Green Living, Chinese-Style

We’ve heard for years how our current way of life is unsustainable and that it shouldn’t be used as a model for developing nations. Well, it appears that China accepts that premise and is prepared to chart its own course – at least for a share of its newly urbanizing masses.

Leaders of the world’s largest population are currently planning the creation of at least 10 eco-cities – large communities where green living will not only be preached but practiced. If any of these cities accomplishes even a fraction of what’s on the drawing board, they will be years ahead of anything in the United States or elsewhere in the West.

Indeed, America’s urban planners may one day be studying at sustainability institutes, like the one to be created in Dongtan, China. At least that’s the lesson Peter Head offered an audience at New YorkUniversity, Friday night.

Head directs a London-based sustainable-building unit for Arup. This consulting company designs and engineers construction projects around the world. A little less than three years ago, the Shanghai Industrial Investment Corp. commissioned Arup to “plan the world’s first sustainable city”. Those are Arup’s words, not mine. But that his eco-city description looks pretty apt, at least on paper, based on Head’s presentations about Dongtan, last week (at events associated with the World Science Festival).

To be sited on the eastern edge of an island associated with Shanghai, Dongtan is supposed to be ready for occupancy within the next two years. Only about four meters above sea level, Dongtan will be surrounded on three sides by water and border prized wetlands.

Plans for the new community – initially with a population of 80,000, but eventually with one perhaps six times that size – call for the sole use of zero-emissions vehicles, which means ones that are all-electric or run on hydrogen-powered fuel cells. Wastes throughout the community will be recycled. Electricity will be powered “entirely from renewables,” Head said –everything from solar energy to the burning of rice husks or trash. Carbon-dioxide emissions from burning will be captured and used to help fuel the growth of food crops. Waste heat from the power plants will be piped throughout the community to warm homes or other facilities. Rainwater and sewage will be captured, cleaned, and re-used.

Foods will be grown close to the town. Everyone’s home or business is supposed to be accessible from public transportation (buses, streetcars, or water taxis) that is no more than a 7-minute walk away. Healthcare centers, cultural venues, leisure parks and greenways are being planned to pepper the community so that people don’t have to leave the island for fun, education, doctors, or employment.

In 1900, Head says, there were eight hectares of land for every person on the planet. Today the patch of land that supports each of us has shrunk by 75 percent, partly owing to pollution and partly due to population growth. Clearly, the fossil-fuel-based lifestyle that characterized the past century can’t be relied upon much longer, he argues.

Apparently, it’s a point that not lost upon Chinese-development officials either. Which is why they’re sinking big bucks into foreign consultants and engineers to help them create a new paradigm for urbanization, Head says. Big Red’s eco-cities will become test beds for new technologies, new systems for delivering goods and services, and catalyzing social change.

Head says Chinese officials believe they can design new urban centers that will take their citizens straight “from the agricultural to the ecological age.”

We’ll see. It’s a bold experiment. There are bound to be big hiccups along the way as good ideas and inflation swell budgets and tax the patience of designers. We’ll also see how comfortable people are becoming guinea pigs for a whole new era of social engineering.

Don’t get me wrong, I think the idea of these eco-cities is long overdue. I might even volunteer to live in one if it were cloned on American soil and Science News would allow me to telecommute. But in China? I don’t know.

Pollution wafts a long way and even if the new eco-cities are clean, their neighbors’ emissions could keep the regional air chokingly dirty for years to come. Moreover, Dongtan is basically out in the sea – courting a drowning if sea levels rise (I didn’t see dike development as a key feature in Dongtan’s landscape).

But I commend China for even getting its feet wet in this arena. And the idea that there will be integrated sustainability institutes to evaluate what’s going right – or wrong – and how things could be improved: That’s just inspired.

We don’t have long to wait to see if this concept blossoms or fizzles. Shanghai hosts the world’s fair – or Expo – in 2010 and Dongtan is supposed to showcase green development features for Asia and elsewhere.

Janet Raloff

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

More Stories from Science News on Agriculture

From the Nature Index

Paid Content