Wang Lin needed a change. The crushing air pollution and gridlock traffic in his hometown Hangu, an industrial district in China’s northern metropolis of Tianjin, made him anxious and sometimes sick.
Then he heard about the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-city. According to its marketing, the US$40 billion development — a joint venture between the governments of China and Singapore — will one day be a “model for sustainable development” only 40km from Tianjin’s city center and 150km from central Beijing. To Wang, it sounded like paradise.
Last year, the 36-year-old moved into an inexpensive apartment in one of the city’s half-occupied apartment blocks. As a freelance translator, he does not mind that most viable employers are at least half an hour away by car. He loves the relatively clean air and the personal space, but he also has his complaints.
By the time the city is complete — probably by 2020 — it should accommodate 350,000 people over 30 square kilometers. Five years into the project, however, only about 3 km2 have been completed, housing 6,000 permanent residents. There are no hospitals or shopping malls. Its empty highways traverse a landscape of vacant mid-rises and dusty construction yards.
“This place is like a child — it’s in a development phase,” Wang says. “But it’s chasing an ideal. It’s the kind of place where people can come to pursue their dreams.”
Last month, China announced its new urbanization plan, a massive feat of technical and social engineering which will move more than 100 million country-dwellers into cities over the next six years. The question is how. China’s current development model has proved environmentally disastrous; ghost cities and towns have triggered fears of an impending real estate meltdown.
Chinese authorities began encouraging the construction of “eco-cities” in the middle of the last decade. Since then, hundreds have sprouted across the country. While the concept is vaguely defined, most eco-cities are built on once-polluted or non-arable land, comply with stringent green architectural standards, and experiment with progressive urban planning and transportation infrastructure. The catch is that they simply might not work — if, indeed, they get finished at all.
According to Neville Mars, a Shanghai-based architect who is writing a book about eco-cities, Tianjin has an advantage because of its proximity to a major metropolis and shipping hub: “It’s already proving to be successful, because it’s still building.”
Many other ambitious eco-city projects — including Hebei Province’s Caofeidian, once considered the crown jewel of the movement — have ground to a halt. The problem, says Mars, is the “new city model” — the goal of building a whole city from the ground up rather than letting it develop organically.
“You can want to design your urban landscape, but in reality, on a fundamental level, that’s impossible,” he said. “We have to acknowledge that it’s extremely hard to build a regular city from scratch.”
Furthermore, some experts say that certified green buildings and pedestrian-friendly roads are a worthless patch for China’s environmental woes, not a solution.
“Chinese people use a lot of coal because it’s very cheap,” says Tao Ran, acting director of the Brookings-Tsinghua Center for Public Policy. “If coal doesn’t become much more expensive, then enterprises won’t use more green energy.”