By Wade Shepard
The typical modern Chinese city leaves a lot to be desired — and everybody seems to know it. Their streets tend to be extremely wide, cutting off one side from the other, but are still clogged with traffic that is unhindered by road rules. Their expansive sidewalks would be good for walking except for the fact that cars park and drive on them. Their populations are housed within 500×500 meter apartment complexes that are shut up behind high gates, inhibiting street life — socializing is best done at the nearest shopping mall. Their appearance is monotonous, it is a common complaint that China has a “thousand cities with the same face.” Their buildings are generally built quickly and cheaply, only last for around 25 -30 years, and are extremely energy inefficient, often lacking insulation and double paned windows. Everybody seems to be in everybody’s way in these places, the carrying capacity of the streets, buildings, and public transportation systems seem stressed to the brink, and the particulate matter haze is sometimes so thick that you can’t see the tops of the buildings right in front of you. “We go into our apartments to hide,” a young woman from Taizhou once told me, perhaps with good reason.
And all of this is in a country that is still urbanizing rapidly and expects to see over 200 million more city dwellers by 2030. To government officials, the people in the streets, and foreign observers alike, it’s clear that China needs to do something about its cities.
As buildings will account for 40% of China’s energy consumption by 2030 and transportation produces a third of the particulate matter in big cities like Beijing, “green” is now the building buzzword throughout the country. Projects that are labeled green can more easily get funding from the central government, who offers massive subsidies for environmentally-minded urbanization initiatives. Partly, this shows China’s commitment to improving its environmental and urban conditions; partly, it’s just an excuse to build another new city — something which is often essential to keep the coffers of local municipalities from drying up. There are currently upwards of 200 eco-city projects in the works in China — and this is in spite of the fact that not a single one has ever been successfully built and populated, and many, like Huangbaiyu and Dongtan, end as city-sized flops. The Jiaotong-Liverpool University architecture professor Austin Williams once crunched the numbers and discovered that in many aspects London was actually more ecological than the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Ecocity, which is currently China’s best example of a purposefully built green city.
Part of the problem is that there are no standards which certify a new urbanization project as green, there is no eco-city seal of approval, and no official measures put in place to monitor these places to ensure that they live up to expectations. Until now.