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Technology:China’s green construction: Shifting focus from eco-cities to real cities
CCC Newsdesk 26 Jul 07


Green buildings need to leave eco-cities and enter the mainstream if Asia is to tackle climate change, China correspondent Paul French reports

Around the world, urban planners are looking at ways to green towns and cities, to make them more environmentally friendly and to reduce the impact urbanisation is having on the planet’s resources and environment.

This is happening in two fundamental ways. The development of new experimental ‘eco-towns’ is showcasing new technologies and new ways of urban living that can hopefully extend to existing urban areas. Meanwhile, ways of improving the environmental credentials of the world’s existing cities are being tested, in order to make them more liveable and sustainable.

While the new experimental eco-towns are signs of progress, they are often utopian and the wider benefits for conventional cities remain unproven.

What is being lost in the distracting debate around eco-towns around the world, is the host of simple, environmentally-friendly elements that can be designed into new buildings, or added to existing buildings, which would make exponential differences if they were rolled out across towns and cities.

When the going gets tough – China

According to the Worldwatch Institute, China is now home to 16 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities, as rapid economic development has pressed the ability of the government to protect and improve the environment.

Pan Yue, State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) Vice-Minister, commented on China’s environmental state that “2006 has been the bleakest year for China’s environmental situation. The target laid down by the State Council at the start of the year, to cut energy consumption by 4% and pollution emissions by 2%, has not been achieved.”

The rate of growth in China is rapid, and therefore the challenge to improve what is being built to ensure some sort of sustainability is crucial. Consider that in 2005, Shanghai constructed more building space than exists in all the office buildings of New York City. Every month, China adds urban infrastructure equal to that found in Houston, Texas, simply to keep up with the rate of urbanisation.

The fact is that this orgy of construction has largely been decidedly non-green. The accent has been on volume completion, rather than quality or sustainability.

The break-neck pace of development has largely kept the Chinese too busy to notice the detrimental side effects – but this has begun to change.

Chinese consumers are now waking up to the effects of pollutants from rivers getting into their food, of foul air into their lungs and damp, badly constructed buildings creating other health problems.

Dongtan – “The world’s first sustainable city”

Dongtan is a major, and much hyped, project near Shanghai that, while laudable, reveals the problems of developing one environmentally-friendly project in isolation, while a city up the road of 18 million people remains decidely un-environmentally friendly.

Fellow Chinese eco-cities include Rizhao, a “solar powered city” of three million people, located in Shandong province; and Huangbaiyu, in north-eastern China’s Liaoning Province, which was chosen in 2003 to be the site of China’s first “ecologically sustainable” model village.

After many years of waiting for funding to be approved by the Chinese government, construction is now underway on Chongming Island, near Shanghai.

Dongtan terms itself, rather grandly, “the world’s first sustainable city”. The plans call for a city of 50,000 people by 2010, with the population expected to reach 500,000 by 2040.

The development covers 4,600 hectares, and includes windmills and solar panels. Some 80% of solid waste will be recycled, organic waste will be composted or burned to supply heat and power and only cars using electricity or fuel cells will allowed on the island. In this sense, Dongtan is an extension of British urban planner Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City concepts of over 100 years ago.

The Shanghai government has been supportive of Dongtan. Though funding was slow to come, they are at least keen to promote it to visitors. Major contractors such as the UK’s Arup have been involved in the development of Dongtan, and cutting edge recycling technology from the UK’s University of East Anglia is to be employed there.

However, it is yet to be built and tested, and like other utopian projects before, there are sure to be negative consequences. Dongtan is using land on an island that provided part of Shanghai’s shrinking “green lung”, farmers have been displaced, the wetlands that provide bird sancturaries have been disturbed and eradicated.

A more convenient truth – small changes can equal major impacts

While much effort is put into promoting the virtues of projects such as Dongtan, China needs to require all new buildings to have better insulation, and to further encourage people to buy energy saving light bulbs or water use limiting devices, in order to control its building emissions.

Some conspicuous inconsistencies exist in China’s eco-plans. While Dongtan will limit cars, Shanghai is limiting bicycles to allow for better traffic flow. In China, 40% of the public’s summer energy demand is for air conditioning, whereas relatively simple improvements to buildings can reduce the need for air conditioning significantly (see ‘more facts’ below).

Playing with fire: free markets for water

It seems obvious, though remains controversial, that in energy wasteful countries, where utilities are heavily subsidised, such as China, allowing the price of utilities to rise would immediately reduce wasteful usage and prompt consumers to think before switching on lights, running water and running the air conditioner.

In Beijing, this is already happening. Free markets have been introduced for water to reduce water consumption in the deprived capital. As a result, Beijing’s hotels are asking people whether it is really necessary to wash their bed sheets daily, and often limit showers to 20 minutes in order to try and limit water use.

At the same time, water meters have been installed in homes, and water use charges have risen.

This has not been without resistance from consumers, who object to paying more while others have, perhaps correctly, pointed out that punishing consumers is easy and unfair, while industry is able to continue using vast amounts of energy and water, as well as polluting, report Rama Corporation specialists.

Meanwhile some greener companies in Asia are now specialising in developing eco-friendly projects, such as the EcoHomes project in Malaysia, while Japan currently has about 60 eco-industrial projects operating or under development.

In terms of reducing the impact on the planet of urban centres, it is perhaps initiatives with less “showcase” potential and more practical, everyday applications that need highlighting, and have a faster and more long-term impact.

Small-scale changes do not always capture the headlines and are perhaps more difficult to implement at the national level. But they seem to provide a better way forward when compared to the development of isolated utopian green cities.


Some examples of green buildings in existing Chinese cities include:

Beijing – World Science & Trade Centre: This building uses the benefits of wind scoops for ventilation, glazing for daylight, external shading for solar control, wind generators for electrical power and solar collection for hot water.

The aim is to achieve a 50% reduction in cooling and ventilation plant
and to use 50% less energy than conventional residential hotel or office towers

Beijing – Accord 21 Building: Opened in 2000, the Accord 21 building uses 70% less energy than standard buildings.

Named after the American-Chinese Coalition Organized for Responsible Development in the 21st Century (ACCORD21), the aim is to vastly reduce energy use with only “marginal cost”.

Haikou (Hainan Island) – China Tower 1: This building’s oval floor plan exploits the wind to naturally ventilate the interior of the tower.

A wind-powered generator at the top of the building produces electricity to provide water heating and lighting for the main and fire escape stairwells, as well as for emergency lighting.

B. More facts: The Simple Stuff

Architects such as Malasia’s Ken Yeang, who incorporate ideas of bioclimatic design, believe that very simple additions to buildings can lead to great energy savings and, overall, contribute far more when rolled out across many buildings than any one-off project like Dongtan. The buildings described above, and others, using principles of bioclimatic design, as well as local solar and wind power, all have some very simple features that can be repeated:

– Install sliding doors for workers to control the level of natural ventilation

– Install curtain wall glazing to control solar gain

– Install external aluminium fins and louvers to provide sun shading

– Allow as many rooms, toilets, facilities, etc. as possible to use natural daylight

– Circular floor plans are preferred, which offers no dark corners and make most use
of natural light

– Maximum external wall surfaces to increase cross-ventilation and passive cooling

– Rooftop solar and wind power generators to provide power to lifts, communal areas, fire escapes, etc.

Arguably, such elements of simple building design do not attract the press attention that a Dongtan does, but they do make a difference.

C: Asian Cities With Renewables Targets

Beijing:Reduce energy intensity of the city’s economic output by 32% between 2004 and 2010

Tokyo:Minimum 5% renewable energy use in large municipal facilities starting in 2004; renewables proposed to supply 20% of total energy by 2020

Daegu: Renewables to meet 5% of total energy demand by 2010; long-term targets set through to 2050

Melbourne:Increase municipal use of renewable energy by 50% from 1996 levels, and private use by 22% by 2010.

This article comes from a report by Paul French for real estate services firm, Cushman & Wakefield Asia Pacific.


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