China teams up with Singapore to build huge eco city

Planners say Tianjin model could be copied across developing countries

The buildings will be the latest word in energy efficiency: 60% of all waste will be recycled, and the settlement will be laid out in such a way as to encourage walking and discourage driving. But this is not the latest experiment in European green living. This is a ground-breaking mega development in China that could serve as a model for eco cities across the developing world, say to its backers.

China and Singapore are pooling expertise and finance to build a green urban community in north-east China, with the capacity for 350,000 people, naer the western shore of the Bohai, one of the most polluted seas in the world.

The plan to build this settlement, known as Tianjin Eco-City and likely to be the size of Bristol, is, though, haunted by the failure of a yet more ambitious scheme, near Shanghai.

At a ceremony to mark the start of construction on the first phase of Tianjin – an "eco-business park" over 150 hectares (370 acres) – investors said the 10-year scheme was intended to be "scalable and replicable" so it could be used across China, India and other developing nations.

A new model is certainly needed. Over the next 20 years the number of urban dwellers in China is forecast to swell by more than 300 million, equivalent to the entire population of the US. With consumption levels and wages three times higher in the city than in the countryside, this will put an enormous strain on energy and water resources – unless there is a change in the urbanisation model.

Prototype eco cities and villages are springing up in several areas in China, including Xiangji town in Xinjiang, and Huangbaiyu in Liaoning.

But finding the right balance between radical change and realism has proved elusive. The biggest disappointment has been the eco city plan for Dongtan, which the engineering consultants Arup billed as a model for the world.

Under a hugely ambitious scheme dreamed up by the British company, the silt flats north of Shanghai would have been home to a low-carbon, near car-free city the size of Manhattan. But just a year before the first phase was to have been completed, the site is moribund. The project's main political backer is in jail on corruption charges, construction permits have lapsed and prospects of the plan being realised look increasingly distant.

Goh Chye Boon, chief of the joint venture running the business park at Tianjin Eco-City, said his project had learned from Dongtan that it was better not to reach immediately for the skies. "We aspire to one day be a dream city like Dongtan but we want to take one credible step at a time," he said. "Dongtan inspired me, but I think when you reach too high, you may forget that the ultimate beneficiary must be the resident."

But the new city being built in Tianjin is in danger of going too far the other way by not being ambitious enough. Although it will use wind and geothermal power, its target of 20% of energy from renewable sources by 2020 is only a tiny improvement on the goal for the national average. The goal for carbon emissions is equally modest.

Every building is to be insulated, double glazed and made entirely of materials that abide by the government's green standards. More than 60% of waste will be recycled. To cut car journeys by 90%, a light railway will pass close by every home, and zoning will ensure all residents have shops, schools and clinics within walking distance.

It will be more verdant than almost any other city in China, with an average of 12sq metres (nearly 130sq ft) of parks or lawns or wetlands for each person. Domestic water use should be kept below 120 litres (26 gallons) per person each day,  with more than half supplied by rain capture and recycled grey water.

Success will depend on finding the right mixture of economics, user-friendliness and environmental concerns.

Paul French, chief China analyst at Access Asia, said Dongtan had died because planners h ad failed to consult the local community and had aimed too high. "Dongtan was plonked down on everyone. They were going to do everything, but nothing has been realised. It's really important with environmental stuff that you only say what you can actually deliver or people will lose trust."

Liang Benfan, a professor of urban development at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said: "It's good people are discussing this, but they are too focused on technology. There's not much thought about nature and local culture."

Your IP address will be logged

China teams up with Singapore to build huge eco city

This article was first published on at 21.23 BST on Thursday 4 June 2009. It appeared in the Guardian on Friday 5 June 2009 on p26 of the International section. It was last updated at 21.23 BST on Thursday 4 June 2009.

Most viewed on

Guardian Jobs


Browse all jobs