Jean-Pierre Langellier and Brice Pedroletti
Imagine it is 2010. The place is Dongtan, the world's first purpose-built eco-city. It stands in the middle of the marshes at the eastern tip of Chongming, China's third-largest island, at the mouth of the Yangtse river.
None of the buildings is more than eight storeys high. Turf and vegetation cover the roofs, a natural form of insulation that also recycles waste water. The town has six times more space for pedestrians than Copenhagen, one of Europe's airiest capitals. Pollution-free buses, powered by fuel cells, run between neighbourhoods. An intranet service forecasts travel times and connects people who want to share a car. Traditional motorbikes are forbidden, replaced by electric scooters or bicycles. The roads are laid out so that walking or cycling to work is quicker than driving.
(This artist's rendering shows what Dongtan Eco City will look like in the future. In planning stages, first phase to be completed in 2010 Developed by the Shanghai Industrial investment Corp., Dongtan Eco City, roughly the size of Manhattan, will be the world's first fully sustainable cosmopolis when completed in 2040. Like Manhattan, it's situated on an island -- the third-largest in China. Located on the Yangtze River, Dongtan is within close proximity of the bustle of Shanghai. Photo: Beijing Evening News/File)
Up to 80% of solid waste is recycled. Organic waste is burned in an incinerator, catering for part of the town's electricity requirements. Other burners consume rice husks, which produce a lot of heat and are plentiful in China. On the outskirts giant windmills, driven by the sea breeze, produce electricity too. Each building is fitted with photovoltaic panels and its own, smaller windmill.
Dongtan stands on the shores of a canal, in the middle of a designated nature reserve with outstanding biodiversity, and is one of the main attractions for visitors to the international Expo in Shanghai. The journey to the metropolis, via a huge bridge and tunnel complex, takes only 45 minutes.
Returning to the present day, the Dongtan project is an attempt to solve an increasingly pressing problem. China has so far given priority to the quantity of construction, but now it must focus on quality. This means a radical change in town planning strategy and a switch to sustainable development, even though the country is in the grip of one of the most spectacular migratory movements in the history of mankind. Between now and 2020 China needs to build 400 new towns - nearly 30 a year - to accommodate more than 300 million people from the countryside. Hence the decision to build a model city on Chongming Island.
The contract for the project was awarded to the Shanghai Industrial Investment Corporation (SIIC) seven years ago. It appointed Arup, a British-based engineering consultancy, to design Dongtan. Arup, which has been working in China for the past 20 years, contributed to the construction of amenities for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. To demonstrate the political significance of the Dongtan scheme, the contract was signed in November at 10 Downing Street in the presence of the British prime minister, Tony Blair, and the visiting Chinese president, Hu Jintao. The Chinese authorities have commissioned two other eco-cities.
It is part of a plan to develop thousands of square kilometres of the mouth of the Yangtse, which includes building a deep-sea harbour for Shanghai 30km out in the East China Sea. This is the biggest single development anywhere in the world.
At present about half a million people live in the district of Chongming, travelling to the outskirts of Shanghai on speedboats and ferries. They occupy two small towns and a myriad of little villages, as yet spared by the building frenzy of neighbouring districts. A motorway, which is often deserted, already crosses the island. Dongtan, which will be built nearby, will have a population of 50,000 to 80,000 by 2010, rising to 500,000 by 2040.
"In 20 years," says Ma Chengliang, the manager of SIIC Dongtan, "the Chinese economy has grown so fast that we are already suffering energy shortages. To maintain our current growth rate, we must opt for sustainable development. In Dongtan we want to demonstrate what can be done in terms of renewable energy, clean transport systems and sustainable lifestyles. The model was designed so that it could be extended to the rest of Chongming, serving as a prototype for the whole country."
Standing on the site of the new town, Alejandro Gutierrez, Arup's senior architect, explains: "Dongtan will be compact, inspired by traditional Chinese towns in which water plays an important part. Social factors are essential. It will have a diverse population, affordable housing, at least 30,000 jobs on the spot, schools and a hospital, to ensure it is not dependent on Shanghai."
The most original feature of Dongtan is its eco-friendly design. It will have an ecological footprint (the total area of land required to sustain an individual) of two hectares per person, three times less than Shanghai, London or Paris.
Dongtan is surrounded by miles of wetland, vital for birds migrating between Australia and Siberia. It is determined to preserve the quality of its air, so motor vehicles must be carbon-neutral and the plans provide for the construction of hydrogen filling stations for fuel cells.
To meet the town planners' requirements, Arup has even designed small, lightweight vehicles that consume little energy and travel almost bumper-to-bumper, taking up little room on the roads. Dongtan aims to be energy self-sufficient, meeting all its requirements with renewable sources - solar, wind and biomass.
However, the design team realises that it will have to overcome many obstacles before achieving its ideal. "Even if, with the right design and materials, you manage to build homes that operate at only two-thirds of current energy levels, individual behaviour may completely upset your plans," says Gutierrez. "That is why we need a combination of rules, outreach and price incentives to educate the occupants and halt excessive consumption."
Once the authorities give the green light to Arup's master plan this year, things should happen quickly, with the town scheduled to be built in less than four years.
So, can we look forward to hundreds or even thousands of Dongtans in other parts of the world? Peter Head, Arup's director, is sure it is possible. The materials and design would be different, but the underlying principles and method would be the same. Providing, he adds, that people believe in this sort of project and support it wholeheartedly, as is the case in China.