For the next three years, much of the world’s attention will be directed toward China and its two biggest cities, Beijing, home to the 2008 Olympics, and Shanghai, site of a World Expo in 2010. For now though, these cities are often known for something else: pollution.
No visitor returns without remarking on it. “The sky was a yellow haze the whole time,” is a typical comment, or “It looked like rain every day, but it was just the pollution.” Noon can be indistinguishable from dusk. Car headlights gleam through the smog, disclosing the very traffic that causes much of it. The blog “Mad About Shanghai” maintains an “Oriental Pearl Tower Visibility Index,” named for the shapely television tower on the city’s skyline, the third-tallest man-made structure in the world. The index is a scale of one to five, where five represents, in the blogger’s words, “What Tower—I can’t see a freakin’ thing!” By April of this year, the government had twice issued its most severe Air Pollution Index rating, which advises, “The aged and patients should stay indoors.”
Pre-Olympic concern about the effects of pollution on the upcoming games has been so great that Beijing city officials agreed to shift the metropolis’s power plants from coal to natural gas and to relocate a giant downtown steel mill to a site hundreds of miles away. In Shanghai, too, the government has been moving factories out of the city for more than a decade. For the country as a whole, however, that’s a zero-sum game, shuffling sources of pollution around like pieces on a chessboard.
So China has embarked on a bold, expensive experiment to see whether pollution and waste—of all forms, not just the kind that taints the air—can be drastically reduced or even eliminated. In March it broke ground on what it calls the world’s first eco-city. Designed by the London-based global consulting firm Arup Group, Dongtan (as the new city will be called) is to be built on an island that is just a ferry ride away from central Shanghai. The government expects that by the time of the Expo this new enclave will be a showcase city of 8000 and that it will have half a million residents by 2050.
Dongtan will ban all polluting cars, even the most advanced hybrids. It will dig canals for waterways. On its streets, people will get around using electric cars, bicycles, or just their legs. “Cities today are built around the automobile,” says Malcolm Smith, an urban-design team leader at Arup. “You build a very different type of city if you know the automobile isn’t the central form of transportation.”
The city will recycle as much as possible, including all its wastewater; grow food on its own environmentally sensitive farms; and create all its own energy in nonpolluting ways—wind, solar, and the burning of human and animal wastes. It will encourage, and in some cases require, the use of local labor and novel building materials, such as a concretelike substance that can be made from ash and used cooking oil.
Most of these technologies are not new, and many are commonly used in Western Europe, if not in Asia or the United States. What will make Dongtan unique are the integration of environmentally friendly practices and the strict exclusion of older, polluting ones. Dong Shanfeng, a senior architect at Arup and the company’s local team manager for the Dongtan project, says, “What we’re trying to do with Dongtan is not about technology innovation; it’s the combination of technologies. It’s not a technical experiment. It’s an experiment of how people can develop a new city in the right way.”
In November 2005 , Arup, which has offices in 37 countries, signed a broad contract with Dongtan’s developer, Shanghai Industrial Investment (Holdings) Co. (SIIC). That agreement expanded Arup’s responsibilities for Dongtan and started the company working on designs for two other developments, with one to be near Beijing. The high-profile ceremony took place at 10 Downing Street and was attended by Chinese President Hu Jintao and British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
If it’s unusual for a business deal to be witnessed by the heads of two of the world’s most powerful nations, so too is the idea of creating from scratch an eco-city as large as Manhattan and more populous than Edinburgh or Atlanta. But building cities virtually overnight is nothing new for the Chinese. In 1980, the central government created a special economic zone for Shenzhen, at the time a small fishing village about an hour from Hong Kong. These days, it’s a sprawling metropolis of 9 million.