THE VIEW FROM THE EDGE — Shanghai’s eco-city is creating a precedent that developments like the Thames Gateway ignore at their peril

Dongtan is the eco-city being planned and implemented by Arup in the Yangtze delta. Once a new river crossing has been built in 2009 it will be only a 45-minute commute away from the centre of the mega-city of Shanghai. In comparison with Shanghai’s 16 million and the wider delta’s 160 million, the planned population of Dongtan will only be 80,000 residents – but will its greatest environmental impact be to show the planners of other communities how to follow in its environmental footprints?

How to manage cities is one of the major issues facing us. Currently 50% of the world’s population live in cities and by 2035 that is predicted to rise to 80%. Cities are consuming enormous resources and producing commensurate quantities of waste.

If we can crack the problem of cities we will be most of the way to resolving many other global problems. But rapid acceleration looks like being the only viable way forward to cope with the pace of change. To achieve this, we need political leadership that is able to take action to an extent not yet envisaged in the West. The project and context of Dongtan throws into sharp relief this dual commitment to lead and force change.

China faces the shift of a rurally based population into the cities on an almost unimaginable scale. It must create 100 million jobs and is on track to build 20 cities a year.

China reached its current borders only in 1950 after relentless expansion from the small original Han state. The growth left environmental degradation. China now has no more available productive land and few natural resources. It faces an environmental catastrophe if it cannot find another way of satisfying its nation’s ambition for growth.

Arup’s approach to the creation of new cities in China has been to work with its clients in addressing bioregional issues. The strategy combines Arup’s formidable technical knowledge with an embrace of local culture. Their view is that Dongtan is not a “thing”, but a “process” – one that is just as applicable to the Thames Gateway as it is to the Yangtze delta.

Dongtan city will have zero carbon emissions for both transport and buildings, low waste and low water needs
Dongtan city will have zero carbon emissions for both transport and buildings, low waste and low water needs

If we can crack the problem of cities it will go a long way towards resolving many global problems

The environmental targets in Dongtan are staggering from a UK perspective. They have zero carbon emissions for both transport and buildings, low-level water requirements, low waste and other pollution, and an overall eco-footprint of 2.6 global hectares per person compared to 5.8 gh/person for a more conventional approach and 7.5 gh/person for the rest of Shanghai.

The Edge invited Arup’s Alejandro Gutierrez and Peter Head to debate the lessons of Dongtan with landscape architect John Hopkins of LDA Design, and China specialist Isabel Hilton of the BBC.

Close parallels were drawn with the Thames Gateway project. Here, too, there is a need to achieve real engagement with communities rather than foisting unwelcome development on them. There was broad agreement that the project leaders must act in a vigorous and determined way to deal with the multiple challenges of development, increasing housing provision and climate change. But there was also a consensus that the development will not be successful if it employs a “Victorian” big engineering approach, rather than one that emerges from working locally and directly with the tribes of the Thames.

The example of China shows that eco-cities are on the edge of realisation. Cities such as Shanghai are showing the determination to find compelling solutions to their growth agendas, and be leaders in sustainable living.

In the UK we are barely dipping our toes into building for a different world. Is this a lack of political will? Is it due to an industry that finds it hard to innovate? Can we blame the market for its innate conservatism?

Clearly, Arup and many other consultants in China have proved the solutions are there. But will a change in the UK’s approach happen before it is too late to make a difference?

The Edge is a think tank set up to address social and political issues in the built environment. Simon Foxell is a member of The Edge and principal of The Architects Practice