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WC Retro: Dongtan and Greening China

CHNA_UBR_05_04.jpg By Alex Steffen, posted on May 1, 2006.

The single biggest uncertainty on the path to a bright green future can be summed up in one word: China.

By most measurements, China's impact on the planet is now second only to that of the U.S., and China's coming on strong: China is expected to have more cars that America in fifteen years, has built the second largest freeway system in the world and is expected to overtake America as the leading climate culprit. Indeed, China's impact on the future has been dubbed by some the Great Wall of Unknowns.

China has accomplished a miracle of economic development, raising hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and forging itself into an industrial powerhouse in just a few decades. But that development has extracted a terrible environmental cost, with China rapidly becoming the most polluted nation on the planet. Indeed, pollution, environmental degredation and resource depletion are so severe in China that a leading government official there warned that unless China can find a more sustainable path, "the miracle will end soon."

China has bold plans for confronting this crisis: green buildings, green cars, wind power, nanotechnology, mobile technologies, solar, even a green (or green-ish Olympics and new models of measuring economic growth to account for environmental costs. Whether these responses will actually take hold in an authoritarian and corrupt political culture is a different matter, of course, but a Green China may yet astound us all.

Since so much depends on building better cities, one of the more promising signs (though problems are still rife) is the rise of new green urban developments in Shanghai, Beijing, and Huangbaiyu. Our favorite is the Dongtan project on an island near Shanghai, billed as the world's first Eco-City, which will eventually house half a million people in green buildings powered by renewable energy. Dongtan is absolutely the best current model for bright green Chinese city planning.

We've written about Dongtan a lot, but the latest edition of the BBC program Costing the Earth has a great show which nicely tells the story. As architect Alejandro Gutierrez says,

"All over China now, peasant farmers are becoming urban citizens, working in factories, doing urban service jobs and so on. So China has initiated this extraordinary process of urbanization. They're expecting to build about 400 cities the size of Bristol in the next 20 years. Urbanization is becoming the dominant factor in what is happening in China and how China, ultimately, will affect the rest of the world"

I can't recommend Miriam O'Reilly's work on this show highly enough. On projects like Dongtan hinge the fate of our planet.

(photo by Worldchanging board member Ed Burtynsky, titled City Overview From Top of Military Hospital, Shanghai, 2004)

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