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Future city

May 8, 2012

Tianjin: It takes less than an hour on the new high-speed train line to travel the 150 km from Beijing to Tanggu, the dirty coastal port town of nearby Tianjin, China’s third biggest city, where Europeans stopped long enough, a century ago, to leave fine colonial architecture among the gleaming modern high-rises. I am driving a few minutes up the coast from Tanggu, the world’s fifth biggest port, to see what’s billed as the city of the future – a place so new that most of it is still being built.

A scale model of the city – notice the unusual amount of green space

Few things can be certain about the future, as philosophers wiser than I have pointed out, but one trend that’s likely to continue is urbanisation. The Anthropocene will be peopled by city dwellers, in contrast to the rural demography of the past millennia. Nowhere will this be felt more keenly than in China, home to more than 1.3 billion people, more than half of whom now live in cities (as of the end of 2011) – an urban population that at 690 million is double the entire US population. By 2030, 75% of Chinese will live in cities; fifty years earlier, in 1980, less than 20% did.

While the government is encouraging urbanisation, most people are moving to improve their prospects – salaries are at least double in cities, and there are far more employment opportunities, especially for those whose rural situation has been made intolerable by pollution, drought, industrial encroachment or compulsory purchase for urban development. Urbanisation has been one of the most important factors in China’s phenomenal economic growth and rapid industrialisation over the past decade, providing essential labour and new consumers.

The international high school is almost complete

It also comes saddled with tremendous challenges. Over the next 20 years, the urban population will balloon by more than 300 million people, all of whom need housing, infrastructure, water, food, jobs – and the rising issues of pollution and social inequality must also be tempered. In a typically top-down style, the government is tackling all of these at once: the biggest polluters have been moved out of the biggest cities (inland into rural areas or other cities), slum populations (here, called ‘urban villages’) have dropped from 37% to 28% since 2000, and China is in the midst of a building frenzy.

Visit any city in the country – there are over 650 of them – and you’ll soon be negotiating a route around a noisy, dusty construction site, beneath towering cranes. Much of this is taking place in existing cities, converting low-rise to high-rise, to pack more people into the unlimited vertical space. But in a few places, planners have started from scratch.

A ground-source heat pump in the school’s basement heats the swimming pool and building

Tianjin Eco-city is a collaborative project between the Chinese and Singaporean government that will house 350,000 people in a low-carbon, green and pleasant environment by 2020. As I approach the city under an ever-present pall of filthy air, across a wasteland of contaminated soil and water, I have my reservations about the Eco-city’s success.

The site chosen for the project was an industrial dumping ground for toxic waste, barren salt flats abutting one of the world’s most polluted seas. This was deliberate, says Ho Tong Yen, head of the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-city Development and Investment, charged with building the city. “In the past, so-called eco-cities have been built in ecologically important areas or on useful arable land. We wanted to show that it’s possible to clean up a polluted area and make it useful and liveable.”

The energy centre has PV wall panels

The clean-up took the best part of three years, and included the development of a newly patented technology to remove the heavy metals from a central reservoir – soon to be a boating lake. The hard graft’s paid off. I enter the part-complete city down an avenue lined with fragrant trees and solar-energy panels. Among the newly planted saplings I spot five wind turbines and solar-powered street lighting. One-fifth of the energy used here will be emission-free, from solar, wind and, as I discover on a visit to the almost finished international school, from ground-source heat pumps, which use the temperature difference in the ground for energy.

Phillips has designed a sound and movement activated light switch

Clomping upstairs in the school, I surprise another innovation into action: Dutch-owned Phillips is trying out its new sound- and motion-sensitive lights, which default to off unless the switch hears or feels someone approach.

Other innovations include a planned pneumatic municipal waste collection system, produced by Swedish Envac, which will eliminate the need for refuse trucks, and potentially driverless cars being trialled by General Motors. Buildings will have smart controls, automatically raising and lowering window blinds to regulate light and temperature, for example.

Solar panels line the streets and carpark roofs

In March, the first 60 families moved into the city’s residential buildings, all of which are designed to a minimum green buildings standard, including water-saving sanitary fittings, insulated walls and double-glazed windows, as well as a south-facing orientation to optimise passive heat. Such techniques may be standard in some countries, but in China they are rare.

Also rare here is the emphasis on liveability. Parks and green spaces are planned around the city, and reed beds have been created to attract birdlife and help clean the water. Lanes and alleyways have been strung through the usual grid layout of big blocks, meaning communities can develop, everywhere is walkable or cycle-able and people don’t feel socially excluded from areas. Free recreation facilities will be provided within 500 metres walk of anywhere.

With Tianjin Eco-city’s development director Ho Tong Yen

A green spine, called the ‘eco valley’ runs through the heart of the city with cycle routes and a tram. Residents will be encouraged to use regular low-carbon transport or walk, rather than driving. Cars won’t be banned, Ho says. “We don’t want to create obstacles for people, but rather make it conducive to use alternatives.” Niche designs that have focused blindly on eco-technologies haven’t worked, he says. “This eco-city will be practical – it will work.”

To that end, the site has been chosen wisely in one of the nation’s new growth areas, and the city is setting itself up as a hub for green tech enterprise and creative industries – 600 companies have already set up shop, including an animation studio that is powered by its own energy station, incorporating solar PV walls as well as roof panels.

The site before (2007): The ‘rainbow bridge’ with the polluted salt-flats beyond

Water provision is one of the bigger challenges in this naturally arid area. Tap water will be drinkable and piped in, although the city is planning a possible desalination plant too. A lot of effort is being put into conserving water and recycling it for irrigation and toilet flushing. “The lakes and water pipes have been lined in clay or concrete to prevent salt water incursion, and all waste water is being sent to plant for anaerobic biodigestion,” says Ary de Koning of the EU-China River Basin Management Programme, who is advising the city on water issues. “The methane emitted in the digestion process is then used to produce energy,” he says.

The site was a dumping zone for toxic industrial waste and had to be completely cleaned up before building work could commence

It certainly feels like a more pleasant place to live than the traffic choked, polluted cities further inland, even at this incomplete stage. And unlike the majority of planned eco cities, this one will actually be finished and already has residents. But whether it lives up to its green credentials will depend in part on the type of society it nurtures.

Aerial view in mid-2011

Perhaps its most novel, yet important mission is social inclusivity. One fifth of the housing will be subsidised for low-wage workers and their families. “We want to avoid the idea that this is a haven for rich people or second-homers from Beijing,” says Ho. “Being green isn’t a luxury, it’s an affordable necessity. This city should be a practical, replicable, scalable model for elsewhere in China and the world.”

A version of this post first appeared here.

And a for those of you interested in the Anthropocene and related enviro/geographical issues, I’ll be speaking in fine company in north London on 21 May at SameAs, so do come along, it would be lovely to meet you!

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 9, 2012 1:37 pm

    I really enjoyed your article and definitely think that sustainability and distributed renewable energy can and should be applied to urban environment …..but through a free market not centralized planning.

    The beauty of renewable energy is that it can be used in rural areas in a way to productively sustain living and working in such areas; thus, minimizing the need for migration to urban areas and the environmental and social problems which result from increased human density.

    As such, this technology is not only environmentally beneficial, but economically and socially in that it empowers the individual to create the most fundamental resource that everyone on this planet needs, regardless of his age, location, status in society, profession, means to leisure and etc., and that is energy.

  2. June 2, 2012 7:52 am

    Do check out Green Prospects Asia’s series of articles on Tianjin Eco-City via this link: http://www.greenprospectsasia.com/content/contents-december-2011

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