Debate: are eco-towns the face of the future?

As housing needs grow along with urban populations, governments and developers are increasingly keen on “green” projects, writes Maryann Bird. Are they a wise move, and would you want to move in?

“The strength of a nation derives from the integrity of the home” is one of the innumerable proverbs attributed to Confucius. While the saying actually refers to the strength of individual families rather than to the physical soundness of buildings, Confucius’s words can be applied today to another kind of “integrity” of homes: their eco-friendliness.

As governments and the private sector seek ways to work together to blunt the negative consequences of climate change, housing issues are increasingly a focus of their efforts. More and more, officials and property developers are turning to the concept of eco-towns as populations expand and calls for sustainability in new construction grow louder.

Small, often spiritually based, eco-villages have long existed around the world, but mounting environmental concerns have ignited greater interest in green, globally just, low-impact living on a wider scale. In these days of rising greenhouse-gas emissions and excessive consumption of the planet’s natural resources, then, incorporating good environmental practices in new housing is clearly the desirable option.

Truly sustainable, zero-carbon eco-developments (and eventually entire cities and towns) have much to recommend them — if they are properly planned, designed and built. That means construction that integrates the latest green thinking, technology and ingredients. It means, for example, use of renewable or recycled materials; clean, efficient transport systems; electricity produced through wind, solar, biomass or similar natural techniques; water efficiency; passive heating and cooling systems; regionally produced food; local shops and work places; power points for electric cars; open spaces and recreational facilities in harmony with nature.

Proponents say eco-towns can show the way forward in housing, acting as planet-friendly models of problem-solving in a changing and challenging world. In China — as in Britain and other countries — sustainable, energy-efficient housing construction is still relatively new and the advertised benefits have yet to reach the overwhelming majority of the people.

Increasingly, large eco-town projects are coming under attack. Critics say many proposals – led by property developers rather than environmental groups — are not very green in reality and that they aim mostly to make large profits for the developers. Through ambitious projects like Shanghai’s much-touted Dongtan and others, they argue, developers and municipalities also are keen to profit from the public-relations bonanza that a “green” label carries with it.

Other criticisms are that new eco-towns – built away from current urban areas — eat up large amounts of open countryside, reducing biodiversity and scarring the landscape; that they “ghettoise” good environmental practices that should be part of all new housing construction; and that they increase their residents’ reliance on cars.

In the words of Dan Ilett, editor on the online magazine Greenbang, which follows green innovation and thinking: “Anyone who claims to be able to build a sustainable city had better be sure they know what they’re talking about, and there are still a lot of questions that need to be answered.”

What do you think? Would you like to live in an eco-town? What would attract or repel you? Are eco-cities the future face of housing?

Let us know on the forum.


Maryann Bird is associate editor of chinadialogue.

Homepage photo by telex4