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what has become of china’s eco-cities?

By: James Miller

An artist's rendering of the Dongtan eco-city

There has been much news lately that the project to design a massive eco-city on Chongming Island near Shanghai may finally have fizzled out. The project, designed by the British engineering firm Arup, would have created a low carbon-footprint city called Dongtan, just a thirty-minute boat ride from Shanghai. In its first phase, to have been completed in time for the 2010 Shanghai Expo, it would have created housing for 50,000 people. At three quarters of the size of Manhattan Island, the project could eventually have housed half a million people, connected to the mainland via a network of bridges and tunnels.

What went wrong? And, as Andrew Revkin asks in his New York Times blog, is growth still trumping green?

The answer has more to do with local politics than anything else. The Arup project was delayed in part due to the purging of the communist party leadership in Shanghai in the wake of a 2006 scandal in which money was embezzled from social security funds to pay for land development deals. In the ensuing political climate, it was impossible for major investment projects to take place until new financial accountability structures were put in place. Caught in this mess was the Shanghai Industrial Investment Corporation, which was Arup’s Chinese funding partner.

What’s now clear is that there is no way that the first section of the city can be completed in time for the 2010 Shanghai Expo. What’s unclear is whether this jeopardizes the whole of the project, or whether the project will re-emerge in a new form at some later date.  

When I interviewed Arup’s project leaders in Shanghai in 2007, one innovative feature of their design process was their emphasis on “cultural planning.” The idea here is that urban design is not simply about structures and residents, but about cultures, contexts, ecologies and environments. In the Dongtan project, Arup was not simply creating a new type of city, but was also testing out new ways of thinking about sustainable design in ways that engineering firms had never traditionally considered. In this and earlier Chinese projects, they had employed philosophers and anthropologists to help understand local traditions and cultures so as to work with existing cultural resources to ensure that their designs would be successful. Whatever happens to Dongtan, it is clear that Arup has gained the chance to experiment with new forms of planning that bridge the gap between culture, society and engineering.

China is experiencing one of the greatest migrations in human history. Over 100 million “floating” people are estimated to have emigrated from rural China to urban centres without any official approval or registration. Add to that the official residents of Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing and China’s other mega-cities and it quickly becomes apparent that China has to continue the effort to design sustainable mass housing.

Categories: Questions


  1. I was told by the Minister of MOHURD from China that the island has more than 200 unique species and was clearly marked as a non-development zone for whatsoever. Arup and whoever just ignored the polocies and chose to take a gamble to create an overrated “eco” scheme in a very valuable and vulneruble natrual reserve. This made MOHURD furious and now publicly use this as a bad example of eco-development.

    The myth about “local poliical issues” is probably made up by Arups and UK relevant parties to bury their embarresment,though they still use this as an example of British Eco Design.

    To export expertise you really need to respect local polocies and local culture. And in the event it failed, you should check yourselves and make sure you never make up stories because once it’s disclosed, you are finished.

    This is a lesson for all, especially those who want to work in China. Respect the rules, don’t be stupid.

  2. Fantastic read here. I feel regret that this endeavour is no longer being pursued hotly. I’ve been perhaps over-optimistic that more and more countries and cities would start incorporating eco-friendly building principals so it is very concerning that this much hyped and anticipated project is not often adhered to. Still, there’s ample hope for the future.

  3. This case confirms my belief that sustainability won’t be integrated into society without appropriate accountability and transparency. We tend to think that sustainability is solely a matter of implanting eco-friendly devices … but it is like planting a tree in a rotten soil … the tree will not survive. Our politics see economic opportunities in the ecological trend by using old capitalistic roots (yep China may be Communist, it is still relying on capitalism for its economy). Anyways, accounting might be the only way to rebuild trust in such projects, but we need trustworthy leaders.

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