A few years ago, I read about an experimental city in China called DongTan. The idea of Dongtan was that it was designed, from the ground up, to be a model for future sustainable urban design. Twenty other towns in China were planned around the same model. How exciting. A country often mentioned for building huge numbers of coal-fired power stations or for having massive and growing CO2 emissions was actually doing something groundbreaking and necessary for first world and third world sustainable development.
In 2005, The Shanghai Industrial Investment Company hired British architecture and engineering company Arup to design the self-sufficient, energy-efficient city that used 100% renewable energy. Dongtan was to eventually house 500,000 Chinese people from rural areas in a new development on Chongming Island, near Shanghai, in the Yangtze River Delta. Conventional cars were to be banned and the city was to have “zero footprint”.
Since then, Dongtan has spectacularly failed, seemingly as a result of Chinese politics and the project seems to have ground to a halt.
Austin Williams, director of the Future Cities Project, writes “Dongtan, the city that was intended to be the ‘model for how to build sustainable cities worldwide’ should still provide a lesson for us all. Blindly praising its environmental credentials without recognising its squat, low-rise, parochial, carbon-fetishising, architecturally unappealing, unworkable urban eco-clichés, is a recipe for future disasters.”
Peter Head, project leader from Arup told Fred Pierce in his article for the Guardian “China does everything by the rules handed down from the top. There is a rule for everything. The width of roads, everything. That is how they have developed so fast, by being totally prescriptive. We wanted to change the rules in Dongtan, to do everything different. But when it comes to it, China cannot deliver that.”
Fred Pierce says “We all wasted our time; burned carbon flying to Shanghai to relay a false prospectus to the world. If I sound bitter, I am. This time, I was a personal victim of greenwash.”
Like me, many believed the hype and hoped for a new sustainable city blueprint.
Perhaps the United Arab Emirates can succeed where China has failed. In Abu Dhabi, another sustainable City is being developed. Masdar City has also been designed by a large British consultancy – Foster and Partners – and this time, phase one of construction is already complete.
In Masdar, buildings are no more than five stories high and streets are narrow so that buildings shade each other. Solar generators are sited on rooftops and solar canopies provide more shade. The largest solar farm in the Middle East has already been built to provide 100% renewable energy and to offset the fossil fuels used for construction. Using the power of the sun in a place where daytime temperatures reach 50°C does seem to make sense. Transport is either on foot or by driverless pod cars, guided by magnetic sensors to wherever you request. A core of buildings have been constructed and the podcars (called Personal Rapid Transit) are functional.
Things look good for Masdar – let’s hope that this new project can succeed where Dongtan has obviously failed and provide us with a blueprint, or at least inspiration, for urban planning in the coming decades.
Also: Check out the Venus Project concept for a sustainable city from Jacque Fresco.