The eco-city being planned by Arup outside Shanghai sounds like a publicity stunt. But it’s not. It’s an audacious attempt to change the world

Just over a year ago, a rather momentous announcement was made by Arup and the Shanghai Industrial Investment Corporation (SIIC). They told us that an hour’s ferry ride from downtown Shanghai, on Chongming island, in the mouth of the Yangtze river, a new city would be built. No big deal, you may think, in China new cities seem to spring up with alarming frequency.

But think again: this city is to become one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken. The Chinese businessmen and British engineers in charge envisage nothing less than a city, with millions of inhabitants, that does no appreciable damage to the earth’s environment. Called Dongtan, it will be an “eco-city” with a population

one-third the size of Manhattan’s. If all goes to plan, it will be the first self-sustaining city environment ever built and the prototype for future urban development in the most populous and arguably environmentally capricious country in the world.

When I first read about Dongtan, I regarded it as something of a publicity stunt by the Chinese government, which has taken a hammering over its green credentials. Later in the year, I visited the Cities of the Future exhibition at the Venice Biennale. Sandwiched between the eclectic and the outrageous was a display on the urbanisation of China. Dongtan was the centrepiece of the show: the facts presented and the plans that have gestated since the announcement are truly stunning and worthy of greater exposure.

As I walked around the Chinese pavilion, some amazing statistics jumped out at me. The World Bank estimates that about 1.4% of the Chinese population – 20 million people – moves from the country to the city every year. It takes a construction worker one month to earn what a farm worker earns in a year, so this is not surprising. If the trend continues over the next 20 years, at least 400 million people will have moved to the city.

There has been much griping at the hosepipe ban in parts of the UK but, to put this into perspective, China has 22% of the world’s population and only 8% of the world’s fresh water. At the moment, more than 50% of this valuable resource is used in agriculture, which is neither efficient nor sustainable.

The number of cars on Chinese roads has jumped from 15 million in 1991 to 68 million in 2001. This is an issue for the whole world. According to the World Resources Institute, by 2020 China is expected to become the planet’s largest consumer of oil, surpassing the USA. The World Bank says 16 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are in China and the country is the world’s second-largest emitter of climate-altering carbon after the US.

If all goes to plan, it will be the prototype for future
cities in arguably the most environmentally capricious country in the world

Against this backdrop, the environmental considerations key to the design and construction of Dongtan have been agreed with the SIIC and the powerful municipal authorities of Shanghai. The blueprint reads like an environmental group’s new year wish list. The plan is to make Dongtan energy self-sufficient, with all transport, residential and commercial buildings powered by wind, sun and other renewable sources. Cars will be entirely powered by electricity and hydrogen cells.

It is intended that Dongtan will also be self-sufficient in food, with Chongming’s farmers encouraged to use organic methods where possible. A key element of the plan is the need to safeguard Dongtan against flooding, erosion or over-exploitation. This will be a first in the development of a Chinese or indeed any world city.

The scale of the development is almost overwhelming. The deal signed a year ago proposed an initial “demonstrator” habitation for 50,000 people to be built by 2010. This is projected to rise to 500,000 by 2040, by which time the population of Chongming island will be many millions (it now stands at 2 million).

It will be like New York’s richest area of real estate stretched to three times its surface area. But it will not have the famous New York skyline. Dongtan was described to me by one exhibitor in Venice as a city to be lived in rather than looked at.

The ambition is even wider than that, however. Dongtan is intended as a prototype for fully integrated urban living, with light industrial and high technology employment, recreational and cultural facilities all integrated through design and a need to meet strict ecological requirements. This is not an afterthought, but a non-negotiable reality.

It also seems certain there will be more eco-cities in China. SIIC and Arup have already signed an accord to build more.

The Dongtan project has a long way to go, but on the mudflats of the Yangtze we could be about to witness the start of a global eco-revolution.