Dongtan: the eco-city that never was

China’s first big eco-city has been put on hold, not because it was too ambitious, but because it wasn’t ambitious enough.

It was nice while it lasted, but now, it seems, the dream is over. The long-awaited, much-feted eco-city of Dongtan – described by environmental campaigner, Herbert Girardet as ‘the world’s first eco-city’ – has bitten the dust. After four years of presentations, proposals and puff, the universal praise has proven to be a little premature.

Dongtan, a new city development (three quarters the size of Manhattan Island) was to have been built on Chongming Island, near Shanghai, in the Yangtze River Delta. The first phase, comprising a city of 25,000 people, was due to have opened for the Shanghai Expo in 2010. By 2030 it was intended to house 500,000 residents. In Western terms, this sort of ambition is impressive, but in terms of China’s own plans to create a further 20 cities a year over the next 20 years, Dongtan was small fry. But, of course, an eco-city is not meant to be intrusive.

Dongtan has been variously credited for its planned zero-carbon footprint, encouragement of biodiversity, low car-usage, and low-consumption ideals. Peter Head, director of the engineering firm Arup, which was in charge of the project, said: ‘It is no gimmick. It is being led at the highest levels of the Chinese government. They are very committed to developing a new paradigm of economic development.’ (1) It was claimed that while ‘Shanghai has a typical ecological footprint of 5.8 global hectares per person… Dongtan eco-city will be 2.6’. Dongtan had been feted for so long that it is remarkable to some people to learn that it hasn’t already been built. It’s even more incredible to learn that it probably never will be.

In five years, practically nothing constructive has happened. The site has been cleared, the farmers and peasants moved off the land, and large areas prepared – but, as one observer puts it, ‘no construction has occurred there – indeed it’s gone backwards, as a visitor centre previously built is now shut’. All references to it have been removed from both the Shanghai Expo’s website as well as Arup’s.

Admittedly, a multi-million dollar bridge from the island to Shanghai is nearing completion, which ought to open up the Dongtan region for development, but fingers are being pointed at a range of suspects for the collapse of the overall project: the corruption of local politicians, the use of challenging technologies, lapsed planning permissions, or the greed of major international consultancies that were riding in on the Chinese urban goldrush with little regard for practical niceties.

There are undoubtedly elements of truth in all of these claims, but why did no one spot that nothing was happening? The simple fact is that nobody ever questioned the hype.

Engineering company Arup was contracted in August 2005 by Shanghai Industrial Investment Corporation (SIIC) to become the lead consultant for the design and masterplan of Dongtan. Since the initial sketches, the environmental PR machine has kicked in. Small-scale, computer-generated bird’s eye images of the eco-city proposals featured in practically every architecture magazine, and Arup found itself the centre of an eco-renaissance of urban sustainability. As Arup says, there have been many ‘collaboration opportunities for UK academics and Chinese researchers arising from Arup’s eco-city projects in China’.

The UK’s New Statesman described how ‘all housing will be within seven minutes’ walk of public transport. Most citizens will work within the city, which will produce sufficient electricity and heat for its own use, entirely from renewable sources. There will be no emissions from vehicles. Food will be produced on the island’ (2). The striking thing is that while everyone seemed to love this radical urban development, nobody ever questioned the layout: the design, the form, the architecture, or even the reality. They were all too busy promoting the carbon neutral dream.

In the course of five years’ promotional editorial for this project, you will be hard pressed to find one critical assessment of the project, and, I would wager, any negative articles at all. The mainstream and architectural press have a lot to answer for in blindly accepting the hype without asking the most basic questions. But given that the prefix ‘eco’ tends to provide immunity from criticism, the Dongtan bandwagon became unassailable. Simon Foxall of The Edge – a forum set up to stimulate public interest in policy questions that affect the built environment – summed up the hopes embodied in the scheme. ‘Dongtan’, he said, ‘is not a “thing”, but a “process” – one that is just as applicable to the Thames Gateway as it is to the Yangtze Delta.’ (3) Coincidentally, ‘The Edge’ was a forum established with support from the Arup Foundation and sponsored by the Carbon Trust.

Now, it seems that the process is all over, environmental commentators are having to save face without sounding too contrite. After all, they were simply taken in, weren’t they? Journalist Fred Pearce sums up the situation: ‘We all wasted our time; burned carbon flying to Shanghai to relay a false prospectus to the world. If I sound bitter, I am. This time, I was a personal victim of greenwash.’

It wasn’t his fault, of course. After all, given that this project was promoted for its environmental credentials, why on earth would a journalist of Pearce’s standing ever have questioned anything? His role was simply to visit and throw garlands. He is suitably annoyed that – on finding that the Emperor has no clothes – he wants to portray himself as being ‘hoodwinked’ by an elaborate deception. ‘Shanghai’, he says ‘milked the media well’ (4).

But Dongtan is not alone. In 2005, environmental architect and author of Cradle to Cradle, Bill McDonough, started building his eco-village project in China, at Huangbaiyu in Liaoning Province. Local commentators have pointed out that to clear the site, productive arable land was bulldozed, resulting in no harvest for four years. Anthropologist Shannon May reported at the time: ‘While the shells were completed, there were significant problems with the function of the houses: there was no electricity, no water, no gas. The houses have essentially remained in this state through the end of 2008… the promise of a model ecological development in Huangbaiyu never came to pass.’

McDonough has distanced his company from the failures, suggesting that they should have ‘managed… unrealistically high expectations built up’ by the various design teams and stakeholders. What McDonough doesn’t admit is that, actually, low-tech housing processes were anathema to the desires of the local people. They wanted speedy, well-built, solid housing, especially since the ‘sustainable’ versions ended up costing $20,000 each. Wired magazine recently suggested that the local dignitaries had only bought into the idea because they thought that it would bring the promise of eco-investment. When they found out that they were building mud-houses for no financial gain, they reverted to the speedier concrete methods of construction.

There is a growing interpretation that the failures of these eco-cities are a consequence of them being too ambitious. The opposite is true. China is a rapidly developing country with massive areas of underdevelopment. To raise such regions out of penury, improve housing and increase productive employment, development needs to be urgent, rapid and, in many instances, wilful. A look at Britain’s historic infrastructural ambition may serve to exemplify the point.

In the UK, we have got used to the sight of mile after mile of pylon steelwork marching across otherwise unspoiled countryside. However, many of us realise that the optimal way that the national grid could, maybe should, have been created is with underground supply lines, which would have been less visually intrusive, less prone to weather damage, and with possibly fewer maintenance problems. But at the time, the ambition was to deliver power to every home in the country, as quickly as possible. At the time, the Electricity Supply Act of 1926 was ‘projective rather than reactive and did more than any other piece of legislation between the wars to provide effective industrial structures’ (5). Speed was of the essence and while there were protracted disputes about the citing of pylons, the nationalised Central Electricity Board won people over by ‘associat[ing] electricity with the idea of modernity’ (6). A similar process is at play in China.

Admittedly, China’s State Council has complained that energy-intensive industries are developing too quickly and preventing China from reaching its energy efficiency goals (7). Such sentiments are necessary to drive China’s competitiveness as well as helping to combat the widespread pollution arising from rapid industrial growth and carbon intensive industry. However, an over-concentration on environmental matters can dull the senses and our critical faculties and prevent us from seeing the bigger picture.

Dongtan, the city that was intended to be the ‘model for how to build sustainable cities worldwide’ should still provide a lesson for us all. Blindly praising its environmental credentials without recognising its squat, low-rise, parochial, carbon-fetishising, architecturally unappealing, unworkable urban eco-clichés, is a recipe for future disasters.

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of Enemies of Progress: The Dangers of Sustainability. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Read on:

spiked-issues: Architecture and planning and China.

(1) British to help build Chinese ‘eco-cities’, Observer, 6 November 2005

(2) Yes, we can save the world – if we want to, New Statesman, 29 January 2007

(3) Dongtan-on-Thames, Building

(4) Greenwash: The dream of the first eco-city was built on a fiction, Guardian, 23 April 2009

(5) Lee, S.J, (1996). Aspects of British political history, 1914-1995, Routledge, p122

(6) Biscoe, J. History of public supply in the UK, Engineering Timelines, accessed 27 August 2009

(7) ‘State Council calls for curbs on inefficient industries’, China Economic Review, 2 July 2008

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