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".

 
 
 
 

Smart cities need to be more human, so we’re creating Sims-style virtual worlds

The Sims 2 on show in 2005. Image: Getty.

Huge quantities of networked sensors have appeared in cities across the world in recent years. These include cameras and sensors that count the number of passers by, devices to sense air quality, traffic flow detectors, and even bee hive monitors. There are also large amounts of information about how people use cities on social media services such as Twitter and foursquare.

Citizens are even making their own sensors – often using smart phones – to monitor their environment and share the information with others; for example, crowd-sourced noise pollution maps are becoming popular. All this information can be used by city leaders to create policies, with the aim of making cities “smarter” and more sustainable.

But these data only tell half the story. While sensors can provide a rich picture of the physical city, they don’t tell us much about the social city: how people move around and use the spaces, what they think about their cities, why they prefer some areas over others, and so on. For instance, while sensors can collect data from travel cards to measure how many people travel into a city every day, they cannot reveal the purpose of their trip, or their experience of the city.

With a better understanding of both social and physical data, researchers could begin to answer tough questions about why some communities end up segregated, how areas become deprived, and where traffic congestion is likely to occur.

Difficult questions

Determining how and why such patterns will emerge is extremely difficult. Traffic congestion happens as a result of personal decisions about how to get from A to B, based on factors such as your stage of life, your distance from the workplace, school or shops, your level of income, your knowledge of the roads and so on.

Congestion can build locally at pinch points, placing certain sections of the city’s transport networks under severe strain. This can lead to high levels of air pollution, which in turn has a severe impact on the health of the population. For city leaders, the big question is, which actions – imposing congestion charges, pedestrianising areas or improving local infrastructure – would lead to the biggest improvements in both congestion, and public health.

We know where – but why? Image: Worldoflard/Flickr/creative commons.

The irony is, although modern technology has the power to collect vast amounts of data, it doesn’t always provide the means to analyse it. This means that scientists don’t have the tools they need to understand how different factors influence the way cities function and grow. Here, the technique of agent-based modelling could come to the rescue.

The simulated city

Agent-based modelling is a type of computer simulation, which models the behaviour of individual people as they move around and interact inside a virtual world. An agent-based model of a city could include virtual commuters, pedestrians, taxi drivers, shoppers and so on. Each of these individuals has their own characteristics and “rules”, programmed by researchers, based on theories and data about how people behave.

After combining vast urban datasets with an agent-based model of people, scientists will have the capacity to tweak and re-run the model, until they detect the phenomena they’re wanting to study – whether it’s traffic jams or social segregation. When they eventually get the model right, they’ll be able to look back on the characteristics and rules of their virtual citizens, to better understand why some of these problems emerge, and hopefully begin to find ways to resolve them.

For example, scientists might use urban data in an agent-based model to better understand the characteristics of the people who contribute to traffic jams – where they have come from, why they are travelling, what other modes of transport they might be willing to take. From there, they might be able to identify some effective ways of encouraging people to take different routes or modes of transport.


Seeing the future

Also, if the model works well in the present time, then it might be able to produce short-term forecasts. This would allow scientists to develop ways of reacting to changes in cities, in real time. Using live urban data to simulate the city in real-time could help to inform the managers of key services during periods of major disruption, such as severe weather, infrastructure failure or evacuation.

Using real-time data adds another layer of complexity. But fortunately, other scientific disciplines have also been making advances in this area. Over decades, the field of meteorology has developed cutting-edge mathematical methods, which allow their weather and climate models to respond to new weather data, as they arise in real time.

The ConversationThere’s a lot more work to be done before these methods from meteorology can be adapted to work for agent-based models of cities. But if they’re successful, these advancements will allow scientists to build city simulations which are driven by people - and not just the data they produce.

Nick Malleson, Associate Professor of Geographical Information Systems, University of Leeds and Alison Heppenstall, Professor in Geocomputation, University of Leeds.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.