A Corpulent Few Means A Skinny Bunch

China is set to build a huge eco-city from scratch, where none of the estimated 80,000 residents will need to drive. The master planning of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture envisages a romantic eco-space, in which homes nest amidst public green spaces. Eco-parks filter and purify wastewater like Mother Nature does. Automobiles are no longer part and parcel of the eco-landscape.

In this grand new eco-city of 78 million square foot area, humans reside in harmony with nature. “Land outside the city will be reserved for farming.” Every morning, as farm chickens crow the city awake from a long undisturbed night of rest. The city runs on renewable and waste-generated energy, and the residents regale on organic products right off the local farms. In the evenings, sheep baas the city off to sleep, and the last bark of a guard dog fades into the depth of tranquil nights.

However fictitiously romantic and futuristic it may sound, a grand political vision often waters down into mere writing as time passes by and more hands get involved. At the suffocating grips of severe corruption, no design seems to fully translate into construction and meaningful post-construction operation.

It is not only the construction of the city, or piecing together the hardware, raises serious socio-environmental concerns, but also the installation of software (e.g., residents, and post-construction operation and management systems) that demands a closer look into the proposed project’s overall value and feasibility.

Even if some political miracles happen, and the project does survive all the usual embezzlement, material substitution, and construction challenges, the question remains about post-construction end-user behavior. What if the residents of this grand eco-city won’t or do not know how to operate the city as it is designed? What if the building managers are not fully capable of grasping, let along handling, such cutting edge new builds? Remember, long-term success in energy saving and emissions reduction depend more on green practices rather than green designs.

As one of my friends used to say, eco-friendliness is a lived process rather than a set of patterns. How will the project designers, contactors, and managers address the inevitable knowledge gap among the invested parties? How will they ensure that eco-friendly designs and constructions will translate into meaningful environmentally friendly practices? Who will be living in this city when and if it gets built? Will it be an eco-city for all or a holiday resort for the few?

The scale of the proposed project also raises other concerns, such as land use change, cost concerns (not only financial, but social and environmental). Where will China build this city? What about the site’s residents and biodiversity? What about the environmental footprint of implementing such a massive project?

I am also concerned about the fact that allocating unreasonable large sum of fund and political preference to a few obnoxiously giant projects will only end up starving a greater number of competing projects, disrupting many ongoing smaller, but essential green efforts, and creating false GDP figures that reflect more of money wasted on unsustainable construction projects, rather than living conditions improved.

The speed of today’s development and innovation forbids any rigid and long-term green prescriptions. What may seem eco-friendly and energy-saving today may no longer hold true five or ten years down the line. The author of this news piece puts forward the ultimate question, which asks if this project will “stand the test of time.”

In short, feeding a few unreasonably fat will only leave the majority undernourished.

Chad T.

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