China is extremely likely to become the world’s top polluter in the not-too-distant future. All major Chinese rivers are seriously polluted, acid rain occurs in a third of the country, hazardous air threatens the health of city dwellers and China’s greenhouse gas emissions are skyrocketing. At the same time, China’s energy consumption surpasses the country’s electricity generation capacities and therefore, blackouts are a daily occurrence.
With the Beijing Olympics only 6 days ahead, increasing pressure and attention from abroad as well as the need to use scarce energy as economically as possible and to prevent pollution from getting out of hand which could threaten China’s long-term growth, the Chinese government is promoting sustainability by supporting showcase projects such as the zero-emissions skyscraper Pearl River Tower and the ecological city Dongtan on the Island of Chongming near Shanghai.
Planned as a model for China’s rapid urbanization, the eco-city of Dongtan should serve as a model for sustainable urban development in China and around the world. The city will be built on the wetlands of the Island of Chongming which can be reached in less than an hour from downtown Shanghai. It is planned to be ecologically friendly and completely self-sufficient in energy and water. Zero-energy buildings and zero-greenhouse-gas-emissions transportation as well as eco-farming and sophisticated electricity generation and facilities for wastewater treatment, recycling and waste processing will be part of the eco-project that is claimed to be economic, too. State-of-the-art technology will be tested: Wind turbines, solar collectors, rooftop gardens for natural isolation, rainwater purification and vehicles using electricity or hydrogen for power will help to achieve the ambitious zero emissions target. The first stage of construction is expected to be completed by the beginning of the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, so that eco-tourism can be attracted and that China can refer to something to proof that it’s concerned about tackling climate change.
However, there are doubts whether the $1.3 billion project can actually come anywhere near the target of being sustainable and carbon-neutral. Moreover, critics say that Dongtang is likely to become yet another dormitory town, a place where upper class Shanghai citizens are heading on the weekends to flee the smog and congestion of the city. Obviously, locals won’t be able to afford housing on this site where green spaces, good public transport, schools and stores will provide pleasurable living conditions. So far, ferries and speedboats have linked Shanghai with the island at the mouth of the Yangtze River. But soon, a 15.6 mile-bridge and a tunnel will improve the access to the new eco-community. In spite of the original plan to ban all conventional cars from the island and not to allow private vehicles except of those driven by electricity or hydrogen, there could be at least a few cars burning fossil fuels in some areas of China’s third largest island.
The city designed by the British engineering firm Arup is planned to be completed by 2015 and should once be home to more than 500,000 people. To prevent most of them from commuting daily to Shanghai, jobs should be created on the island.
Probably, this city will attract many Chinese seeking for a more healthy environment to whom breathing clean air is luxury. However, cities whose construction follows a master plan are at risk of appearing boring and sterile, just as a kind of architectural theme park and playground for urban planners. Uniquely, Dongtang will probably be the only city in China without skyscrapers. There won’t be buildings higher than eight stories. This could also underline the opportunity for inhabitants to rest in nature. The island is also an important bird refuge.
Dongtan is – contrary to some reports – not the world’s first eco-city, but probably the second. Masdar City in the United Arab Emirates is a completely carbon-free city under construction near the city of Abu Dhabi. Whereas the effectiveness of solar power in China is limited because of smog reducing the amount of sunlight, solar power can contribute decisively to the power supply of the green city currently built in the dessert: Masdar City – carbon-free city in the UAE