Shanghai Turns Itself Inside Out

The Chinese economic miracle of recent years has come at a heavy price. As its Communist leaders have pursued a market-driven economy, the world's largest nation has found itself plagued with the byproducts of an accelerated push to get the most out of its Industrial Revolution infrastructure while, at the same time, rushing headlong into embracing the groundwork of the Technological Revolution. Coal-fired steel mills still mix with Internet start-ups in the centers of its major cities. Water and air pollution, for example, hamper economic activity so badly that they have become major national policy dilemmas. We sent Senior Associate Editor Steven Cherry to investigate how this transition is affecting China's largest city, Shanghai. In this month's feature "How to Build a Green City", Cherry reports back that the Chinese are deeply committed to turning around their legacy of smokestack progress and replacing it with a model of Information Age efficiency and health.

Home to about 15 million people, Shanghai is mainland China's finance and trade capital. In 2010, it will host the next World Expo, welcoming guests from around the globe. Meanwhile, as Cherry reports, visitors to the city today are immediately struck by how poor its air quality is. Noon can be indistinguishable from dusk, he writes. So local and national authorities are scrambling to turn Shanghai's environmental situation around. City planners have been relocating factories to sites in the countryside for several years. New regulations on pollution and waste--of all forms--are being put in place. However, the single boldest directive may yet be a plan to re-invent the city from the inside out, Cherry notes.

In March, planners broke ground on what the Chinese call the worlds first eco-city in the port of Shanghai. Called Dongtan, the future community will be built on an island just a ferry ride away from the big city's business center. The government expects that by the time of the Expo this new enclave will be a showcase city of 8000 residents (a number which should grow to half a million by 2050), Cherry writes.

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, a chief urban planner at Arup Group, the British designers of the project. "You build a very different type of city if you know the automobile isn't the central form of transportation."

The new city in a city will recycle as much as possible, including all its wastewater. It will grow food on its own environmentally sensitive farms. It will develop nearby nature reserves. And it will attempt to create all its own energy in nonpolluting ways. That, at least, is the plan. At present, though, as Cherry observed first-hand, there is nothing to reveal what lies ahead. Hardly a spadeful of earth has been turned over for the eco-city of Dongtan, he writes, and work on both the ecofarms and the nature reserve has been preliminary.

Cherry concludes his report on the future of Shanghai by wishing its planners the best of luck in their efforts to forge a new urban form using the finest sustainability practices available.

We should all join him in expressing that hopeful thought.

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