China has embarked upon what amounts to an eco-city extravaganza. Upward of 200 new eco-cities are being built across the country. Typically, these new eco-cities are built from scratch as self-contained, independent urban entities that sit adjacent to larger, conventional urban cores.

Dongtan, China’s original eco-city, was heralded as the future of urban life when it was first proposed in 2005. Instead, it ended up being “a masterpiece of greenwashing,” according to Paul French of Ethical Corporation, a corporate responsibility magazine. The original plan called for a new, energy-efficient city for 50,000 people on Shanghai’s last wetlands — a tinge of irony that was not lost on environmentalists and academics who spoke out against it at the time. In the end, no wetlands were hurt as the place was never built. This city of the future became a small array of face-saving conventional high-rises masquerading as “green” and a wind farm.

The ecological benefits of Nanhui, an eco-city with a unique circular street pattern built on land reclaimed from the sea roughly 35 miles outside of Shanghai, are also not evident. For purposes of self-aggrandizement and marketing, local government officials wanted the artificial lake at the city’s center to be larger than Hangzhou’s famous West Lake. So the original design was amended and its scale was expanded to accommodate the larger-sized lake. This, combined with massive green spaces obsessively inserted between the city’s various sections, led to a gargantuan, sprawling creation that virtually demands residents drive cars anywhere they go — directly counteracting the city’s low-carbon ambitions.

Huangbaiyu, an eco-village in the north of China designed by Hollywood hobnobbing, green-design “guru” William McDonough, doesn’t pollute, doesn’t have any cars and doesn’t consume any resources. In fact, it doesn’t even have any people. It’s almost a moot point that this eco-village drastically compromised the innovative ecological elements of its original design, using shoddy materials: Nobody ever wanted to live there in the first place. It was a project designed by foreigners out of touch with the needs of locals. They built houses with garages for people who didn’t have cars, failed to provide space for gardens and livestock for peasants who depended on such, built a biogas energy plant running off of corn cobs and stalks needed to feed the village’s economically vital Cashmere goats and expected people who have a tradition of building their own homes to suddenly want to pay many times their yearly salary for housing. Huangbaiyu is currently empty and rotting — which is perhaps the most ecological thing it can do.

Many other eco-cities were over before they even started. Beijing’s Mentougou eco-valley was never actually built; the Finnish visionaries who designed it claimed that the money they invested mysteriously vanished in the black box of Chinese bureaucracy.


“Being an eco-city makes it easier to get funds from the central government,” said Daan Roggeveen, the founder of the Shanghai based MORE Architecture, “which is important, since many cities do not have the funds to improve their livability.”

Today, supporting eco-labeled development initiatives is a part of the criteria for promotion within the Communist Party. The impetus to ”build green” is greater than ever.

In part, eco-cities allow China to put off the social and political pressures resulting from pollution while keeping the wheels of urbanization spinning. Urbanization in China has become a runaway train, with real estate is responsible for 16 to 25 percent of the country’s total GDP. What’s more municipalities in China must fund 80 percent of their expenses while only receiving 40 percent of the country’s tax revenue, according to the World Bank. That deficit is in largely made up for by selling land to developers. Building new districts and cities is essential to the solvency of China’s municipalities.