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".

 
 
 
 

“Ministers are ignoring the people who’ll deal with the fallout from Brexit”: The case for a second referendum

Everything is fine: Prime minister Theresa May and Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson. Image: Getty.

We’ve come a long way from the days when Brexiteers promised a free trade utopia and an £350m a week to spend on our NHS. Now we have David Davis reduced to warning there will be no Mad Max-style scenario when we leave the European Union.

Anyway, how do we know? The Brexit Secretary refuses to publish his economic risk analysis so we can have an informed discussion about the effects on cities like mine. What evidence has trickled out of his department shows that the UK economy will take a hit – and the further you are away from Greater London, the harder that punch will feel.

At best, with retained access to the single market, we will take a 2 per cent hit to GDP over the next 15 years. At worst, with a so-called ‘Hard Brexit’, this increases to 8 per cent.

That’s hundreds of thousands of jobs taken out of the economy. Moreover, we know the impact will be felt unevenly. The further away you are from London and the South East, the deeper the effects.

This week, leaders of some of our major Core Cities met Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, to explain our worries. Our cities are potential engines of growth and vital players as we insulate the country from Brexit-related shocks. We are trying to play a constructive role – whether or not we agree with Brexit – because we are on the ground and left dealing with the fallout.

So far, ministers have refused to meet us. We are apparently frozen out of the conversation because our reality-based concerns do not fit with the government’s celestial belief that things will be all right on the night.

As a local government leader, I deal in pragmatic solutions. (Having lost two-thirds of our Government funding since 2010, I have no choice.) But ministers need to come out of their bunker and talk to us about the support we need and the part we can play in preventing a recession when we leave the EU.


There is only one way to interpret their reluctance to do so. They know that we are on course to take an economic shellacking, and are preparing to leave us to it. They have done nothing to reassure us that a dystopian nightmare does not await – with Britain reduced a low-tax, low regulation fiefdom, with neo-liberal hardliners taking a red pen to the social and environmental protections currently guaranteed by EU law.

This is not acceptable. It is a total betrayal of those parts of the country already struggling with a decade of austerity and all the uncertainty generated by the Brexit process. But ministers should care because if we suffer, then Brexit will have demonstrably failed.

It will come as little surprise to Scousers. Liverpool voted 58 per cent to Remain back in June 2016. That’s because we felt the practical benefits of being in the EU. Europe was there for us – especially in the 1980s – when our own government wasn’t.

Objective One and other regional funding streams helped bring Liverpool back from the dark days when ministers in the Thatcher Government were seriously contemplating writing us off entirely. ‘Managed decline’ they called it. We were to be left to fend for ourselves.

But Europe allowed us to begin a ‘managed renaissance,’ becoming the modern, optimistic and dynamic city we are today. EU funding helped us to bounce back and catalysed many of the dramatic changes we’ve seen over the past few years.

If leaving the EU now results in a harsh economic winter, then the pendulum of public opinion will swing back the other way. So it’s actually in the interests of Brexiteers to have a second vote on the terms of our departure.  Asking the public if they approve of the deal ministers will have negotiated, is entirely justified. Call it a confirmatory ballot, or a cooling-off vote.

This is not about keeping asking the same question until the political elite get the answer they want. It is about giving the British people sign-off on how the country will be governed after 2019 and the effects that will have on their lives.

It’s ridiculous that we have more opportunity when it comes to cancelling our car insurance than have when it comes to reflecting on the biggest change to Britain’s economic and political fortunes in any of our lifetimes.

If – after knowing the full facts of what we face on the outside – the British public still voted to leave, then I would accept their decision with no further protest – and so should everyone else.

But it is right to ask them.

What is not acceptable – or credible – is to ignore reality and refuse to deal with the very people who will be left to pick up the pieces.

Joe Anderson is the Labour mayor of Liverpool.