China’s Eco-Cities Need to Do More than Win Awards

Last month while being interviewed for the New York Times piece China’s City of the Future Rises on a Wasteland, I was asked about the importance of planning China’s eco-cities

What should be the goal of an eco-city and why are they important to China?

To me, this was perhaps one of the more important and interesting questions I have been asked on the topic, a topic I have been interviewed previously on, and provided me with the opportunity to lay out where I feel the eco-city model is failing… and succeeding.

Where the eco-city’s themselves are special, and offer a unique opportunity, is that if done properly and with aligned stakeholders, these cities will provide a proving ground for a number of technologies.  For China, I see a particular opportunity within the areas of water, food, energy, and transportation, and how the city can (through technology or process) make demand side improvements (reductions) that relieve the supply side pressures that China faces in each area.

Once proven, these processes should then be rolled out across China’s remaining cities, and the mission of the eco-city would then be considered complete.

To date, this has not been the model (as I have seen it) for China’s eco-city development.  To date, the goal has been less about scaling out technologies, and more about bringing together a whiz bang project idea that benefits the architects and government agencies.  Which is why there are regular announcements of eco-cities winning awards (Major Award for Smart Eco-City Plan in Langfang, China, Prestigious award to Sino-Swedish eco-city planning, An Innovative Eco City in China, Sweco designs ecological city in China) and virtually no announcements of eco-cities that make it past the modeling phase.  In fact, there are more failed plans (Huangbaiyu) and stalled plans (Dongtan) than there are successful plans that are being built out (Tianjin).

Fundamentally one of the most resource deficient countries in the world, if you calculate on a per capita basis, what is clear to everyone is that for China to successfully achieve this goal (and maintain 800-900 million urban residents), China will need to secure its energy, water, and food supplies. Supplies which are already depleted and at times so constrained that there are shortages, lockouts, or inflationary spikes.

Which is why I ultimately believe eco-cities, as they should exist,  will prove critical to China as it continues urbanizing the next 400 million people. Particularly if those cities are sensitive to the issues of integrating China’s migrants and China’s greying population.  Not “green” issues, but issues that are equally important to the sustainability of China’s cities over the next 25 years

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