The Promise of Chinese Eco-cities


I would like to thank Peggy Liu, Christine Chen and Phoebus Xu of the Joint US-China Collaboration on Clean Energy (JUCCCE) for facilitating my visit to Tianjin Eco-city in September, 2012. Special thanks to the administration of the Eco-city for the tour and presentation provided during the visit.

As the new Chinese leadership takes hold, environmental issues will undoubtedly be more prominent in decision-making in the coming decade than they were in the past decade. In his inaugural speech after taking charge as the head of China’s political and military leadership Xi Jinping noted: “Our people love life and yearn for better education, stable jobs, more satisfactory income, greater social security, improved medical and health care and more comfortable living conditions and a more beautiful environment.

The clear mention of ecological goals within Mr.  Jingpin’s  speech is an important indicator of the increasing priority environmental issues are getting in China. As a planned economy, the Chinese have always excelled at grand infrastructure projects and they have brought that to bear on ecological goals as well. Earlier this year, I had an opportunity to visit the world’s largest “eco-city” which is being built near the economically vibrant metropolis of Tianjin, a couple of hours drive south of Beijing (Tianjin is also served by the new high-speed rail service that tops speeds of  350 km/h).

Model of the Eco-city in the main office building. Most of the major infrastructure is complete. Photo by Saleem H. Ali

The scale and scope of the city is impressive by any measure and could well be a project that can be scaled-up. Unlike boutique eco-city projects with highly innovative but as yet non-scalable design features such as UAE’s Masdar city initiative, the Tianjin eco-city  project is meant to be pragmatic and has a broader goal of national development. The Chinese government chose the site for the eco-city based on two key factors: a) it development should occur on non-arable land; b) developed near an area facing water shortage. Thus the goal of the eco-city project is to find ways of using resource-scarce environments more productively rather than optimising particular ecological criteria by choice of location.

What is particularly remarkable about this effort is also that it is partnership between two countries – China and Singapore. The historic connections between the two countries are self-evident with a majority of Singaporeans hailing from China. However, with two very different political systems and approaches to development, this collaboration brings forward the importance of a globalized approach to ecological planning.

Finding ways of reducing cost while staying within some parameters of green design has been challenging for architects working on the project. To attract a broad portfolio of professions there have been some compromises made in terms of materials being used for construction. Nevertheless, the overall goal of scaling up ecological design and mitigating impacts on arable productive lands and finding nonconventional sources of water (recycled or through renewable energy-powered desalination) is admirable.

By 2020 the aim of the Tianjin project is to have 350,000 inhabitants. This will still be far less than most megacities in the world such as Sao Paulo or Mumbai, which will by then be as much as 100 times this size.  Continuing pollution in neighboring areas may also hamper the efficacy of the Eco-city. Yet, the lessons of Tianjin eco-city can certainly be used for a plethora of new urban development projects which will be inevitable alongside current demographic trends – particularly in Asia. The Chinese leadership, coupled with civil society organizations that are slowly gaining strength in the country, have an important role to play in leading Asia towards greener urbanism. Tianjin’s eco-city should be considered a prototype that eventually mainstreams environmental criteria in planning across the region.

Changing Planet

Meet the Author
Saleem H. Ali is Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Energy and the Environment at the University of Delaware (USA) and a Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Queensland, Australia. He is also a Senior Fellow at Columbia University's Center on Sustainable Enterprise. Dr. Ali is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer for 2010 and World Economic Forum "Young Global Leader" (2011). His books include "Environmental Diplomacy" (with Lawrence Susskind, Oxford Univ. Press) and "Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed and a Sustainable Future" (Yale University Press). He can be followed on Twitter @saleem_ali.