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China's city of the future

Rapid urbanisation means the world will need new cities. Dongtan offers a vision of what they could look like. Derek Brower talks to the firm developing it

IMAGINE the quiet and the peace. No combustion engines. No traffic jams. No queues for the metro. You're surrounded by trees and birds, and you have a view across the seas. And the air is clean. Is this a rural paradise on New Zealand's South Island or Canada's Vancouver Island?

Think again. This is China's vision of the future: a metropolis that will one day see 0.5m people living just a short drive from one of the most dynamic, fastest-growing and polluted cities on the planet. They don't yet live in Dongtan, the name of this dream city; no-one does. For now, Dongtan is just a twinkle in the eye of planners from Arup, a global engineering and civic planning consultancy, and a local developer.

But wait three years and go to Chongming, an island 60 km northeast of Shanghai, in the mouth of the Yangtze river, and prepare to be amazed. Arup says 10,000 people will be living next to the birds in Dongtan, on the eastern tip of the island. The eco-city will be one of many attractions at Shanghai's Expo 2010, it claims.

No compromises

What will make it special? For one thing, Dongtan will be entirely sustainable and all of its energy will come from renewables. And it will expand over three decades to accommodate 0.5m people without compromising its green principles – which would be a remarkable achievement for a country notorious in the West for its rampantly devastating progress.

A significant source of energy for Dongtan will come from wind turbines throughout the city. Another will be power stations fired by biomass – in the form of rice husks. (Arup says it is looking at technology to capture all of the carbon emitted from burning the husks.) Almost all of the solid waste will be recycled. Solar panels will grace the city's roofs. Public transport will be the main mode of travel and the transport system will be electric.

There will also be abundant green space, around 27 square metres per person – higher than London, with its many parks, and far higher than the World Health Organization's recommended eight square metres per person.

But much of the efficiency will be in the design: in Dongtan, no-one will be further than seven minutes walk to public transport. While other keen city builders are competing to erect the tallest building, Dongtan wants to be judged on how clean and efficient it will be. As planned, the city could become a prototype of how mankind copes with rapid, large-scale urbanisation. Roger Wood, the man leading Arup's project on Chongming, points out that 0.6bn Chinese are expected to move from the countryside to cities in the coming years. That is the path of development in every country; and, in the past, it has also been the path to ever-rising pollution and the deterioration of the environment.

Dongtan offers a vision of how such problems might be avoided and, if successful, it could be replicated elsewhere in China; Arup is already involved in similar projects at other cities in the country and is negotiating with officials in other countries.

Critics say it is tokenism – a drop of ecology in China's ocean of pollution. Arup says that is unfair: persuading Shanghai Industrial Investment's (SII) real estate arm, to back the project was not difficult, it points out. And the government is keen for the project to succeed – not least so that it can showcase Dongtan at the 2010 Expo. "China is moving from an industrial age to an ecological age," says Wood. "But it needs help." And if Western countries genuinely want to fight climate change, he suggests, helping China or India develop in a sustainable fashion will be more important than switching light bulbs at home.

Not that small measures are meaningless. Arup says it has studied everything from the metering of energy to the growing of grass plots on top of buildings to ensure Dongtan is as efficient a user of energy as possible. "For a development to be sustainable you have to integrate all the things that make up our daily life and study their effects," says Wood.

Burning rice husks could be a winner, given that biomass grown specifically for energy is hardly efficient. Furthermore, at present the husks are either burned as waste or returned to the soil. It isn't a tradable commodity, but if cities start burning it for energy it soon will be, says Wood.

Guidelines for sustainable development

Whether Arup's sensitive and careful planning – the company devised a book of several hundred pages detailing its "guidelines" for Dongtan's sustainable development – will be able to survive the onslaught of what Wood calls the "juggernaut" of Chinese development will, in just a few years time, be known. Wood says Dongtan's residents will be academics, research and development specialists, and others who move there to make the city work. The cars they drive in will all be either zero-emissions, electric or, potentially, powered by fuel cells.

But what if Shanghai workers want to escape the smoggy metropolis across the water and live next to Dongtan's pristine bird sanctuary? Nothing will stop them from doing that, says Wood. But unless their cars are up to scratch, they won't be allowed to drive them in Dongtan. If all that does is make it an attractive eco-suburb for rich Shanghai commuters, SII's $2bn investment to build the city could begin to look like a small price tag. What better way to encourage developers to build eco-towns than to show how profitable they can be?

The experience of Arup, a co-operative, with ownership spread among its employees, suggests the picture of China in the West still lacks sophistication. That might be especially true of Beijing's relationship with the environment: climate change remains below pollution, air and water quality on the government's list of eco-priorities. But Dongtan could help show Beijing – among others watching its development – that development need not mean compromise on any of them.

And for Arup it is a showcase. The company is accustomed to high-profile projects, among them London's Millennium Bridge, Sydney's opera house and Paris' Pompidou Centre. But with Expo heading to Shanghai and China's inexorable rise as an economic powerhouse, Dongtan could be a new green symbol of the country's growth.

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