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An Article about Eco-cities

How do we learn to stop building new eco-cities, and love our old cities?

It is clear to the world that China has experienced a phenomenal growth both in terms of its urbanization and wealth over a very short period of time in recent history. It is generally predicated that by 2025, more than 350 millions people will migrate into cities, and by 2030, more than 1 billion people will be living in cities.

These data leads to an easy and seemingly undisputable conclusion – we need more cities. And the fact is that between 1975 and 2000, China had indeed created 457 new cities. Furthermore, in the first decade of 21st century, there is a new twist added to this city-making in China, the “Eco-City”. The name suggested it is a perfect fit for the current Chinese government agenda of ever-increasing GDP building, and environmental movement of ecology or sustainability.

Building a new city usually initiates a chain of industries and transaction to be involved, starting from the land sale, road construction, power and water infrastructure, waste processing, and not to mention, countless square meters of space to be built and to be sold. All of these easily add up to a great amount of number to the Gross Domestic Product, or GDP to help the local government to fulfill the demand from the central government. And often these new cities are started by a local leader, and demanded to be finished within his/her time in power, usually in 5 years of time. Un-imaginable but often true.

These “eco-cities” are marketed with the latest technologies employed, and more often and most famous ones always chose the site of an un-touched beautiful natural resource, and often, far away from metropolitan areas with no public transportation linkage. Of course, that is why these sites are still beautiful, unspoiled by the recent decades of urbanization. These are the sites, where you will find some of the best natural habitat of birds, land creatures, and wetland. The beauty of its natural “ecology” is transferred and marketed under the name of these ‘eco-cities”.

All of these sound just too perfect on the surface – building up the wealth of the money, and healthy living environment….and to the architects and the builders, never-ending business opportunities. But wait a minute, let’s pause for a second from the happy-for-all scenario, and think outside box and a little further down the road for a moment.

Let’s look at a few other things related to the topic and not exactly very obvious to many right away.

First of all, let’s look at what is happening to our existing cities?
Nearly every city has experienced the Beijing-style expansion, like a large pan-cake spreading outward to the previous countryside on the perimeter. Its old city core on the other hand, went through a process of total demolition, and substitution of profitable real estate development, only until recent years, demolition is less easy. Whatever happened to the inside or outside of the existing cities, one common fact is the lack of public facilities. The number of parks, public libraries basically stayed the same as in the past, the public playground for children still doesn’t exist. Older apartment is crumpled and lack of any public maintenance, and the hutong I ride my bike through everyday, still doesn’t have any streetlight. Fixing these problems up, and making it a better place to live can be hugely expensive. And they do not generate any immediate economical outcome or political achievement; therefore it is understandable they are not the top priority of any local government. I recently took my daughter to visit the Natural History Museum of Beijing, and to my great disappointment, it wasn’t much better than what I remembered from my own first visit in 1980. What remains the same is that the building still doesn’t have a pubic elevator, so I have to carry my daughter in the stroller up the stairs, but what has changed is its ticket price, more expensive than its counterpart in New York City. This real-life story speaks clearly of how we have neglected the things that doesn’t generate any immediate outcome economically or politically.

We all know old cities are difficult and costly to re-invigorate, but do we all know these new eco-cities one day will also turn old, and by then, we will have more old cities to fix-up and upgrade. Then what? Do we even have any more land left to building more?

Secondly, let’s try to understand what is happening to our nature friends?
On my last visit to one of the most famous new eco-city, Caofeidian International Eco-city, east of Beijing on the coast of East China Sea, I observed with first hand, the catastrophe happened during the early stage of the city-building. Within the short one year of time, an entire area of what was once the beautiful and natural coastal-wetland in north China is now completely destroyed by land-fill. It used to be the home of thousands of wild species of birds, ocean creatures and plants. now all wiped out, and replaced by miles of mud piled up, and ready to be filled up with irrelevant designs by architects from everywhere onto this no-man’s land in the middle of nowhere.

Similar thing is happening to another famous eco-city co-developed by Chinese and Singaporean government – Sino-Singaporean Eco-city near the port of Tianjin. Meanwhile, wild life is temporarily saved at the site of a even more famous and internationally published award winning project, Dong-tan Eco-city near Shanghai, which was stopped due to funding issues. In this project the famed engineering firm ARUP has dreamed up a vision of luxury new town with the latest technology and yachts in front of the wealthy Chinese homes, to replace the beautiful wild-bird reserve. But their life may not last long, unless this project is officially stopped.

And lastly, how did our neighbor countries deal with the similar problems.
One of reason for the expansion of cities is the growth of Chinese population, and the illusion of this population crisis easily leads to the decision of building more buildings and more cities. But lets look at the population density of our neighbors, and the facts argue for different point of views . South Korea has 486 people per square kilometer. Japan has 336, and China has only 139.
On the city level, Beijing has 1300 people per square kilometer, Tokyo has 5800, Hong Kong has 6500, and Seoul has an amazingly dense population of 17,000 per square kilometer in the city.

These numbers tell a very simple story. There are other ways to accommodate an increasing urban population than building more buildings and taking up more land. It is also no secret that in Chinese cities, a large percentage of new constructed offices and apartment is unoccupied, and most of the new apartments are oversized. Does this ample of domestic space really increase our happiness as a collective whole in the society? Does the people who really need an improvement of their living conditions ever have the chance to move into these fancy apartments? What kind of impact will happen to our children to grow up in an anti-social and anti-nature society? We no longer dare to let them walk to school safely, or ride the bicycles on the street. They do not get to see any animals except their pets or in the zoo. I miss the time in India where monkeys clime up the walls of the apartment buildings, and even on the roof top of Le Corbusier’s Secretariat Building in Chandigarh.

Hong Kong, a close neighbor, posts a great example of balancing the nature and city, with strictly controlled urban development, and nature conservation. The result is densely packed and socially rich urban environment and miles of unspoiled natural reserves of mountains and islands for people to roam on holidays and weekend.

With all these above observation and comparisons, it is time to send an urgent alarm to the policy makers. Let’s stop eco-cities, and make our old cities ecological for a true sustainable future, before it is all too late.

I would like to present a couple of the recent speculative projects from OPEN Architecture, a research and design studio I lead with Huang Wenjing. These projects all experimented in different ways to establish a Social-natural system in the Chinese urban context. They help to make the city once again a beautiful place to live.

The Red-line Park is a design proposition to address two of the current urban phenomena in china, gated community wall everywhere and scarcity of urban parks. What we proposed is a grass-root operation instructed by a open-source design strategy to make linear and modular park unit from recycled and waste materials, and to replace the current gated community fence into linear parks,
thus from gated fence everywhere to park everywhere. This project was presented at the 2009 Hong Kong – Shenzhen Architecture Biennale with a 32 meters long installation, built by a team of workers instructed by the sketches from OPEN. Once successfully implemented, this project will help to resolve the urban public space issue with minimal involvement of public funding, and requires no land acquisition. Its beauty is the collective creativity of the real public.

The 2nd Ring 2049 is an ambitious project aimed to transform the current dysfunctional urban freeway of Beijing, the 2nd Ring, into a 32-kilometers long cultural park. 2nd Ring, one of the first urban ring roads in china, was built on top of the site of historical city wall which was torn down in the 1950s; at the time of its completion in early 1980s, the urban area of Beijing still concentrated mostly inside the 2nd ring road. This free-way once circling around the urban center now becomes the real center of the city, as the urban center expanded over the past decades. It is a center in the shape of a loop filled up with traffic jam and pollution around the clock. Our proposal relocates the motor traffic to the perimeter of the ring-road, and adds more public transportation and bike/bus/subway exchange to its 32 intersections, these not only improves its transportation, but also frees up the precious urban land to inject a system of public facilities to inhabit the previous structures of the undulating freeway. Along the side of the 32 kilometers long space, nature will be once again brought back to the center of the city. This once the notorious torture-zone will be transformed to a place of Joy, a reclaimed zone to accommodate what is missing from our urban and public life. This will put Beijing truly on the world map and urban history, more than any other government attempt to building more CBD and more skyscrapers.

Postscript:

Until recently, voices of suspicion on Eco-city start to surface on the web and over articles published on some mainstream western media. The suspicion started on the observation that many of these eco-cities didn’t go well. Many of them are stopped in the middle of the construction due to shortage of funding. It is time to build up a momentum of public awareness and voices to re-exam the recent history of Chinese eco-cities, and to reflect on our strategies to make our old cities more ecological and more livable.