Have you heard of Bedzed, the environmentally-friendly housing development near London? Well, you can already forget about zero-emission cars or zero-emission buildings. You can even forget about Bedzed. Since 2005 a British engineering firm has been working on a project to develop Dongtan as the world’s first eco-city on Chongmin Island, off Shanghai. That’s actually 2 years before the UK unveiled its first zero emission home.
In theory, Dongtan will produce its own energy from wind, solar, bio-fuel and recycled city waste. Clean technologies such as hydrogen fuel cells will power public transport. A network of cycle and footpaths will help the city achieve close to zero vehicle emissions while farmland within the Dongtan site will use organic farming methods to grow food.
Surprised? You shouldn’t. China may already have overtaken America in greenhouse gases emission. The government has taken courageous measures to tackle the issue by passing an ambitious set of environmentally-friendly policies (e.g., reducing new building’s energy consumption by 50%). It is also betting on the innovation spur generated by domestic and foreign companies joining the green bandwagon.
The project has nonetheless caused controversy. Nicknamed eco-Potemkin city, its detractors question whether Dongtan will be an eco-city with heart and soul and point out that it is only a showcase project, distracting from the much larger environmental issues China fails to address.
That’s missing the point. For sure, the final result won’t be exactly as planned: like any urban development project, people will twist the design and adapt it to their daily realities and yes, China’s massive environmental problems won’t go away. But even if Dongtan lives up only to half its expectations, it will still send a powerful signal to developers and policy-makers in both developing and developed economies to think twice about discarding utopian urban projects from the outset.