Saturday, March 10, 2007

World's biggest construction project - an Eco City

It is a fact that more and more of humanity is getting concentrated in cities, and nowhere is this process proceeding at a pace compared to that in countries that are growing fast - like China and India. I have in the past suggested that sustainability in the longer run should involve maximizing the percentage of humanity in cities, while making the cities themselves eco-friendly to the extent of having a zero environmental footprint.

China is taking a step in this direction, by setting out to construct 11 eco-friendly cities, starting with Dongtan on Chonming island just off Shanghai. When ready in 2030 it would be 75% the size of Manhattan, and have one-third the eco-footprint of Shanghai (and about half the world average). The plans suggest an environmentalist's dream - pristine wetlands beside a metro station from where people cycle back to their solar powered homes. Ideally situated homes will also have windmills to supplement the solar power, as will a central biomass energy station. The automobiles would be electric, and these will include zippy sports cars which the towns residents can use for an evening drive into Shanghai via the 30 km bridge and tunnel link to the center of Shanghai which will then be just a 20 minute drive away. Food (vegetables) for the city will be grown within the city, water will be recycled, as will all municipal industrial waste - thus no landfills.

The Dongtan project has been making waves in the eco-fraternity. It is being seen as an inspiration for cities world-wide. For instance, "Mayor of London Ken Livingstone is reportedly interested in Dongtan as a possible blueprint for development in London".

The skeptic speaks

Setting up eco-cities is no doubt a great effort, but the context somehow reminds one of efforts like in this image, where officials literally painted a mountainside green (click on the image for the link to the story).

Further, even when Dongtan is fully set up in 2030, it will only have a population of half a million. The other ten eco-cities will probably have less. Meanwhile China already has 90 cities with a population of 1 million or more. The capital Beijing counts the number of blue sky days it gets in a year - and that does not take into account the shade of blue. And while the biomass generator of Dongtan is being readied, coal plants will keep keep popping up by the dozens each year. From a propaganda perspective there is no doubt that the eco-cities will be a spectacular achievement for the Chinese leadership.

On the bright side

The bright-side-potential of course is huge. The eco-cities if built will be a giant leap forward for the concept of sustainability. Simple concepts that are tried and tested in the eco-cities can then be quickly replicated in already established cities, while the cities could definitely serve as role models for any new cities, towns or even townships being built.