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China's Second Eco-City Set to Soar


China's much-hyped 'zero-emission' city of Dongtan [see 'Greening the Dragon'] may remain stuck firmly on the drawing board, but hopes are high for another eco-metropolis at Tianjin, on the Pacific coast 150km from Beijing. Tianjin Eco-City, a $607 million joint Sino-Singaporean project, is just over two years into development, with completion due in 2018 at the earliest.

Built on 30 km2 of reclaimed wetlands, Tianjin will feature solar and geothermal energy, use waste heat from a nearby power plant for district heating, and have 50% of its water needs met through recycled or desalinated water – taking pressure off the area's shrinking water table. Its buildings will conform to "strict green standards", though as yet there isn't a lot of detail as to exactly what that will mean in practice. The city will eventually be home to 350,000 residents, with wetlands features preserved and greened with plentiful trees and parks.

So far, so impressive. Peer closely at other goals, though, and some look rather unimpressive: "all water from taps to be potable" should surely be taken as read, while meeting a paltry 15% of the city's energy needs from renewables by 2020 is hardly a stretch target when you're starting from scratch. But then remember that this is China, where eco-metropolises are a very new idea indeed. In a country whose capital has six ring roads (and counting), Tianjin's target to have 9 in 10 journeys made by bike, foot or public transport, thanks in part to a planned rapid light transit railway, is verging on the courageous.

Intriguingly, it includes a carbon target – albeit expressed cannily in relative economic terms, rather than an absolute or per capita goal – as follows: the carbon emission "per unit GDP should not exceed 150 tonnes per US$1 million". Measuring this could be a complex task, to say the least.

But perhaps the greatest innovations are social, not environmental. In a country where the rich-poor divide is a growing issue, the eco-city's planners have put down some brave markers. A total of 20% of residential units are set aside for public housing, situated in amongst the rest, so that rich and poor rub shoulders in common community malls and parks. Again, this is a trend away from the 'rich ghettos' springing up elsewhere in the country, summed up by the goal that the city will have "100% barrier-free access" – no gated communities, in other words.

While Dongtan foundered on a lack of clear political support, Tianjin is backed by some local heavyweights. Its steering group includes Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng and China's Vice Premier Wang Qishan.

Madeleine Sturrock, Managing Director of PanCathay Consulting, has watched the scheme take shape. "What's good about the Eco-City is that they have taken time to formulate their plan. In the two years I've been visiting, I've seen ideas evolve with intelligent ways of living, working and leisure built into the plan."

By Fiona King and Martin Wright at Green Futures

This article originally appeared in Green Futures, the magazine of independent sustainability experts Forum for the Future.

Images courtesy of Alicia Crain and the city of Tianjin on flickr