Liveable Cities Series: Asian eco-cities rise to climate crisis

Concept drawing for Tianjin's new eco-city, where planners are trying to cover all aspects of a liveable city. Image: Surbana

Half of humanity today live in cities and within two decades, United Nations figures estimate that nearly 60 per cent of the world’s population will be urban dwellers. While cities grow and expand, however, so do their footprint and impact on the world’s resources. Faced with the twin dilemmas of increased demand for resources and the dwindling supply of it, the world has responded with a solution - eco-cities.

Nowhere is this growth of eco-cities more apparent than in Asia, home to many developing countries including economic giants India and China. By 2030, one billion people out of an estimated population of 1.4 billion in Chinawill live in its cities. Of these, 221 cities are projected to be home to over one million people.

In comparison, the whole of Europe has only 35 cities that house a population more than a million.

In response to the numerous problems arising from that urban growth – such as increased pollution and traffic congestion, depleted natural resources and fragmented communities – governments and developers in China have started about 40 officially recognised eco-city projects.

Eco-cities, also known as sustainable cities, are designed with environmental considerations at their core. Such cities seek to reduce as much as possible their environmental impact and minimize the use of energy, food and waste.

The concept has gained popular recognition ever since the term was first coined by California-based planner Richard Register some 35 years ago, who defined it has a holistic approach where government, industry, people’s needs and aspirations, nature, agriculture and the physical environment are “functionally integrated”.

With increased global awareness of worsening climate change and environmental issues, the imperative for sustainable development is clear - but how do planners execute the different models on a drawing board into a successful living and breathing city?

The eco-city model: Practical, replicable, scaleable

This was one of the questions posed by Ho Tong Yen, chief executive of the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City (SSTEC), master developer of China’s high-profile Tianjin eco-city, at the recent Asia Pacific Sustainability Leadership Forum held in Singapore.

He noted that the currentdiscussion of eco-city concepts at the intergovernmental and policy level was about how to provide a practical, viable model for sustainable urbanization not just in China, but also in other parts of the world.

The Tianjin eco-city - located in the northeastern part of China south of Beijing - is a bilateral project between the Singapore and Chinese governments, jointly developed by Singapore-listed Keppel Group and a Chinese consortium led by state-owned Tianjin TEDA.

Its project managers had settled on three basic requirements for the city - namely, it must be practical, replicable, and scaleable.

The SSTEC has put a plethora of clean technology features into the city’s 30 kilometre square area. These include district heating and cooling, state-of-the-art public transportation and lighting systems to maximize energy efficiency, automated energy management for buildings, a pneumatic waste collection system, solar installations and the latest methods in rainwater harvesting.

Part of the city’s business model is attracting the clean technology, or cleantech, companies that provide these technologies to Tianjin, said Mr Ho, adding that many of the world’s top companies such as Siemens, Hitachi, Philips and General Motors have invested in the eco-city to test-bed their products and take advantage of the concentrated market for green products and services.

But the SSTEC checklist for success, a list of 26 key performance indicators, involves more than just the deployment ofcleantech. It covers ecological aspects such asbiodiversity, clean air and water, and also social factors such as public housing and community facilities for residents.

“We are trying to create a high quality living environment with commercial, industrial, education and other facilities where residents can live, work and play in a green environment,” said Mr Ho.

Developers designed the eco-city’s neighbourhoods based on comfortable walking distances to amenities and included a green corridor that runs for 12 kilometres through the city for public use.

The 350,000 people expected to live there will find most of what they need in life within walking distance, he noted.

Another project that focuses on the liveability of cities is the Guangzhou Knowledge City (GKC), developed by Singbridge International, a unit of Singapore’s Temasek Holdings which develops eco-cities using the expertise of Singapore companies with a focus on China.

Singbridge chief executive Ko Kheng Hwa, who also spoke at the forum, noted that GKC’s success hinges on it being able to provide a high quality of life, which would in turn help transform the area’s labour-intensive manufacturing economy to one driven by high-tech firms with skilled staff from around the world.

“People move from countryside to cities in search of a better life, so these cities will have to focus on providing a better environment to work and to live,” he said.

The new 123 square kilometre development under construction in the heavily populated Guangzhou Province is designed to draw foreign and domestic companies from a range of knowledge-intensive industries such as information communication and technology (ICT), biotechnology and clean energy technology.

The emphasis on liveability in these Tianjin and Guangzhou cities is a far cry from the reality in most of China’s cities, however, say experts.

Planning is key

Co-chair of the Urban China Initiative, Jonathan Woetzel, who is also a director at consultancy McKinsey and Company, told Eco-Business that in the last 15 years, China’s growth model has encouraged urban sprawl - which is far more inefficient than the careful planning seen in the Tianjin eco-city.

“This was…because it was based on a relatively low cost of land,” said Mr Woetzel, who leads research for the Urban Sustainability Index (USI) - the first-ever index for measuring and comparing urban sustainability across China - under the Urban China Initiative, a Beijing-based public-private think tank.

While much of the focus of eco-city projects has been on adopting new clean technologies, the biggest sustainability issue in China’s cities is urban planning and design, he added.

China’s zoning methods are another major factor in determining the sustainability of its cities. By clustering all the industrial facilities in one spot away from residential areas, for example, inconvenient commutes become the norm.

To be truly green or sustainable, Mr Woetzel noted that China’s cities will need to have high density – higher than the density in the average non-Chinese city - and provide easy access for people through good public transport and better use of land.

Much of the current development in China’s cities is chosen for its ability to be done on a large scale, and tends to be based on a few cookie-cutter templates, he added.

If eco-city developers want to provide more sustainable templates to guide the growth of China’s cities, he recommended they provide scaleable modelsthat incorporate high density and mixed-use land areas in a plan designed for easy mobility.

While high density living could be a solution, it is a concept that should be introduced gradually, cautioned Frven Lim, head of architecture at Singapore-based Surbana International Consultants – a firm that designs and consults for townships in Singapore and abroad.

Mr Lim told Eco-Business in a recent phone interview that many of the region’s eco-city projects fail for two reasons: the first is that governments do not always think through the entire process of implementing the projects, and they sometimes fail to plan ahead on issues such as financing.

China’s Dongtan eco-city on Chongming Island close to Shanghai, designed by British firm Arup, is one example of an eco-city with grand plans which failed to materialise today despite being launched to much fanfare in 2005.

Mr Lim noted that the other reason for failure is that urban planners sometimes do not recognise that, regardless of how brilliant the technology, the success of the city depends on the people that live there.

In China’s case, he explained, most of the incoming residents of public housing townships are people who migrate from farms or non-urban areas. These people need time to adapt to a new lifestyle, and should not be rushed into a city so new it does not yet have established amenities such as food sources and shops.

Developers, added Mr Lim, are sometimes too focused on meeting deadlines and financial targets. They worry about attracting big name companies and announcing clean technology achievements, rather than care about how to help new residents transition to a different lifestyle.

One recommendation he provided to China’s eco-city planners was ‘gradual densification’, which would involve starting with a lower density and planning to increase it over time.

With such an intense focus on the end targets, eco-city planners tend to forget that fundamentally, eco-cities are still spaces for people, said Mr Lim.

Outside of China, there are other ambitious eco-city developers seeking to be leaders in sustainable urban planning and design with their projects.

One of them is Masdar City on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi, a US$22 billion zero-emissions city project designed by Britain’s Foster and Partners. The city will rely entirely on solar energy and other renewable sources, and has a zero-carbon, zero-waste target. It is planned to house a population of 50,000 and aims to attract cleantech powerhouses to set up shop to create what it calls an “eco-cluster” of green firms.

But the project has run into economic and technological setbacks. Original targets for population, completion date, power generation from renewable energy and plans for green transport have all changed.Its critics say Masdar was far too ambitious, and pursued a model that was too expensive and was neither replicable nor scaleable.

Technologies such as personal rapid transit vehicles were found to be impractical, and the first batch of residents, whose energy use is carefully monitored with laboratory-like intensity, had difficulty living up to the level of efficiency expected.

Smaller-scale projects sprouting across Asia

While Abu Dhabi’s planners have been ambitious, other city planners are starting small in testing eco-city solutions.

In densely populated Singapore, the government’s Housing and Development Board (HDB) is turning one of its public housing areas into an eco-town.

Punggol Eco-town, which has been developed around a 4.2 kilometre newly-builtPunggol Waterway, features cycling paths, community gardens and easy access to public transport.

It has just completed its first green public housing project,Treelodge@Punggol,which was used as a test-bed for clean technologies such as solar panels and energy management systems.

To further engage the local community, which is projected to have 35,000 residential flats by 2015, town managers use public awareness campaigns that promote green lifestyles such as recycling and minimising energy and water usage.

The HDB’s strategy is to build on existing green building and public transport policies and infrastructure that have already proven effective.

Elsewhere in the region, eco-city projects are emerging, including theFPT City in Vietnam, Sydney in Australia, BSD City Green Office Park in Indonesia, the Yokohama Smart City in Japan and the Kottayam- Kumarakom Eco-city Programme in India.

In particular, there is huge pressure on the Indian government to build sustainable, smart cities as  India’s urban population will increase by 140 million in 10 years and to 700 million in four decades.

Evaluation and standards crucial for cities

But with the proliferation of eco-cities comes scrutiny. Industry critics have, rightly, been questioning the eco-friendly claims of these cities.

In China, for example, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development (MOHURD) has embarked on a five year project with the United States-based United Technologies Corporation and the Chinese Society for Urban Studies to assess eco-cities.

They are jointly developing the Eco-city Index System, which will help evaluators sift through the claims of the 168 self-proclaimed eco-city projects unearthed by China’s Tongji University.

A global effort is also underway to assess eco-cities.

Eco-City Builders, a non-profit founded by the same Richard Register who coined ‘eco-city’, is currently working with an international advisory committee on a set of guidelines called the International Eco-City Framework and Standards (IEFS). The committee plans to introduce the standards for discussion at the United Nations Rio+20 Earth Summit taking place in Brazil next year.

Meanwhile, in the absence of universally recognised eco-city guidelines, The LivCom Awards, a United Nations-backed annual awards programme set up in 1997 as a United Kingdom-registered charity, holds yearly competitions to showcase ‘liveable communities’ with projects that improve local environments and quality of life for citizens.

The competition rates existing cities and communities on how well leadersintegratesustainability with issues such as heritage preservation, programmes for the elderly and community input into urban projects.

One encouraging trend that LivCom judges have noted is that city leaders are increasingly seeking the people’s views on how communities should be run.

They also noted that communities are starting to blend the two main approaches to sustainability – a people-focused approach and one that targets infrastructure and economic prosperity.

Such an approach can only spell good news for the future of the world’s eco-cities.

Editorial Note: Please note the following viewpoint on Masdar City’s transit system, sent to us by a representative from Innovative Transportation Technologies at the University of Washington, Seattle -

Overall, a very interesting article. But, I’m afraid you got the part about Masdar’s podcar system wrong in that you concluded that the vehicles were impractical. Actually, it was cost cutting that is the culprit. The city was to have been built on a platform and the circulation system was to be operated beneath the platform, separate from pedestrians. When it was determined that the platform concept was too expensive, the concept of a city-wide circulation system was also dropped. The vehicles cannot be operated on the street system in the plan because the streets are too narrow, not well connected and will be populated by pedestrians. Also, no parking space is in the plan, without the platforms.

A major redesign is needed but I’ve not seen any evidence yet that it has been undertaken. Unfortunately, readers of your article will think that the 2getthere podcar system is infeasible. That is simply not true. It has been performing very well in a limited space under a platform, with only 10 vehicles.

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