Dongtan: Eco-City or Greenwashing?

Labelled as the world’s first sustainable city, the Dongtan Eco-city project in China is meant to be sustainable not only environmentally, but also socially, economically and culturally. It is the ambition of the Chinese government and UK engineering and construction giant Arup.

So what is this visionary eco-city supposed to look like?

First of all, you should know that Dongtan is situated on the island of Chongming, 15km north of Shangai.
The future eco-city is located on the third largest island in China at the mouth of the Yangtze River. The 86 km² site is adjacent to a wetland of global importance. The urban area should occupy only one third of the site, with the remaining land retained for agriculture and used to create a buffer zone of ‘managed’ wetland between the city and the ‘natural’ wetland.

Dongtan was presented at the United Nations World Urban Forum by China as an example of an eco-city, and is the first of up to four such cities to be designed and built in China by Arup. The cities are planned to be ecologically friendly, with zero-greenhouse-emission transit and complete self-sufficiency in water and energy, together with the use of zero energy building principles.

According to the constructor, the city will produce its own energy from wind, solar, bio-fuel and recycled city waste. Clean technologies such as hydrogen fuel cells should power public transport. A network of cycle and footpaths are designed to help the city achieve close to zero vehicle emissions.

The Dongtan Eco-city project should be used by the Chinese government as a template for future urban sustainable planning.

The first demonstrator phase of Dongtan aims to be completed by 2010, in time for the World Expo in Shanghai, and will accommodate a population of up to 50,000. Later phases of development should see the city grow to hold a population of around 80,000 by 2020 and up to 500,000 by 2040.

Dongtan is planned so that citizens live near their workplace, while efficient clean public transportation makes every area accessible. Energy will be generated through a combination of heat and power systems linked to the use of renewables and buildings will have photovoltaic solar panel cells and small wind turbines. Additionally, community waste management recycling will generate clean energy from organic waste. Traditional motorbikes will be forbidden, replaced by electric scooters or bicycles. A Dongtan inhabitant will have an ecological footprint of about two hectares, three times less than an inhabitant of Shanghai.

How beautiful is that? Too beautiful, maybe? Aligning economic performance with sustainability has always been a daunting task for both governments and companies – is the Dongtan initiative about to change that? We all agree, sustainability is no longer a nice to have feature; more, it has to be the main driver behind any urban development program.

The reaction to Dongtan has been mixed: from enthousiastic (like the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, that praised Dongtan as pioneering work leading to a more sustainable future, or other politicians, including Gordon Brown and Tony Blair) to very skeptical due to delays and shortcomings in the project’s execution.

Besides, Arup recently received the Greenwash award from the Ethical Corporation Magazine for their long announced, but never started, ‘eco-city’ in Dongtan. Think is good, I agree, but wouldn’t acting be a little better? The non-existent eco-city has also provided Arup with several other connections with the Chinese government, that have awarded the firm other projects, from airports to office blocks and skyscrapers. Very ‘green’…

And what about the protection of the wetland ecosystem? Or the local farmers, that fear their land will be taken away?

I think the project is imaginative and ambitious. Dongtan is just a small city, but it can be a good model for Shanghai, the rest of China and even the whole world, but what is sure is that it will take a long time to develop into a self-sustainable city.