Dongtan, China's Flagship Ecocity Project, R.I.P.


Image via The Christian Science Monitor.

The emergence of the "ecocity" concept has been one of the most exciting trends in city design in recent years. As the idea gained traction and exposure, a string of ambitious ecocity projects were announced — intelligently designed ecological cities that would revolutionize the way we thought about the environments in which we dwell. However, one of the most famous and ambitious of these now seems doomed to forever remain on paper. What sank plans for China's Dongtan ecocity?The Idea: A Green Island off Shanghai

China is experiencing a massive migration from the countryside to cities; one projection sees 5 million new buildings being built in China over the next 20 years. With such an explosion of development on the horizon, some designers saw an opportunity to shape a sustainable design revolution from the ground up. Dongtan, a low-carbon city of half a million people on Chongming Island just off Shanghai, was supposed to be the opening shot of the revolution.

Here is how Arup, the company charged with coming up with the design for the city, described it back in 2005:

Dongtan will produce its own energy from wind, solar, bio-fuel and recycled city waste. Clean technologies such as hydrogen fuel cells will power public transport. A network of cycle and footpaths will help the city achieve close to zero vehicle emissions. Farmland within the Dongtan site will use organic farming methods to grow food.

The plan fired the imaginations of development people and journalists alike. In 2007, Wired Magazine wrote a glowing account of this "great green leap forward" in China, exploring in depth the challenges facing the designers. The piece concluded optimistically:

If Dongtan lives up to expectations, it will serve as a model for cities across China and the rest of the developing world — cities that, given new tools, might leapfrog the environmental and public health costs that have always come with economic progress... Even old American and European cities may find bits and pieces of Dongtan that they can use, especially when they redevelop industrial plots or build out at the edges.

Smoke and Mirrors

It wasn't long before a few skeptical voices joined the discussion. In 2007, Ethical Corporation, a website on responsible business practices, came out against Dongtan. Calling it a Potemkin village (a reference to a Russian story about fake villages erected to impress the Empress Catherine II) and "a masterpiece of greenwashing," Ethical Corporation claimed that Dongtan was never intended to become a reality.

Rather, as a mythical Shangri-La, the plan would serve China as the ultimate greenwashing tool, greening the country's image while in practice its cities could continue to develop along the same unsustainable path at breakneck speed. The contractors and designers involved in the project, according to this theory, had nothing to lose by cooperating, but invaluable connections in the Chinese government to gain.

No Progress on the Ground

In late 2008, a couple of well-known newspapers sent reporters over to Chongming Island to get an impression of how Dongtan was taking shape on the ground. The resulting articles pronounced the project a "pipe dream" and a mere "gleam in the eye." One Chinese farmer, whose fields are within the borders of the planned building site, told the UK's Telegraph that he had never heard of the project.

Plans for Dongtan began to falter in 2006, when Shanghai's former mayor Chen Liangyu - Dongtan's most enthusiastic supporter - was arrested for "property-related fraud." In the wake of the scandal, China's Communist Party reorganized the city's leadership and planning structure, leaving Dongtan orphaned.

Since then, the project's permits have lapsed, and the global economic situation has put a damper on construction projects worldwide. On Chongming Island, a number of high-rise apartment buildings have gone up, marketed as green buildings, but using few of the innovative ideas that were part of the original Dongtan design.

Knowledge Transfer

With actual implementation of the project nowhere on the horizon, Dongtan has been recast as a valuable contribution to the global discussion about ecocity design, a "knowledge transfer" in the words of one project manager.

In a 2008 interview, Arup's Director for Global Foresight and Innovation, Chris Luebkeman, told TreeHugger:

It's not a matter of this or that project compensating for all future change — every little bit has to help. What we are trying to do with projects like Dongtan, and ecocity projects elsewhere, is to continually raise the bar.

Dongtan's plan and concepts have in fact raised the bar in the theoretical discourse about ecocity planning, and have influenced plans for other new eco-developments that are currently being built. Just by existing in its paper form, Dongtan has a lot to teach the world about the art and science of planning green cities.

However, if Dongtan's fate is to serve as a strictly conceptual model, perhaps its designers should consider making more of its planning documents public, so that future cities can benefit from the enormous amount of thought that went into this unbuilt city.

More on Dongtan and Other Ecocities:
More on Dongtan, China's (and the World's) First Major Eco-City
Model Ecopolis Called Masdar
Move Over Dongtan - Tianjin "Eco-City" Breaks Ground

Tags: Carbon Neutral | Car-Free | China | Cities | Clean Energy | Transportation

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