Dongtan, Eco-cities and China’s sustainable urban development

16 May

The unparalleled rate of urbanization that has taken place in China since the late 1970s has led to a focus on the need for sustainable urban and development. The percentage of the population residing in urban areas has risen from 18% in 1978 to 38% in 2001 (China Statistical Bureau, 2002), and by 2005 had already increased to 40.5% (United Nations, 2006). Another factor that makes this a pressing concern for China is the fact it is home to 16 of the top 20 polluted cities across the globe (Hald 2009). Furthermore, a recent New York Times (2013) article reported that approximately 1.2million premature deaths in China were linked to air pollution. Fundamental changes are now being introduced to city planning to try and incorporate sustainability (Cheng and Hu, 2009).

The challenge of how to deal with China’s diverse population and physical restricting while still providing sustainable liveable cities is a pressing matter for Chinese authorities. One of the main ways the authorities are attempting to tackle the issues surrounding sustainable urban growth is through the notion of eco-cities (Hald, 2009). An eco-city is the planned construction of a city that takes into account the ecological requirements as well as the social and economic requirements of an urban landscape (Hald, 2009). They are and combat the issues surrounding the growth of cities and introduce a notion of sustainable development head on. The rapid growth of cities can result in numerous problems including unemployment, strain on urban infrastructure such as water, electricity and transport, and over-crowding and a lack of housing (Cities Alliance, 2007). Furthermore, poverty, deprivation and increasing polarisation are key issues facing China’s authorities, brought about by rapid urbanization.

The eco-city of Dongtan was seen as a paradigm for Chinese sustainable development. Dongtan is situated in the East of Chongming Island, near Shanghai. In 2005 the project was taken on by Arup, an international engineering and design company. In order to be successful as a city, Arup realised that Dongtan had to be commercially sustainable as well as ecologically sustainable to try minimise commuting times and distances (Castle, 2008). Through a number of meeting carried out in 2005, Arup realised the main aims of the project: the city was to run off renewable energy sources, water was to be recycled and reused, preserve the wetlands surrounding the area by creating a buffer-zone surrounding the city, and ban all fossil-fuel powered vehicles to try and protect the air quality (Castle, 2006). Additionally, in order to realise this last point, all housing was to be constructed within a seven minute walk of a public transport service. The plan was to try and construct a city that was linked by a vast array of bicycle paths, pedestrian routes and public transport (Hald, 2009). For visitors driving into the city, there would be parking facilities on the outskirts of the city and then public transport provided from there.

Dongtan is a project that received huge amounts of media attention due to its pioneering approach to sustainable development (Hald, 2009). If Dongtan is to prove successful as a zero-carbon emissions sustainable city then it could be used as an archetype for sustainable development both in China and across the globe (Cheng and Hu, 2009). Although the plans all seem very impressive, Dongtan has yet to be constructed. Many people are sceptical it will ever be completed and cite the fact it is simply too ambitious a project to take on. Others cite tension between the constructors – Arup – and local authorities in Shanghai for the cities slow progress. Either way it seems a shame this extravagant and innovative approach to combatting pollution and sustainable urban development has yet to be finished. Only once its completed can we truly see how successful it is and whether it can be used as a prototype for other cities.

The issue with eco-cities like Dongtan is that there are still questions as to whether they actually address the problems surrounding sustainable urban development. By building an eco-city such as Dongtan, yes it provides a sustainable approach for that city, but does it really help the issues of over-urbanization and huge pollution facing the rest of China. Eco-cities are seen as a way of reducing threats to the natural environment while at the same time providing a liveable urban environment (Alusi et al, 2011). The problem is that eco-cities do little to address the problems facing all the other cities in China and as such offer little as a model for sustainable development. In order to combat the problems facing existing Chinese cities not a model needs to be developed that can shift these pre-existing cities into a way of operating in a more sustainable manner. Simply constructing new eco-cities fails to address the real problems.

China Statistical Bureau. 2002. Statistical Yearbook of China 2002.
United Nations Population Division. 2006. World Urbanization Prospects
2005, New York.
Cities Alliance, The. 2007. Livable Cities – The Benefits of Urban Environmental
Planning. Washington D.C.: The Cities Alliance.
Castle, H. (2008). Dongtan, China’s Flagship Eco‐City: An Interview with Peter Head of Arup. Architectural Design, 78(5), 64-69.

Cheng, H., & Hu, Y. (2010). Planning for sustainability in China’s urban development: Status and challenges for Dongtan eco-city project. Journal of Environmental Monitoring, 12(1), 119-126.

Alusi, A., Eccles, R., Edmondson, A., & Zuzul, T. (2011). Sustainable Cities: Oxymoron or the Shape of the Future?. Harvard Business School Organizational Behavior Unit Working Paper, (11-062), 11-062.

Hald, M. (2009). Sustainable Urban Development and the Chinese Eco-City: Concepts, Strategies, Policies and Assessments. Fridtjob Nansen Institute.


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