Monday, January 5, 2009

China's Mixed Signals

The explosive growth of China has offered a dichotomy - on one hand the speed and voraciousness of development has created unprecedented impacts from natural resource consumption and pollution; on the other, the country has created a number of evocative potential eco-city planning examples that have excited and intrigued - giving hope that amidst the chaos, some innovation was possible as well. The Olympics were hailed as an environmental and architectural success, while Bill McDonough's Huangbaiyu project went bust due to cultural misinformation. The dichotomy of China continue to amaze - and offer perhaps a pulse on the global state of green urbanism. A further look at some of this planning duality in action comes from a couple of recent articles.

The first, from the Christian Science Monitor, investigates the demise of the much lauded eco-city of Dongtan (covered in brief here on L+U). Sold as the model eco-city, Arup mentioned a number of the green features back in 2005: "Dongtan will produce its own energy from wind, solar, bio-fuel and recycled city waste. Clean technologies such as hydrogen fuel cells will power public transport. A network of cycle and footpaths will help the city achieve close to zero vehicle emissions. Farmland within the Dongtan site will use organic farming methods to grow food."

:: image via Christian Science Monitor

So what happenend? Was it unattainable utopia coming back, or more base human failure? Maybe a bit of both - sprinkled with simple economics. CSM starts: "In a country overloaded with environmental challenges, Dongtan is a symbol of political overreach that straddles nearby Shanghai and Britain, the home base of Arup, the firm that dreamed up Dongtan. Its failings show the limits to getting bold ideas off the drawing board, even in China’s top-down political culture, where outsized schemes get traction."

When the mayor of Shanghai was arrested for property fraud in 2006, it put the brakes on a the development, although Arup is not giving up hope for the project and developers. "That hasn’t stopped Arup from promoting Dongtan as a vision of a green future, says Paul French, a director of AccessAsia, a consultancy in Shanghai, and a project critic. “They’re still getting mileage out of it, even though it’s dead in the water,” he says. Other countries have their own eco-dreams: Abu Dhabi plans to build an elevated, carbon-neutral city by 2016 at a price tag of $22 billion. Like Dongtan, it aims to attract clean-energy companies and research institutes. While ecocities offer a bold leap forward, China is making tangible progress in other green design issues, such as building codes to promote efficient use of water, soil, and energy. Some developers are applying international standards to construct and retrofit buildings, though these are voluntary, and such buildings are few. Many cities have their own codes."

In the grand scheme of things - there's a tough road to making any city - particularly from scratch, much less one that is trying to do as much as some of these model eco-cities. Are they viable in good economies? Maybe. In bad ones - where their benefits could be greatest - they seem to be a non-starter. Time will tell what the fate of Dongtan, Abu Dhabi, and other eco-cities will be.

The second article from Environmental News Network (ENN) gives some context to the connections between slow(er) growth and smarter growth. 'Now China is growing slower, can it grow cleaner?' offers some good news in the case of reductions of pollution - although the reasons are typically given to less building rather than better, cleaner building.

In the wave of economic distress - it will be interesting to see how some of the visionary projects will fare - even if they promise long-term environmental and economic gains. While a slow-down in development pace gives perhaps a moment to ponder, it is more likely that it's a straight cause and effect - less development equals less pollution - period. When the economy recovers, it's likely that there will be more examples of boutique eco-city development - but the sum total of what is built will perhaps be greener, but not necessarily green. The reason is that we have not been able to re-imagine a revised accounting system that accomodates ecosystem services and benefits of nature into the equation.

Or as mentioned in the article, we will be driven by one thing, and one thing only - growth. From ENN: "Safeguarding economic growth is the absolute No.1 priority of the authorities," said Wei Weixian, an energy professor at Beijing's University of International Business and Economics. ...The government might have to turn a blind eye to the rebound of some polluting heavy industries." For the moment, Beijing can afford to make some systemic changes that will nicely serve both needs."

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