remotely flattering selfie: conspicuous by its absence. Image: author provided.

(The trousers were my size, which was unexpected, because I hadn’t actually told Network Rail what size I was. This lead me to worry they kept a database of such things, but the press office assured me that this had literally never happened before, and was extremely unlikely to happen again. So anyway.)

The Ordsall Chord has been talked about for a very long time: parliament actually agreed to build the thing, then known as the Castlefield Curve, all the way back in 1979, just after the cancellation of the Picc-Vic tunnel. In some ways it’s an obvious missing link – remember we’re talking about just 300m of new track, costing under £100m, which isn’t that much as these things go. But Britain being what it is, it proved rather easier to persuade ministers to build London’s £15bn Crossrail instead.

A schematic of the new curve. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

In 2011, though, then chancellor George Osborne unexpectedly announced £85m of funding. The project somehow survived austerity and the new bridge in the borderlands between Manchester and Salford, officially opened last week (although the first trains won’t run until next month).

A scale model of the new link, nearby in what was Manchester Liverpool Road station; it’s now a part of the Museum of Science & Industry. Image: author provided.

I say it’s a bridge: as it happens, it’s actually two bridges. The bit your eye is drawn to is a structure known as a “network arch”, which means those wires crosses at least two others. That part will carry trains over the River Irwell, which divides Manchester from Salford.

Beyond that, though, there’s a second bridge: a flat one, across a section of the inner ring road. Linking them is a slight dip in the metal sides of the bridge (though not, obviously, in the track).

A map of the area. New curve highlighted in yellow. Image: Google.

This, along with the asymmetrical shape of the arch which facilities it, is a purely aesthetic feature. So is the colour: the metal was allowed to rust in the Manchester climate, apparently for no other reason than to make it look cool. “We don’t want it to read as different structures as you look along the river,” Peter Jenkins, the head of transport at architects BDP and lead architect on the project, explained at the official opening ceremony. The design, he added, was “not uncharted, but rarely charted.”

To be fair, it is a great looking bridge: something that looks like a landmark, rather than just a piece of infrastructure. One of the guys who’d worked on the project told me, as a group of us stood on the bridge, that he hoped it would be illuminated at night, just to show it off and make it a feature of the city’s skyline.

(Incidentally, as excited as I was to go play on the bridge, it wasn’t entirely clear what I was meant to do once I got there. I tramped up and down a bit, took some pictures of the city’s skyline, and occasionally checked nervously that there was no way a train could get near me. But what was I actually meant to do? And what was a decent interval before it was acceptable to, y’know, get off the bridge again? Ah well, better take another photo I suppose.)

A view from a bridge. Image: author provided.

Looking good is all very well, of course, but what will the Ordsall Chord actually do? 


For a start, it’ll allow travellers from Yorkshire, the north east and other parts of the north to travel directly to the airport for the first time: that should hopefully work out well the airport, the road network and the wider economy.

It’ll also speed up journey times. Longer distance services will no longer have to reverse, or trundle all the way around Manchester on far-flung bits of track. Instead, they’ll be able to go straight around the city centre.

(Seriously, I’ve been up here 20 minutes now. Is it okay to get down again yet? Surely they must all have noticed that I have no idea what I’m doing right now. Surely.)

Mike Heywood, the director who managed the project for Network Rail, pointed me to another, less obvious benefit. At the moment, the various trains terminating at Piccadilly often have to cross each other’s paths to reach their platforms. This, if you don’t want trains to crash into each other, limits the number of trains you can actually run.

By diverting a share of trains via two new through-platforms and the chord, Heywood told me, you can reduce that, and add 25 per cent to Piccadilly’s capacity at a stroke.

The side view. Image: author provided.

Oh, and by making the new bridge look good, those who built it also hope it’ll help kick-start regeneration along a rather neglected stretch of the River Irwell, too.  Not bad for 300m of new track.

This is only one part of what the industry has termed the Great North Rail project. Others include an extra platform at Manchester Airport, electrification on assorted routes in the north west, and – best of all, given the state of the existing rolling stock – vast numbers of new trains, due to appear next year.


 The region’s transport network is still not getting anything like the care or attention that we take for granted in the south east, of course, but all the same, it’s nice to be able to write about a new railway line in the north for once. AND they let me go play on a bridge.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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