Sunday, August 19, 2012
Tianjin Eco-City: Chinese move to their eco-city of the future
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 small changes adopted in Tianjin were rolled out nationwide, 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 paradox: the more they enforce bothersome environmental 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 successfully," said Chris Borroni-Bird, the head of GM's autonomous driving project in Detroit.
He said Tianjin will allow GM to road-test the next generation of vehicles: small urban cars that drive themselves but are safe in an environment full of unpredictable drivers, pedestrians and cyclists.
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 indeed build cities from scratch in order to experiment.
Other projects on trial include a low energy lighting system from Philips and rubbish bins that can empty themselves, sucking litter into an underground network, by a Swedish company called Envac.
"We are not sure about that one," said a spokesman. "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."
Just over three years ago, the site of the eco-city was a desolate wasteland of abandoned salt pans. An area half the size of Manhattan, it was tainted by decades of chemical pollution from the factories that border it.
By the time it is finished, in the next decade or so, some 250 billion yuan (£25 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 - 60 families have already moved in.
Already, one new technology has been patented.
"We had an industrial reservoir that was full of heavy metals," said Mr 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 swathes of its countryside as it raced to wealth, China is now likely to spend billions on cleaning up the mess.
Elsewhere, the government-owned buildings in the city 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 being taken, eight out of the nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the all-powerful council that rules the country, have visited.
"The idea is to create something that can be adapted to other cities in China," said Mr Wang. "What we want to develop is cheap technology that we can industrialise, produce and sell on elsewhere. We have to change people's ideas that being green is expensive."