Ecopolis in China: Lab for Idealist or Realist?

By Anonymous

This two weeks we read about two sustainable cities, Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, UAE and Tianjin in China. It is reasonably straightforward to form the overall framework for sustainable urbanization, which consists of four interrelated actors and points of view: investor, government touches, design configuration and business tactics (source: class discussion and Prof Macomber’s chart).

In today’s China, the development of eco-cities has been a hot topic extensively reviewed and discussed by different parties, and the progress of Tianjin draws a lot of attention – particularly because of the failure of its predecessor, Dongtan District of Shanghai. Indeed, the concept of eco-cities has been tentatively utilized to provide theoretical support and planning model for more than 5 cities in China, and in addition to that, more municipal governments are approaching the central government and seeking financial, political and technological support. Nevertheless, there is not even a far cry from a successful in model in practice that can be found to underpin the feasibility of the “eco-city” concept.

The prevailing ecopolis concept is highlighted in China’s fast-paced urbanization progress for several reasons. Firstly, it focuses on suburban areas between the urban and rural fabrics, to accommodate the population growth and the expansion of mega cities like Beijing and Shanghai, which is aligned with the urbanization trend which has been stressed and brought to the forefront by the central government. China, compared to other developed Western economies like the US and Europe, is characterized with these features which make it the perfect lab for testing the eco-city model: more willing to take the risks associated with the cutting-edge technologies; strong execution of the government; and large amount of underdeveloped suburban area. When looking models such as the Caodianfei Eco-city in Tangshan, the Huangbaiyu Eco-city in Liaoning, the Dongtan model in Shanghai (which has more or less converted into a wetland park that receives negative feedback from its residents), one can easily see the commonalities:

-located in outskirt areas of mega cities with limited existing built infrastructure and requires large upfront input

-approved by the central government; financially and politically supported by different levels of government

-master planning provided by Western design/planning firms, cooperating with the local state-owned design bureaus

-draw one or two state-owned enterprises as “anchor tenants”

-with ambition to attract investors/corporations from private sector (i.e. mismatch of “target customer” and market fundamentals)

-likelihood of overdeveloping residential properties

-lack of synergies between targeted corporations

In this model, the government is acting as the top-level master planning provider and counts on the private players to fill in the ecopolis — without understanding the market fundamentals! Or alternatively, the greatest pitfall of the model stands as the government both fails to understand the fundamentals of the market and also fails to stimulate the synergies between participants, which are two crucial factors to foster the sustainable development of each ecopolis.