China's Forest City Will Soon Gobble Up Carbon

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Liuzhou Forest City will be similar to Milan's Bosco Verticale, pictured here, but on a much larger scale. Nguyen Tan Tin/Flickr

A seemingly far-fetched idea for dealing with one of the world's worst pollution situations will soon become a reality in China. Could the combination of architecture and plant life be the answer to the world's carbon problems?

Liuzhou Forest City might sound like fantasy, but if all goes according to plan, residents and businesses will be moving into the development's 70 foliage-covered buildings in about two years.

A dire problem

A 2015 study by scientists in Berkeley, California, found that 1.6 million people in China had died the year before as a result of pollution. That's the second-highest number of annual pollution-related fatalities in the world; only India suffered more.

The Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health, meanwhile, found that as many as 9 million people worldwide die annually from pollution-related illnesses such as cancer and pulmonary diseases. That's 15 times more than the number of people killed by war and all other types of violence.

China has taken steps to curb pollution, including building the controversial Three Gorges Dam hydroelectric project and the banning of hundreds of cars that don't meet emissions standards. Beijing also plans to create a large carbon market that will financially reward companies that make their operations greener.

One of the most attention-arresting CO2 reduction ideas seems like it belongs in a Hayao Miyazaki animated film: forest cities with vine and tree-covered skyscrapers. It may seem far-fetched, but this idea is about to become reality.

Living, carbon-eating buildings

Liuzhou, China
Planned for Liuzhou, China, the 'forest city' will have 70 buildings in an area covering more than 300 acres. Shuang Li/

Examples of living skyscrapers already exist, and Beijing is moving ahead with plans to build at least one urban district filled with such buildings. It could be habitable by 2020, and, if successful, could spawn similar projects around the Middle Kingdom.

There are two forest buildings, known as Bosco Verticale (Vertical Forest), in Milan, Italy. The structures, one 350 feet and the other 250 feet, are covered with plants and trees that are meant to absorb carbon dioxide from the surrounding air.

A firm called Boeri Studio, headed by architect Stefano Boeri, built Bosco Verticale. The same group has an office in Shanghai and is in charge of the effort to create the much larger collection of forest buildings in Liuzhou, China. Liuzhou Forest City will have 70 buildings over 342 acres. These will include homes, hotels, schools and health care facilities.

Based on the planned plant life for the project (40,000 trees and a million shrubs and flowers), Liuzhou's vertical forest should absorb 10,000 tons of CO2 and 57 tons of other pollutants while creating 900 tons of oxygen annually. The design calls for solar panels and geothermal energy to reduce carbon emissions created by the buildings, therefore increasing the benefits of their air filtering. The design also calls for an electric rail line, which would be supplemented with electric cars and other vehicles.

Boeri's website says the forest city will be able to house 30,000 people. The site also discusses the potential for other foliage-covered projects in Shenzhen, Shanghai, Shijiazhuang and Nanjing.

Other benefits

The forest city will have quality-of-life benefits that go beyond cleaner air. It will combat the heat-island effect that makes cities hotter than rural areas. The foliage will help dampen sound and reduce noise pollution.

Then of course, there's the visual appeal of having plants and trees that flower and change color during the different seasons, and natural growth, though controlled, changing the appearance of the buildings as time progresses.

Testing forest cities on one of China's most polluted places

pollution in Shijiazhuang
Shijiazhuang is one of China's most polluted cities. danielcastromaia/

The biggest test could come after Liuzhou comes online sometime in 2020. Boeri has studied the idea of forest cities in different climate zones. One of the targets after Liuzhou could be Shijiazhuang, an industrial city in northern China. Shijiazhuang consistently ranks as one of China's most polluted cities.

In a country with more than a billion inhabitants, how much difference can one 30,000-person district (in a city of 1.5 million) make?

It will certainly make a difference for the 30,000 people working and living there, and if the concept is successful, it could spawn a wider movement. Boeri told the Guardian that he has "no problem if there are people who are copying or replicating. I hope that what we have done can be useful for other kinds of experiments."

This project will be completed in the near future, so people will be able to see a living example for a forest city. There's another reason why China is moving ahead with these sci-fi-like projects. With only one political party in Beijing making decisions, the country has the ability to move relatively quickly on such initiatives because there's no one to oppose them. Because of this dynamic, it's realistic to think that a successful first forest city could quickly lead to similar districts in cities all around China.