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".

 
 
 
 

Eritrea’s Modernist architecture: a striking reminder of years of oppression

Asmara’s futuristic Fiat Tagliero Building (1938) was built to resemble an aircraft. Image: David Stanley/Creative Commons.

Those with an eye for architecture will notice something peculiar when visiting Eritrea’s capital, Asmara. Dotted around the city are exceptional examples of Modernist architecture, a style that emerged in Europe during the interwar period. Rejecting gratuitous ornateness in favour of minimalism, function and rationalism, the style grew to dominate 20th century design. But it didn’t arrive in an east African country in a remotely benevolent way.

The huge continent was carved up in the span of just a few decades, in an era of history known as the “Scramble for Africa”. Described in German as torschlusspanik, meaning “panic of a closing gate”, European powers grabbed as much as they could to prevent their rivals gaining the upper hand.

Having consolidated his power in Italy, fascist dictator Mussoulini looked to Africa to expand what he saw as the new Roman Empire. It was in this context that the country seized this stretch of coast along the Red Sea that became Eritrea. And it was Asmara that was going to be the new African capital, La Piccola Roma – Little Rome.

Standing at 2,000m above sea level, the capital’s location was chosen in part because it was cooler than the brutally hot coastal regions. As was commonplace across European colonies, the colonisers wanted to avoid the extremes of the lands they conquered and find places more comparable to the climates they had left behind.

Where the colonial money arrived, the locals followed and Asmara became a city of contrasts. Intermingled with the Tukul’s, round huts of stone or mud topped with conical roofs that are indigenous to East Africa, are hundreds of buildings in the modernist style that were erected by the Italian colonisers from 1935. Many such buildings, including the Fiat Tagliero petrol station, the Town Hall and the Cinema Roma, came to represent East African Modernism. But why was there this push towards the style?


Peter Volgger, an academic who studied the impact of the modernist architecture in post-colonial Eritrea, has a theory. “Colonial cities were often projection screens for modernist fantasies and were built as futuristic visions for European cities.” So what couldn’t be done back home could be done in the colonial setting. Fantasies could be fulfilled.

The fall of fascism in Europe after WWII didn’t mark the end of colonialism in Africa, as the losers’ colonies were transferred over to the winners. Britain governed the colony for a while before power at a federal level was handed over Ethiopia. It was only in 1993 that Eritrea finally gained independence from its larger neighbour; a hundred years after the Italians first conquered the region.

Yet the Modernist buildings continued to be built long after the Italians had left. The IRGA garage, for instance, which is often held up as a key example of Eritrean modernism was built in 1961.

It’s in part due to such constructions that in 2017, Asmara was recognised as by Unesco as a site of particular cultural importance and included in their world heritage list. This not only brings in money from Unesco directly, but also induces international interest and tourism. The inclusion of Asmara in the organisation’s heritage list marked a shift towards inclusivity, having often been criticised for its lack of sites in Africa. Of the 845 cultural sites worldwide, Asmara is one of only 52 that are from Sub-Saharan Africa. In Germany alone there are 41 sites and Italy 49.

Long overdue, the significance of Asmara and its modernist buildings has been recognised. Despite their architectural interest they cannot and should not be divorced from the grim historical reality of their existence. For the millions who call the city home they stand monument to the arrogant dreams of empire that consumed the country for over a hundred years.