China's Zero-Carbon City Dongtan Delayed, But Not Necessarily Dead, Says Planner

peter head arup dongtan photo

Peter Head (photo courtesy of Arup)

Last year, I wrote a post mourning the demise of one of the world's most exciting construction projects: an ecologically sustainable city for half a million people off the coast of Shanghai called Dongtan.

The idea was ambitious: a city without a landfill or cars, producing its own renewable electricity and generating zero carbon emissions. Originally announced in 2005, the project was presented as a template for future urban design in China, and generated a significant buzz. Over time, however, it began to appear as if a shifting political landscape would sink the project, and the criticism began, some of it intimating that Dongtan was never really meant to become reality.

Not everyone, though, is convinced Dongtan is done for. This week, one of the key figures behind the idea, Arup's Peter Head, discussed the fate of Dongtan with us, as well as his thoughts on COP15 and the future of green urbanism. Here's what he had to say...TreeHugger: Was it premature to eulogize Dongtan? Is there still a chance of the plan becoming a reality, or has the opportunity passed?

Peter Head: The original aim of our client, the Shanghai Industrial Investment Corporation (SIIC), was to have the first phase of Dongtan's development completed ahead of the 2010 Shanghai Expo.

However, implementation of the masterplan we produced has been postponed. As far as we are aware, this delay is indefinite and we don't know the reasons behind this.

SIIC was committed to the ideals of the project and encouraged us to push the boundaries of sustainable design by setting a zero-carbon target. The project also had government support at the highest level. President Hu Jintao visited the site twice. So, after our masterplan for Dongtan was completed, we had every reason to believe the project would go ahead according to our design.

Naturally we are disappointed that Dongtan is not going ahead as anticipated. However, many projects of this size and scale are slow-moving. Urban design is a long-term activity - it requires commitment and the alignment of central and regional political and economic wills. It often takes decades to deliver new urban developments, in China and elsewhere in the world, and the development downturn in Shanghai affected the project.

More recently, the bridge and tunnel connections between Chongming Island and Shanghai have opened to the public, so it seems likely that development across the island (rather than just on the Dongtan site) will go ahead - in one form or another. We very much hope that the research developed in our work on the masterplan will be part of this.

TH: China is urbanizing perhaps faster than any other country in the world today. To what extent have the ideas embodied in the Dongtan plan permeated China's development model?

PH: Across China, urban developments are being planned which make use of ideas, tools and techniques developed in our work on Dongtan. We personally have carried out planning commissions for Wanzhuang Huzhou, Zhu Jai Jao, Tangye, and and the Changxindian Community. Throughout these projects, we have held 'technology transfer' workshops with regional/city authorities and local design institutes - to pass on skills and ways of working.

Separately, in northern China, the Singaporean and Chinese governments are working on the 'Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-city' which has drawn on the Dongtan ideas and methodology. Other planned eco-cities include Huangbaiyu, Nanjing and Rizhao.

To further spread the learning and techniques developed on this project, representatives from Arup have presented at many conferences across China. We have made our presentation material available through the web and through books. Arup is involved with the Joint US-China Collaboration on Clean Energy training programmes for Mayors.

TH: How has Arup's thinking on ecological city planning evolved since the Dongtan plan was initially formulated?

PH: Dongtan showed that it is possible to develop sustainable cities, which encourage the use of public transport, recycle their waste, use natural ventilation in buildings and use large proportions of renewable energy. These cities will be clean, quiet, unpolluted and exist in harmony with the natural environment.

Our model and tools for planning sustainable cities have been developing. For example, on Wanzhuang, we found that capturing and storing water in an urban development (in a climate where water is scarce) on the right scale could provide irrigation water for adjacent farmland. With nutrient recycling, a system like this could also lift the rural and urban economy. All of our ideas and concepts now inform our work on planning projects across the world - from the Netherlands, Finland and the US to Chile and Azerbaijan.

These ideas have uses that go beyond new urban spaces; cities including London and the rest of the C40 network are planning projects to retrofit their cities. They have found that integrated planning methods and techniques are appropriate for this purpose too. For example, the East London Albert Basin project was inspired by Ken Livingston's visit to Dongtan, and was designed to follow the same principles.

arup Low2No Helsinki rendering

A rendering of "Low2No Block," a design for Helsinki's first carbon neutral district by planners from Arup, Sauerbruch Hutton and Experientia. (photo courtesy of Arup)

As part of our commitment to sharing what we have learned, Arup, HSBC, and Sustainable Development Capital proposed to establish a network of institutes promoting sustainability. The UK's Thames Gateway Institute for Sustainability is now being run by commercial and academic partners, and I have recently been appointed Chairman of the charity. Its current focus is 'retrofitting' the UK - pushing the UK to the forefront of green technology.

A Shanghai counterpart, currently based at Tongji University, has been set up by China's Vice Minister of Construction. An agreement is in place to set up a virtual institute in Melbourne, Australia, and discussions are underway to extend the network to Africa and North America.

TH: You were in Copenhagen in December. Can you share some of your impressions from that experience?

PH: I headed up the Arup team that attended COP15 and was there for two weeks. We attended 20 different formal and informal side events and had many discussions with business, government, city and regional leaders and NGOs.

Of course, we are all disappointed that a framework for a binding agreement has not yet been reached. Nevertheless, the fact that 192 countries came together to negotiate a common goal tackling climate change was a significant step forward for humanity.

The climate justice concept and movement is now firmly recognized; the mechanism for developed countries to help developing ones adapt to the effects of climate change has been established and quantified.

Businesses now recognise that cross-discipline partnerships (set up to achieve integrated, efficient and renewable systems for cities) are an important means of achieving aims.

Cities and regions are leading the charge for change. Ninety mayors and regional leaders outlined their commitment to take action to counteract climate change, without waiting for a negotiated agreement between national governments. They believe that by making cities and regions more resource efficient and reducing their carbon footprint they can benefit the economic success and resilience of communities. Programmes like those now being developed can create jobs quickly and improve quality of life.

TH: How do you see what happened in Copenhagen affecting Arup's work in the foreseeable future?

PH: We expect an increase in opportunities to plan and implement shifts towards a efficient renewable future for cities and regions. We are, for example, advising the C40 cities network through a series of workshops. We also expect a growth in work delivering change, by working through multi-disciplinary partnerships.

TH: What kind of new projects can we expect to hear about from Arup in the future?

PH: Much of the work that we do is focused on helping the organisations we work with plan for an unpredictable future and to operate in a low carbon economy. Arup's integrated development approach focuses on interrelated factors - land use, energy, waste, water, transport, agriculture, economics and sociology. These are central to our work with the C40 and the Clinton Climate Initiative. We are their strategic adviser to aid climate change policy development and design.

I expect that many of our projects will have a focus on the retrofitting of whole regions of cities. Another trend on the horizon is being involved in more demonstrator projects for urban settlements in developing countries. These demonstrate that it's possible to achieve a high quality of life while maintaining a low ecological footprint in an urban area, and also allowing the ecosystem to recover. In particular these will show that access to rich renewable resources will be the driver of future urban development success.

China's Zero-Carbon City Dongtan Delayed, But Not Necessarily Dead, Says Planner
Last year, I wrote a post mourning the demise of one of the world's most exciting construction projects: an ecologically sustainable city for half a million people off the coast of Shanghai called Dongtan.

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