New cities, old promises

Memories may be short, but have we really already forgotten Dongtan – the promised eco-city on wetlands near Shanghai which, a year after the first phase of construction was meant to complete, remains confined to the virtual world of computer-generated architectural images?

Apparently, for British engineering firm Arup – the Dongtan designers who only sheepishly admitted the project was unlikely to go ahead long after it had been killed by a local corruption scandal – the answer is yes. Last week saw the unveiling of the company’s latest Chinese eco-project in Langfang, Hebei province, and, it seems, it is still promising the world: homes for 400,000 people by 2025, the world’s "largest green park" with theme park and exhibition centre, all built around the latest, smartest, greenest technology, according to website Eco Business, though precise design details have not yet been released by developer SunWorth Development Group. 

I don’t mean to suggest that all of China’s eco-city plans are a waste of time, or that it’s a bad thing for the country’s green urbanisation project to be a focus of international investment and collaboration. In principle, hubs of clean-tech innovation and green living, built in the right spots, are very attractive. It’s just that, so far, they have failed to materialise in meaningful form, while providing western companies and governments with fuel for their voracious green PR machines. 

Perhaps Langfang, or the Singapore-backed eco-development in Tianjin, or any of the many other nascent green city projects in China will prove the doubters wrong (the authors of this piece at UK-based campaign group Forum for the Future are optimistic about Tianjin, for instance). In the meantime, a little more modesty from global firms involved in what is clearly a complex and uncertain business would be welcome.