China’s cities got eco-smart, what can the world learn?

Building new cities from scratch may offer extraordinary visions of the future but retrofitting existing cities may be the real way forward

Rendering of Dongtan Eco-city by Arup. Via Graham Foundation

A decade ago, an article was published on The Conversation by Steffen Lehman that commended China’s progressive, eco-smart approach to urban development and suggested that Australia follow suit and investigate the possibility of adopting their planning methods. Alas, the tale of Chinese eco-cities did not quite unfold the way that Lehman’s account seemed to foretell.

Urban Growth & Sustainability

So what is the story and where exactly are we standing now? Since the 1980s, the relative proportion of urban residents has risen from 39% to 56% worldwide and, to date, global urbanisation continues to advance at an unwavering speed, with unbreakable momentum. Meanwhile, the proportion of Chinese city-dwellers has increased threefold, from less than 20% to over 60%. As such, China is at the forefront of this process, which, considering that cities contribute 70% of global green-house gas (GHG) emissions, is rather unsettling.

The solution? Let there be eco-cities! The combination of ‘eco’ and ‘city’ might seem contradictory, for cities have come to be known as the very antithesis of anything ‘ecological’ — dust-clad concrete jungles exuding acrid fumes and sewage. But it is exactly this image that ‘eco-cities’ promise to escape by developing smart infrastructures featuring extensive public transport, waste-recycling, and green space networks, while running off renewable energy sources.

Keenly aware of the environmental implications of its rapid urban growth, and pressured by growing frustration among its citizens, China has readily embraced this rhetoric of sustainable urban renewal — eventually culminating in Xi Jinping’s much-debated notion of an ‘ecological civilisation’.

Thus became the last decade one of Chinese eco-cities — glamorous dreams of futuristic urban life in harmony with nature. For a while, the Internet was ablaze with articles by architecture-focused outlets commending award-winning proposals, utopian plans, and daring smart-design solutions. And the world watched in awe — and then forgot about it as the spark of promise has slowly died out.

Artist’s impression of Tianjin Eco-City. Via BBC

The Chinese Eco-City Bid

But let us look at the Chinese eco-city phenomenon more closely. In his book, China’s Urban Revolution, Austin Williams recounts how in 2010, the Chinese government announced that, of the 300 cities that were scheduled to be built by 2025, about 20 would be eco-cities; mere five years later, it already claimed to have at least 284 eco-cities. Considering that in 2015 China had 652 cities, this would have meant that more than 40% of Chinese cities were eco-cities. Given that in the same year, the average PM2.5 concentration (a common measure of air-pollution) in China was still more than ten times of the WHO’s recommended maximum, this claim seems to be somewhat farfetched and hints at the problematic nature of China’s novel eco-city venture, as well as at the subjectivity of benchmarking.

An apt example of how the laxity of the Chinese criteria for ‘eco-cities’ translate to actual cases is the capital of Zhejiang province. Hangzhou was granted national eco-city status on account of its water sources all being of ‘adequate’ quality as well as having 123 days with ‘low’ air pollution, when the average PM2.5 concentration was ‘only’ two times the WHO’s acceptable maximum.

Artist’s impression of Chengdu Luxelakes eco-city. Via Chengdu Expat

Cities that Never Were

In addition to benchmarking problems, at a closer inspection, most of China’s flagship projects turn out to be failures to varying degrees. Take a look at the four projects that were explicitly mentioned in Lehman’s article and whose models were to be emulated: Chengdu, Wanzhuang, Tianjin, and Qingdao.

More than 15 years after the publication of the first heralding article, Chengdu’s Luxelakes eco-city is still in the ’design stage’, according to the website of AGA, the Singaporean architecture firm commissioned with planning the city; the original delivery date was 2016.

Wanzhuang’s situation is even more sorry with all mentions thereof having been removed from the planning firm, Arup’s website. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to assume that the project has been abandoned in a way that bears a striking resemblance to the embarrassing failure of Dongtan Eco-City, a project that was befittingly referred to as ‘the city that never was’.

The deserted ‘bird’s nest’ of Wanzhuang eco-city Exhibition Centre. Via ScienceDirect

After Dongtan, Tianjin Eco-City (TEC) was a megaproject destined to prove that China was indeed capable of making utopian dreams realities. TEC is one of the few new-built eco-city projects that were actually realised — although executed in a markedly smaller and humbler fashion than initially envisioned. Nevertheless, a comparative analysis of TEC’s and London’s ecological performance shows that the former underperforms the latter in virtually every relevant benchmarking criterion. Considering that London is anything but a conventional ‘eco-city’, these findings cast doubt on the validity of TEC’s ‘eco’ label.

Qingdao’s case is slightly different in that it is not an actual eco-city, but an eco-park, located in the Qingdao International Economic Zone. Nevertheless, it follows the same pattern as many other ill-fated eco-projects: notwithstanding its planned opening in 2015 and news of it becoming certified as a Sino-German Eco-City in 2019 — whose significance is not immediately clear —, there have been no reports of the park’s completion, and it is missing from the website of the German planning firm, gmp.

AI-generated (Midjourney) image from Manas Bhatia’s AI X Future Cities

Ways Forward?

As a concluding remark, one important thing to consider is that even if new-built Chinese eco-cities were a success — which they seem not to be —, it is far from evident that they are examples to be followed. On the one hand, renewable energy sources might help combat soaring GHG emissions and smart waste-management systems could lower the environmental impact of urban lifestyle. On the other, building entire cities from scratch — as opposed to backfitting existing ones, an alternative that Leham only very briefly touches upon — entails resource use of unfathomable scale, which is likely to take a long time to be offset by the comparatively low operational emission rates.

So are eco-cities as a concept a lost cause? It is hard to say — but if there is anything to be learnt from the Chinese example is that we ought to radically rethink what is understood by ‘eco-cities’, establish and use reliable international benchmarks, and, most importantly, focus on alternative models, such as retrofitting cities.