Where is the Eco-city?

The objectives of economic growth and environmental protection are often contradictory. Environmental protection may place restrictions on economic growth, and economic growth may result in devastated surrounding environments. Currently, China is the world’s most populated country and home to the fastest growing economy. In the last two decades, China’s GDP has increased an average of 10 percent annually (Cheng 2009: 119). To guarantee a healthy population, economy and environment for the future, China’s rapid urbanization must be controlled with sustainable development initiatives. Finding a balance between development and conservation is a necessary challenge.

Presently, China is investigating the development of “eco-cities” that are designed to minimize the ecological footprint (Cheng 2009: 121). With more and more people moving to urban zones, eco-cities serve as a favorable solution for improving environmental conditions of densely populated areas. In China, one eco-city plan is in its preliminary stage of development. Located on Shanghai’s Chongming Island (崇明岛), Dongtan eco-city will serve as a platform for experimentation in smart growth. In relation to the rest of Shanghai, Chongming Island is the least developed area. Its existing natural landscape and potential for renewable energies make it an ideal location for Dongtan. As Cheng reports:

Dongtan eco-city will have a 60% smaller ecological footprint (2.6 global hectares per person) than conventional Chinese cities, a 66% reduction in energy demand, 40% energy from bio-energy, 100% renewable energy buildings and on-site transportation, reduction of waste to landfills by 83%, and almost no COemissions (2009: 122).

To better understand the plans and progress of Dongtan, I visited the early stages of this eco-city last weekend. My research partners, Julie and Feng Ran, accompanied me on this trip. Immediately, the thirteen wind turbines near the nature reserve and Dongtan Wetland Park caught our attention. Later, I learned that the electricity generated from this wind farm could supply power to 26,000 households (Cheng 2009: 122). Although the wind turbines are a promising symbol of sustainable development on Chongming Island, they are also a distraction from a problematic truth: Dongtan’s master plan is already behind schedule.

As we drove around Dongtan’s surroundings, I noticed little construction around the island. We did see a smaller eco-village. Yet, no obvious indicators of sustainable living, such as solar panels or rain barrels, were visible. Furthermore, there were no signs advertising the sustainable neighborhood. According to our taxi driver, the villages were built to increase eco-tourism. The eco-village, natural reserve and Dongtan Wetland Park were all located around twenty minutes away from the nearest existing town.

Our team is interested in learning about the local people and their opinions and understandings of conservation and eco-cities. In just two days, we spoke with two ornithologists, an educational coordinator, two fishermen families, five small business owners, a farmer, and a gift shop worker at the Dongtan Wetland Park. All of our informants supplied a different perspective on the advancements of Dongtan and the natural, undeveloped land. Some people were enthusiastic for the eco-city plans, while others did not care to know any details about the future plans of Dongtan. For instance, the fishermen had no opinion of the wind turbines. They were too busy sewing nets and planning their next fishing excursion to worry about the new wind turbines. Additionally, the scientists did not approve of the land manipulation or profits of the Dongtan Wetland Park.

Moreover, our initial investigation opened doors to new research questions. I look forward another trip to Chongming and to conducting more interviews later on this month. Most of our interviewees agreed to speak with us again and on film. Until then, I will be reading more about Dongtan’s master plan and the relationship between the social sciences and natural environments to prepare for our next trip.