Everything else about China (official corruption, repression of fundamental human rights and freedoms, bloody-minded selfishness in international affairs) aside, it’s often an interesting laboratory for massive-scale technological and social experiments.
Consider the planned city of Dongtan, written about in the March Architectural Record. China’s government has decreed that a zero-carbon-emissions city will be built near Shanghai, with the intention of eventually housing 500,000 people in a city powered by renewable energy; where waste is aggressively recycled and composted; where wastewater is treated and used for hydroponic farms that feed the inhabitants; where vehicles all run on batteries or hydrogen.
Dongtan only exists on paper, but China intends to have a prototype village available for public display by the 2010 Shanghai Expo. Echoes of Montreal’s Habitat ’67, a model community-of-the-future built to show off at Expo ’67, a civic and national coming-out party before Canada’s first Olympics a few years later. The parallel’s not perfect (Beijing’s Olympics are in 2008), but it’s strong.
The drawings of Dongtan sure do look nice, and doubtless the Chinese and the London firm overseeing the project will learn a lot about large-scale green development, which they will perhaps share with the rest of us. Dongtan is a welcome indication that China doesn’t think that building a hundred coal plants a month is a permanently sustainable industrial strategy. Less delightfully, it’s an important reminder that China doesn’t just do cheap manufacturing anymore — it’s gaining ground in design and engineering, too, and if its government ever decides to be the world’s supplier of cut-rate solar panels and fuel cells and earth-friendly home water-filtration systems, that’s one more industry in which the West is ill-prepared to compete.
The most discouraging element, however, is that China can’t quite think of any really productive commercial operations to plant in Dongtan. From the Architectural Record:
There are, of course, questions about what kind of sustainable industries will provide jobs for Dongtan residents. City officials and their consultants anticipate jobs in education, including an Institute for Sustainable Cities. They expect to attract companies pursuing new technologies, food research and production, and health care. Of course, ecotourism will become a significant industry.
Britain’s Independent recently reported:
The project won’t be cheap. The initial phase will cost around £1.5bn, but the figures are expected to rise into the double-digit billions. But it’s an optimistic signal from China that the world’s factory is serious about doing something on global warming and sustainability.
And worst of all, while the island on which Dongtan is to be built is three-quarters the size of Manhattan, its population at build-out will only be about one-third of Manhattan’s 1.5 million or so. Not everyone in China could live this way, even theoretically.
So we’re mostly talking about a sort of Chinese version of Epcot Centre, the urbanological equivalent of a concept car or a campus, self-sustaining environmentally but not economically. Only in a controlled economy like China’s would such a thing be possible even as an experiment.