Eco-city not green, but offers hope
New city will provide an opportunity to test new technologies that can be used elsewhere
The world’s largest eco-city is not a green, carbon-free paradise where cars are banned from the streets.
Instead, as its first residents moved in this month, they found it is remarkably like most other Chinese cities: shrouded in smog and depressingly grey. But then the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-city, just over an hour from Beijing by train, is not supposed to be a whizzy vision of the future.
It is far more practical – a model for how Chinese cities could develop and solve some of the enormous problems facing them: permanent gridlock, a lack of water and ruinous electricity bills.
If a few of the changes adopted in Tianjin were rolled out nationally, the results could dramatically change China’s devastating impact on the environment.
“Our eco-city is an experiment, but it is also practical,” said Wang Meng, the deputy director of construction. “There are over 100 eco-cities in the world now, and they are all different. If you look at the one in Abu Dhabi, they spent a huge amount of money and bought a lot of technology. It is very grand, but is it useful?”
To date, almost all of the world’s eco-cities have been green follies, crippled by a central parado the more they enforce bothersome environ-mental rules, the less people want to live in them.
In Tianjin, the residents will not be expected to make any particular effort to be green.
“If they take the bus and sort their rubbish for recycling, they will be making their contribution,” said a spokesman for the city.
Their main contribution, in fact, is to be guinea pigs as planners experiment with the city around them. General Motors, for example, is using Tianjin to work out if electric driverless cars can function in a normal traffic system.
“Some eco-cities are too idealistic. In Tianjin they do not want to stop people from driving, but they do want to put into place policies that will help our vehicles to operate success-fully,” said Chris Borroni-Bird, the head of GM’s autonomous driving project in Detroit.
He said Tianjin would allow GM to road-test the next generation of vehicles: small urban cars that drove themselves but were safe in an environment full of unpredictable drivers and pedestrians.
Not only does China desperately need to solve its traffic problems, but it is one of the few countries that can throw significant resources at new ideas and build cities from scratch in order to experiment.
Other projects on trial include a low energy lighting system from Philips and garbage bins that empty themselves, sucking litter into an underground net-work, by a Swedish company called Envac. “We are not sure about that one,” said a spokes-man. “It requires people not to put the wrong sort of rubbish in the bins, or it could jam the system and prove expensive to maintain.”
By the time it is finished, in the next decade or so, 250 billion yuan ($40 billion) will have been spent by the Chinese and Singaporean governments, and a number of private companies, on transforming the site into a comfortable home for 350,000 people. Sixty families have already moved in.
Already, one new technology has been patented. “We had an industrial reservoir that was full of heavy metals,” said Wang. “It used to be so bad that people could not go near it because of the smell. Now we have cleaned it with a special process that we can send to other parts of the country.”
In a country where 70 per cent of the rivers are too polluted to provide drinking water, the technology is likely to be a money-spinner. Having ruined vast swaths of its countryside as it raced to wealth, China is now likely to spend billions on cleaning up the mess.
Elsewhere, government-owned buildings collect their own rain water for reuse, are powered by geothermal energy, have window shutters that move with the light, in order to keep buildings cool, and heating systems that use solar energy.
In a sign of how seriously the project is taken, eight out of the nine members of China’s politburo standing committee, which rules the country, have visited.
“The idea is to create something that can be adapted to other cities in China,” said Wang.