The world is watching as China launches ambitious plans to address its environmental problems -- with help from Seattle-area planners, architects and venture capitalists.
SHANGHAI — To the residents of China’s most crowded and populous city, the air on nearby Chongming Island has an unfamiliar quality: It’s fresh.
About an hour’s ferry ride from the edge of the city, the island’s farms and fishing villages are a world apart from the pollution that pervades modern life in China — and increasingly spills out beyond it.
A steady breeze rustles through lush green marsh grass, the only sound besides the chirping of migrating birds at the mouth of the Yangtze River. Fields of watermelon and cabbage stretch for miles.
“It’s the last piece of undeveloped land in Shanghai,” said Yan Yang, who grew up in this city before going to work for Seattle architecture firm Callison. “It’s a treasure.”
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The island may be lodged in the past, but it soon could leapfrog into the future. It’s here that Shanghai developers plan to build what they say will be the world’s first sustainable “eco-city” on a plot three-fourths the size of Manhattan.
Called Dongtan, or East Beach, the project attempts to channel China’s voracious demand for housing and energy into a radical new model: a city that eventually supports half a million residents, recycles almost all of its waste, produces its electricity from wind turbines, solar panels and biofuel, and ferries people around in hydrogen fuel-cell buses and solar-powered water taxis. Construction is set to start next year, and city planners hope to complete the first phase by 2010, when visitors flock to Shanghai for the World Expo.
If it succeeds, Dongtan could be a model not only for China but for the rest of the world. Or it could be another grand idea that failed in practice, an example of how China’s relentless drive for economic growth can torpedo even a high-profile environmental project.
China’s environmental problems and massive energy needs affect everything from global warming and oil prices to the air quality in Western Washington. But they also open the door to innovative solutions.
Seattle-area experts, including venture capitalists, urban planners and architects of green buildings, are helping to lead the way. For many, it’s more than a business proposition. They believe that only by bringing the best technology and ideas to bear on China’s environmental crisis can the world avoid disaster.
“China desperately needs help in cleaning up its environment, not only for its own sake but for the world,” said Patrick Tam, a former employee of the Seattle global-health nonprofit PATH, who now works for the first venture-capital firm in China focused on environmental business.
The scale and ambition of Dongtan exceeds anything Gary Lawrence took on in his former jobs as Seattle’s planning director or Redmond’s city manager.
Lawrence directs urban-sustainability strategies for the engineering and design firm Arup, which was hired to create the eco-city by the for-profit investment arm of the Shanghai government. London-based Arup also engineered China’s Olympic stadium, national aquatics center and other high-profile projects in Beijing.
“There needs to be an example for all of China of what ecological design actually means,” said Lawrence. Chinese leaders “have to find a way to grow cities to accommodate population increases and movement of people without exacerbating their water shortages and their energy shortages.”
But elsewhere around Shanghai there’s evidence that eco-projects started with the best of intentions can fall victim to cost-cutting and local apathy.
One of the largest high-tech parks in the world, the Zhangjiang Semiconductor Research Park, takes up 118 acres in Shanghai’s Pudong development zone. Designed by Bellevue’s MulvannyG2, the high-tech campus for multinational companies has clusters of three-story buildings and a lush natural landscape of trees, streams and a small lake.
MulvannyG2 devised a plan to draw water for the park’s landscape from a heavily polluted canal on the edge of the campus. Every day, the river water was supposed to flush through a filtration system, circulate through the park and flow back more cleanly into the river.
But a walk around the filtration station in June revealed no equipment was operating yet. Rust coated the pumps and filters, and tanks held stagnant pools of rank water with garbage floating on top.
“I guess you can’t win them all,” said Edward Chao, a MulvannyG2 architect working in Shanghai. The Bellevue design team is hopeful that the filtration system will be operating once the second phase of the park is completed.
Temporary blue skies
After decades of neglect, Chinese leaders are starting to take action to improve the environment ahead of the country’s coming-out party to the world at the Beijing Olympics, less than a year away.
By temporarily shutting down factories and limiting traffic before the games, Beijing will put on a clean face for a few months.
For the Olympics, “they’re definitely going to achieve blue skies,” said Wen Bo, China director for the group Pacific Environment.
But if the country doesn’t take permanent action to stem the deeper crisis, he said, “environmental challenges occurring now will be too difficult to solve within a couple of years.”
The international spotlight could help. With its massive population and powerful economic engine, China can either lead in fixing the global environment or hasten its decline, says former Washington Gov. Gary Locke, now a Seattle lawyer focused on developing business in China.
“Today the world stands at the precipice of irreparable environmental destruction set in motion by Western countries,” Locke said. “But wouldn’t it be a shame if 100 years from now, history books blame China for driving the world over the edge?”
China is on track to overtake the United States as the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide, if it hasn’t already, though the U.S. still consumes more energy overall and six times as much as China per capita. The two biggest greenhouse-gas producers will face international pressure to cut emissions when world leaders meet in one week for the United Nations convention on climate change.
China itself is suffering devastating health effects. Air pollution in its largest cities is blamed for about 300,000 premature deaths a year.
Political factors complicate the question: China’s leaders need to keep the economy steamrolling forward to maintain social control. Yet a growing sense that the government is poisoning its own people through poor environmental protection has set off mass protests.
Earlier this year, after decades of industrial pollution, one of China’s largest lakes developed a dangerous algae bloom, forcing authorities to cut off the water supply to Wuxi, a city of 5 million people near Shanghai. The smell was so foul that even boiling the water didn’t help.
In Shanghai, which is cleaner than many of China’s other large cities, dealing with foul air and water has become a way of life.
“In Seattle when it rains, it washes your car,” said Yang. “Here when it rains, it gets your car dirtier.”
At home he has two water-filtration systems — one outside the building and one on his kitchen faucet — and then he boils the water.
The explosion of automobiles and apartments is also a culprit in the country’s degradation. Rural populations are moving toward urban centers in record numbers, and more Chinese families can afford to live on their own instead of sharing space with several generations. In a land once dominated by bicycles, the number of cars is expected to reach 50 million soon, with 1,000 new cars a day hitting the streets in Beijing alone.
Growing a green city
At Dongtan, Arup has a rare chance to create a green city from scratch and plot a new way forward. The ultimate planned community, it’s designed to show how growing crops, disposing waste, producing energy and providing transit can be integrated to work like an ecosystem and be as close to carbon neutral as possible, Lawrence said.
The energy will come from wind turbines, agricultural waste and solar panels. Dongtan’s power plant will burn a material found here in abundance: rice husks.
The three-phase development combines homes, offices and shops in small clusters to encourage walking or public transit. Most of the 33-square-mile space will remain organic farms and parks, buffering the wetlands that inspired the original plan.
Architects from around the world have toured the site, and the mayor of London has hailed the project, raising expectations even before the first shovel hits the dirt.
“Dongtan will be an international example, so the scrutiny will be very high, which both thrills us and terrifies us,” Lawrence said.
But in China, even the most promising ventures can be stymied by the country’s many challenges, including corruption.
A wrench was thrown into the Dongtan plan last year when Shanghai’s Communist party secretary was arrested in a crackdown on misuse of public pension funds. The case has to be resolved before the land can be transferred from the Shanghai government to the city’s investment company, Lawrence said. Arup has received assurances that it will get the go-ahead soon to begin construction.
Meanwhile, the clock ticks for Arup, which had planned to construct the first phase in time for the 2010 Shanghai World Expo. Arup has four other eco-friendly projects in the works to redevelop existing Chinese cities of Langfang, Jinan, Suzhou and Changxin using the same concepts as Dongtan.
Planners hope Dongtan does not suffer the same fate as an earlier scheme to build Huangbaiyu, a model eco-village.
The plan was led by sustainable-development expert William McDonough and Deng Nan, the daughter of former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. They formed the Portland-based China-U.S. Center for Sustainable Development and set out to build green homes for farmers in rural northeast China.
Almost four years later, their plan has hit unexpected problems. Chief among them is that none of the local residents wanted to live there because the new houses are expensive.
So far, Dongtan’s remote location has insulated it from major development. Getting there from downtown Shanghai takes more than two hours using the metro, ferry and two taxis.
That’s about to change. A bridge and six-lane expressway scheduled to open in 2009 will shorten the journey to a 40-minute drive. Whether Dongtan can withstand the crush of visitors is an open question.
This summer, the wetlands area was already attracting a few tourists. Two visitors hiked up their pant legs and climbed over a fenced platform to walk through the marsh, oblivious to the fragile wildlife below.
Two others, Lu Dayong and his wife, Liang Ping, both retired factory workers from Beijing, sat on a small pavilion overlooking the wetlands. The couple made a trip to the reserve while visiting their daughter in Shanghai.
Liang took a deep breath of fresh air. “You can enjoy it for a while, but it wouldn’t be convenient to live here,” she said.
She said she doubted China could raise its standard of living without harming the environment.
In the 1950s, the country was less polluted, but “what kind of life did people have?” she asked. “They were too poor.”
“Environmental protection and development are inherently a contradiction.”
A future from the past
For the past decade, Ming Zhang has helped shape the face of Chinese cities.
As senior partner at MulvannyG2 in Bellevue, Zhang has designed hotels, research parks and office towers all around China. Clients want buildings that are iconic and innovative — and, increasingly, green.
“Everybody talks about it,” Zhang said, “but few people understand what it really means.”
Zhang looks to China’s history for sustainable principles. China and other Asian societies built structures that fit the natural environment. The Forbidden City’s low-rise stone buildings proved resilient for centuries; homes carved into hillsides in Northwest China kept people cool in summer and warm in winter.
Only in recent decades has China moved away from those ideas, he said.
Using local materials and energy-saving features, Zhang is designing unconventional high-rises that have natural ventilation, indoor gardens and courtyards.
“China is a place you’re able to combine values they had for thousands of years with modern technology,” he said.
For the most part, Chinese developers welcome the firm’s environmentally friendly ideas. Whether they put them into practice is another question.
Chinese telecom giant Huawei hired MulvannyG2 to design its flagship 64-acre campus in Beijing, the largest project for a single tenant in MulvannyG2’s 35-year history. The company’s chief executive initially rejected Zhang’s design for an employee cafeteria situated on a plant-fringed pond in the middle of campus, worried that nature would distract employees from work.
Zhang, who remembers playing in the Yangtze River as a child and even drinking from it, argued the natural environment would keep employees happy and encourage creativity. The CEO eventually agreed and approved the plan, Zhang said.
While the mindset at the top is starting to change, China needs strong incentives, such as pay tied to environmental goals, to nudge local officials into supporting more sustainable development, he said. Now, officials are rewarded mostly for attracting foreign investment and jobs.
“A paradigm shift”
In Beijing, a haze of smog obscuring the landscape provides inspiration for Don Ye. It’s a constant reminder of his mission to improve China’s environment and make money doing it.
As founder of Tsing Capital, a venture-capital firm focused on environmental technology, Ye hopes to spark more green business. One of the firm’s shareholders is the commercial arm of Tsinghua University, China’s top science and engineering school.
“Clean technology is not an industry,” he said. “It’s a paradigm shift.”
Ye moved back to his native Beijing from Silicon Valley in 2000, eager to start a business that would finance China’s nascent high-tech companies. His Hong Kong partners bet that technology to solve China’s energy and pollution problems would have an even bigger market than the red-hot Internet sector.
Not many investors liked the idea at first, but Tsing’s China Environment Fund grew from $13 million in 2002 to $150 million this year. Two companies in Tsing Capital’s portfolio made successful debuts on U.S. stock markets this year.
China’s central government has finally made environmental issues a national priority, Ye said. Its current five-year plan includes goals to boost energy efficiency, reduce pollution and tighten legal controls.
China’s Renewable Energy Law came into effect in 2006, providing subsidies and tax incentives aimed at increasing renewable sources to 15 percent of China’s total energy by 2020. China fell short of its goal last year but is on track to achieve that target now, becoming a global leader in renewables, according to the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based research organization.
But regardless of official policies, Ye said, the country needs to find solutions that sustain jobs.
One example: Pulp mills notoriously pollute China’s water systems, but they also keep people employed in areas where options are few. Tsing Capital backed a Chinese company that created technology for turning pulp waste into lignin for fertilizer, giving paper mills not only a way to clean up their mess but also a new product to sell.
And earlier this year Ye and his partners teamed up to open the Xuzhou Cleantech Park, the first business park in China dedicated to environmental technology. Ye helped set up Cleantech China, a network of investors that includes a venture capital firm backed by Bellevue’s Ignition Capital. In the first half of 2007 alone, investments in clean technology in China more than doubled over 2006 to $420 million, according to Cleantech.
At the same time, the public is awakening to the dangers of pollution, said PATH veteran Tam, who moved to Beijing from Seattle this year to become a partner in Ye’s firm.
“From the bottom up, the citizenry, the consumers are pushing for better quality of life,” Tam said. “This is a dramatic change.”
Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or email@example.com