China's Eco-Cities: Substantive and Skimpy at the Same Time

For now at least, the country's most sustainable form of urbanism is relegated to pilot projects.

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Anthony Flint

The route to China's most promising eco-city, 140 kilometers southeast of Beijing, is down an eight-lane highway, past factories and clusters of ubiquitous 60-story housing towers. Once over the elegant Rainbow Bridge, the first signs of a greener approach to development appear: a field of wind turbines, rows of abundant plantings, meadows of stormwater swales, and a parking garage festooned with solar panels.

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At the visitor center, a team of guides in prim skirts reads display panels in Mandarin while another woman translates: the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City, a joint venture with the Singapore government, occupies 30 square kilometers at the coastline, and will be home to 350,000 residents. The key performance indicators include energy-efficient buildings for drastically reduced carbon emissions, recycled waste and water, and 90 percent "green trips" via walking, biking, electric vehicles and streetcars powered by renewable energy.

The guide flashes a laser pointer across a 20-meter model that looks like a Christmas village in a New York department store, and the sub-districts light up as she speaks: K-12 and vocational schools, an animation studio to add to China’s burgeoning film and video-graphics industry, parks and walking paths, and residential areas, all in a smart-city digital framework to measure energy use as well as facilitate disaster preparedness.

A scale model is on display at the visitor's center of the Tianjin Eco-City (Anthony Flint)

Outside, what might be described as Chinese elevator music comes from loudspeakers on the main commercial street. Compared to Beijing, the place seems downright empty, with only a handful of mothers pushing strollers and real estate development and construction workers. Most of the shops and restaurants are elevated one floor up in the style of a suburban shopping mall, and it takes some hunting to find the hot pot joint, like a Shake Shack but with individual cauldrons of boiling water. We plop down for thinly sliced mutton and mushrooms and contemplate the future.

This nation of 1.3 billion is urbanizing at a dizzying pace, powered by economic growth that is lifting millions out of rural poverty. Major cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou are all over 20 million people and rising; there are 11 "second" cities with more than 10 million residents, and 170 cities that have topped the 1 million mark, according to Bing Wang, professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. But while cities are by definition a greener form of human settlement, China's urbanization is marked by elevated highways clogged with freshly purchased cars, infamous smog that is nearly ten times worse than L.A.'s worst day, and superblocks and housing towers far from public transportation.

Plantings on the median of the main road through Tianjin Eco-City. (Anthony Flint)

The Chinese know full well they can't continue to grow like America in the 1960s. They are converting coal-fired power plants to gas and investing in new energy technology. They are building 4,000 miles of high-speed rail tracks. They know they should be growing more like Tianjin. But for now the more sustainable forms of urbanism are relegated to pilot projects. Among about a dozen such model cities in the planning stages or underway, some have crash and burned, like Dongtan outside of Shanghai, which had similar aspirations to Tianjin but has since been shelved.

And so the eco-city remains in the midst of that singular urban planning exercise: scaling up. The challenge is growing greener in real time, when millions are flowing in from the countryside in search of a better life, who must be accommodated now. Major cities are booming but also under great stress; some of them are deep in debt, paying for all the infrastructure and responsible for services for exploding populations. For long-term fiscal health, some view the expansion of the property tax as necessary. The conversion of farmland in urban areas is through a system at the local level where the incentives are not ideally lined up for sustainability.

Housing towers in the first phase of development in the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City. (Anthony Flint)

What is left, for the moment, are the models. At the impressive urban planning museums in Beijing and Shanghai, entire floors are devoted to replica models of the metropolis. They would warm the heart of Robert Moses, who installed a similar cityscape in miniature for the Worlds Fair in Queens. The Chicago Architecture Foundation also boasts a model of the central business district. Though they reflect a certain chamber-of-commerce pride, there is no question they help in the understanding of the city in a cognitive and visual way.

Is Mumbai any less serious about urban planning because they don’t have models and pilot projects? It’s difficult to say. For all the mind-bending city-building going on in China right now, it seems uncharitable to disparage Tianjin as mere public relations. As in the U.S., there is both old-style, fossil-fuel based development and smart growth happening all at the same time. A more hopeful view is that the eco-city, perhaps in a more incremental way, in bits and pieces, can become the norm.

All images by Anthony Flint.

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