Rendering of the green suburb (Flickr: Telstar Logistics)
Happy April Fool's Day
The bustling streets of Wuyang, a small, 4 million person city in the Chinese province of Jiangxi, epitomize China's slowing economy. Fleets of small cars chug past construction sites that are slightly quieter than usual -- the city now counts only 560 cranes on the skyline -- while bicyclists swarm through clouds of white "fog" created by nearby power plants.
But in three years Wuyang could transform into a Chinese vision for the future. As part of a bid to boost struggling industries amidst an economic downturn, on April 1 Chinese officials signed a contract with a major US planning group to turn Wuyang's outlying areas into the country's first demonstration "green-colored suburb city." "For our sustainable vision to spread, green cities must spread out," said the city's mayor. "We are confident that this green city will be twice as green as any other green city in China."In the massive migration from the countryside to cities -- one projection sees 5 million new buildings being built in China over the next 20 years -- designers saw an opportunity to do something at once different and familiar. Though modeled primarily on American suburbs, the new ambitious plan calls for buildings made of "futuristic" glass and steel and, crucially, thousands of gallons of green paint.
"The paint will be low VOC," said Yu Dongfan, a minister at the local environmental and economic development bureaus, referring to paint with toxic volatile organic compounds.
The new suburban layout has already received a "Shiny Greenish-Gold" rating under China's new "green building" standard, LEAD, or Leadership in Environmentally-Friendly Appearance and Decoration.
"We want to make it clear to the world that even as we grow our city amidst economic hardship, we're still concerned about our environmental image," said Mr. Yu, who is helping to oversee the project. "The suburbs meet the rising demands of residents while ensuring that we have enough room to pursue development inside the city itself."
A number of brash new skyscrapers are planned for the center of Wuyang, including China State Tobacco Company's new headquarters, the so-called Negative Energy Tower, as well as the environmental bureau's new digs, a wind-powered skyscraper that rotates 360 degrees every hour. "With a rotating building, we can keep an eye on all ecological problems in the city without having to turn our heads.
"Our green suburbs on the other hand should really turn some heads," he added, between drags on his cigarette.
Green Leap Forward
Unlike a number of other new green cities, Wuyang's "suburb city" will not produce its own energy from wind, solar, bio-fuel and recycled city waste. "We have absolutely no plans to use hydrogen fuel cells to power our growing public transport network," said Dong Linyu, the head of the city's transportation department, who is overseeing a massive 500km expansion that could take one year to construct. "But we are exploring clean coal as a possible fuel."
Especially notable is the lack of any provisions for new public space or for smaller scale buildings. Instead, officials have approved a swath of new highways to connect the suburbs that will soon sit outside the city's fourth ring road with the vast housing complexes that currently sit outside the third ring road.
Following an urgent request from local economic officials, the highway concrete will be covered in a green coat made of recycled US currency notes and Treasury bills.
"Our GreenWay system is a convenient way to remind new drivers that green means go, and that the road to Western-style prosperity is paved by the automobile industry," said Roger Moses, chief of road building for Crain and Steele, the Chicago-based planning firm behind the project. "It's really a very developed-world vision -- in many ways it reminds me of Los Angeles."
Malls, Big Boxes
The plan also calls for ample strip malls and big box stores, which have become popular in recent years as Chinese consumption has grown, while their popularity has waned in the US.
As American sales of expensive items like barbecue grilles and flat screen TVs sink, Wal-Mart, which is pursuing an extensive greening of its supply chain within China, is eying record numbers in Wuyang.
In cooperation with the Wuyang government, both Wal-Mart and Home Depot have announced a program to relocate U.S. stores that have been shuttered in recent months to Wuyang. Fifteen newly-closed stores in North America will be dismantled, transported by ship and erected in Wuyang.
"We see this as part of our commitment to recycling as much as we can," said Brenda Tiller, a Wal-Mart spokesperson.
To ensure that the suburbs are as realistically green as possible, planners have also called for almost all flat areas to be covered in trees and grass -- or to be painted green.
"After a slump in exports in toys and other products, this is going to be a great way to boost our paint industry," said an official with the National Development and Reform Commission.
Some paint has already been applied on the city's outskirts
Though local authorities have chosen the simple name "Wuyang Green Super Suburb City," Crain and Steele has yet to settle on its own set of names for the project, as is customary. Some possibilities include "Emerald Necklace," "Park Forest," and "Greensberg."
The suburb city is both an outgrowth of China's new stimulus package and of the country's 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-15), which includes a so-called 7th two-year "10001 plan" that outlines a strategy for future suburban development. The "10001" number is apparently in reference to the number of square feet to be included within each new home.
In recent years, China has seen a boom in luxury villas -- part of a trend that also includes cognac, Mercedes-Benz sedans and diamond-coated "I'm Not a Plastic Bag" totes.
"These villas are symbols of our wealth and arrival," said Kang Dong, a professor of social sciences at Hafo University in Jiangxi. "We know that in America, the suburbs are usually seen as a sign of homogeneity. But for us Chinese, owning a big house is a statement of individuality -- a rejection of Mao's Little Red Book for My Big Green House, if you will."
"It's important that the growing trend of luxury villas isn't restricted to the upper classes and government officials," Mr. Yu, the development and environmental official, said at a press conference. "But if it must be, we will make plans for more, smaller, suburbs, outside these suburbs."
Meanwhile, some locals inside and outside Wuyang have voiced opposition to the plan, fearing what suburban sprawl might mean for their land use rights and an already suffering environment.
While a recent Internet poll by the government showed resounding public support, many citizens said that when they tried to go to the voting website, they were redirected to youtube.com.
Others have more practical concerns about new "green suburb-city development."
"I sincerely believe in scientific development and the new socialist countryside and the harmonious society," said Li Tian, a 29-year-old factory worker. "It's just getting hard to remember all of phrases I'm supposed to believe in."
"Two Birds, One 'Burb"
National officials have also hailed the green suburban idea as an innovative method for building out urban centers while developing rural areas, which have lately experienced growth as unemployed workers return home from urban factory jobs.
"Green rural infrastructure is still weak and needs improving," President Hu Jintao said before a special meeting of the CPC Central Committee. "We will firmly push forward the green rural reform. Green reform is crucial. Important is a reformation to rural areas, with more green, and scientific planning, by expanding farmers' incomes, or the size of their homes. Also: scientific development."
In a separate document, Hu wrote, "We will continue to emancipate our rural areas from an absence of green reform. We shall work out new scientific concepts and green ideas to solve the problems in rural development. One fundamental way to do this is simple: green, scientific reform."
But Western experts have voiced concern about the plan, which one report calls "an unsustainable pipe-dream -- no, no -- pipe-nightmare."
"It's very upsetting to see China making the same errors we made during our development," said Morester Greene, an economist at the Center for Urban Misuse based in Washington, DC, which produced the initial report. "Low density, car-based planning is going to haunt them for a century."
"Why should China learn from the West?" Yu responded. "There are plenty of other developing countries out there. Maybe they should learn from our mistakes."