China is becoming a world leader in developing large scale construction projects, including building whole cities from zero. Chinese government expects that in the next 20 years around 400 million people will move from the countryside to urban settlements. One of the latest developments was presented during the last Stockholm Water Week, the new Caofeidian eco-city located in Tangshan Region. Located 200km south of Beijing, this new city will be home for almost 1 million people when complete.
This new eco-city is being developed by a team of urban planners, architects, engineers and technical consultants from Swedish company Sweco. The development is followed by the intention letter signed between Chinese authorities and Swedish Prime Minister, Fredrik Reinfelt, during his visit to China. The assignment was structured that Swedish environmental technology companies shall be given good opportunities to participate in designing and construction of eco-cities.
Sweden is often seen as a model of environmental solutions. Cases as Hammarby Sjöstad in Stockholm and Western Harbor in Malmö are often referred as successful samples within the country. Based on these experiences, Sweco are now applying sustainability principles in city plan to be used in China.
The new Caofeidian eco-city is the largest commission so far by Sweco and it will represent the state of art of eco communities. In an area where previously contained fish ponds, salt production plants, oil pumps, an entire new community is emerging. It is expected to be completed in 2020, with development already ongoing. During the presentation on Stockholm Water Week, Sweco’s representatives stated that the project faces some challenges, such as: how to protect the new city against flooding, possible sea level rise and hurricanes; how to create an attractive water front; how to implement an appropriate water cycle management for Chinese reality; how to implement urban agriculture within; and so on. However the main challenge discussed if the know-how transfer from Sweden to China leads to introducing the “Swedish” quality of life in China.
“Sustainability transfer” looks great on paper, but how will it look in practice comparing to actual and previous developments in China? China has been building cities from zero in the last 20 years, aiming to avoid the same urbanization issues that Latin American and African cities faced in the past. Millions of people moved to cities without the necessary infrastructure to accommodate them, creating huge informal settlements without access to water, energy, and decent houses (e.g favela in Brazil). Thus China builds the city first, the inhabitants move there later. This strategy is very risky, knowing that the country already has several “ghost” cities still waiting for their citizens, accumulating dust and getting spoiled.
A senior urban planner from World Bank stated that the country is losing the chance to grow in a true sustainable way, wasting a lot of money and energy in technologies that in the future will require huge modifications. Sustainable cities do not necessarily need to be built from zero. There are plenty of alternative options to accommodate new citizens and move toward sustainability at the same time. For example, cities can invest their efforts in renovating existing empty building within the urban industrial infrastructure, by transforming old factories in flats, by renovating heating and insulating on old buildings, by planning the grown in units and of course by working more with social learning and awareness building.
The expert from World Bank highlighted growing number of good practices being introduced in the country. However there is still a lot of space to make China’s cities development coherent with sustainability ideas.
Oksana Udovyk, United Nations Asking Congress special reporter, Sweden
Fabio Nienov, Architect and Urban Planner
*** First published on UNCFA on September 2012.