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Ho Tong Yen, the chief executive of Tianjin Eco-city, says the project aims to create enough jobs for people to work here. Daniel Bardsley / The National
Ho Tong Yen, the chief executive of Tianjin Eco-city, says the project aims to create enough jobs for people to work here. Daniel Bardsley / The National

China looks to future with Eco-city

In the world's second-largest economy a development is taking shape that could become the model for sustainable living across the country and the wider world. And with an exploding urban population, that can only be a good thing

With a cityscape that is all cranes and thrusting new towerblocks, Tianjin Eco-city could at first glance be any of the hundreds of urban areas in China expanding at a breathless pace.

But this joint Chinese-Singaporean project, which was started in 2008 and will be finished in 2020, aims to be something very different from the norm: a model for more sustainable development in a country urbanising at a pace unprecedented in history.

"With rapid urbanisation, there will be new cities being built. When you're building new cities you start by going for principles of sustainability," says the project's chief executive, Ho Tong Yen, a Singaporean diplomat and government official.

"Other cities [can] regard us as a standard and try to outdo us or match us ... What we're doing is not costly. If any developer wants to do this it can be done."

There seems little doubt China needs to find environmentally friendlier ways of living. The country is the world's largest consumer of energy and its biggest cities have carbon footprints already exceeding those in many developed countries.

The annual per capita carbon emissions of Shanghai, for example, at 11.7 tonnes according to a 2010 World Bank report, are higher than New York's 10.5 tonnes and almost 50 per cent bigger than Singapore's 7.9 tonnes.

On top of this, China's tally of urban residents is set to swell by 350 million over the next two decades.

One might, therefore, expect Tianjin Eco-city, which lies about an hour by fast train south-east of Beijing, to showcase radical solutions that will slash carbon footprints and transform the urban landscape.

Instead, the project is focused on "trying to achieve what is realistic", says Mr Ho.

"It doesn't mean we won't go for better standards over time. We're going for slight improvements on a very large scale," he says while standing beside a vast model of the development at its headquarters.

That means buildings are designed to reduce water and energy demand and neighbourhoods will have facilities such as shops, schools, gyms and hospitals close at hand so people need not drive for daily necessities.

There are wide pavements and cycleways, while electric buses and eventually trams will transport residents. The aim is half of them will work in the eco-city, too, cutting commuting distances.

"We'll create enough jobs for people to be able to work here," says Mr Ho.

In taking a step-by-step approach, the project leaders believe it will avoid becoming a showcase scheme no one wants to live in because of high costs and lifestyle restrictions. The hope isits successes can be replicated elsewhere.

Abu Dhabi's eco-city, Masdar, could be seen as being more ambitious in aiming for a zero carbon footprint, perhaps offering a vision of urban living in the future. Mr Ho has visited Masdar and admires the project.

Both Masdar and Tianjin Eco-city officials hope their projects will be more successful than eco-cities that have fallen by the wayside, notably Dong Tan near Shanghai, at which construction stalled when the political winds changed within the local government.

That the Tianjin Eco-city will be accessible to, and attract average members of, the Chinese middle class is important as the project is largely being funded by the private sector. Developers from the Philippines, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Singapore are creating residential developments.

About one fifth of the homes are designated as "public housing" so lower-income families or individuals can rent or buy them. While apartments in the development typically sell for 10,000 yuan (Dh5,784) per square metre, the public housing rate is about 7,000 yuan.

Ground-breaking took place in 2008 and about 200 families have already moved in to a development that will ultimately cover 30 square kilometres, equivalent to about half the size of Manhattan. By the end of this year the population will have swelled to 10,000, while on completion there will be space for about 350,000 people.

Already about 3,000 to 4,000 people work there and a series of factories are operating, along with a vast animation centre, typical of the low environmental-impact businesses the project aims to provide a home to. Multinationals such as Siemens and Philips will also have offices there.

Small wind turbines and solar panels power street lamps, a vacuum system collects waste and buildings are oriented to maximise exposure to sunlight, reducing heating and lighting costs. Ultimately, officials hope 20 per cent of the energy used will come from renewable sources, which, says Mr Ho, is "what a Chinese city can aim for given the technology".

"These are concepts that are very easily replicable in China," he says. "Green homes are not necessarily expensive homes."

The project is built on formerly polluted wetland cleaned up using patented technology and the natural habitats have been preserved, forming the centrepiece of a park.

In overall charge is Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City Investment and Development Co. The Chinese side has contributed 2 billion yuan in land, while the same amount of private-sector investment has come from the Singaporean partner, Keppel Corporation. The project has attracted a further 50bn yuan of investment.

Ultimately, Mr Ho is optimistic the eco-city's approach will be adopted in other parts of China and overseas.

"There are huge numbers of visitors that come through Tianjin Eco-city. They look at what we're doing ..."

Mr Ho says the project's eco-friendly features can be included in new developments "at almost no cost".

Environmental campaigners, too, hope Chinese cities will do more to encourage sustainability. Tom Wang, a spokesperson for Greenpeace in China, says it will be "very interesting to see what lessons can be learned" from projects such as the eco-city. "It's really urgent for China to see how it can accommodate all these [growing] cities without having to sacrifice the environment," he says.

"It will be good if showcase practices can be drawn from these pilots and really see how China can cope with rapid urbanisation, especially in the central and western parts of China."



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