Pop-Up Cities: China Builds a Bright Green Metropolis
Three years ago, Alejandro Gutierrez got a strange and tantalizing message from Hong Kong. Some McKinsey consultants were putting together a business plan for a big client that wanted to build a small city on the outskirts of Shanghai. But the land, at the marshy eastern tip of a massive, mostly undeveloped island at the mouth of the Yangtze River, was a migratory stop for one of the rarest birds in the world ！ the black-faced spoonbill, a gangly white creature with a long, flat beak.
McKinsey wanted to know if the developer, the Shanghai Industrial Investment Corporation, could bring businesses to the island without messing up thet bird habitat. The consultants thought Gutierrez's firm could figure it out. Gutierrez, an architect and urban designer for engineering and design giant Arup, didn't know anything about birds. But he was a veteran of several big-city design projects in his native Chile and something of a young star at Arup's London headquarters. The scope of the idea awed him. A whole new city? Were they serious? More important, could Arup get in on it? He quickly caught a flight to Shanghai.
Today Gutierrez and a team of Arup specialists from Europe, North America, and Asia are finalizing a plan for a scratch- built metropolis called Dongtan. Anywhere else in the world, it would have been a thought exercise, done up pretty for a design book or a museum show. But Shanghai's economy is growing three times faster than the US economy did at the height of the dotcom boom. More than 2,000 high-rises have gone up within city limits in the past decade. The city's most famous stretch of skyline, including the jewel-box-like Jin Mao Tower and the purple rocket-shaped Pearl TV Tower, was a rice paddy just 20 years ago. Now some 130 million people live within a two and a half hour drive of downtown. Even the wild ideas get built here.
Dongtan breaks ground later this year on a plot about the size of Manhattan on Chongming Island. The first condos and commercial space will hit the market by 2010, around the time a 12-mile bridge and tunnel combo and subway extension will link the city to Shanghai's new international airport (45 minutes away) and financial district (30 minutes). By 2050, Dongtan will have a half-million residents, more than Miami or Atlanta today.
That may count as a cozy little town in a country of 1.3 billion people. But Dongtan is a dramatic gambit, and not just because a whole city will rise, fully realized, from nothing. With Dongtan, Arup is testing a radical new approach to urban design, one that suggests cities across China and the rest of the developing world can actually get greener as they grow. "Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, SOM, HOK are all doing better or worse design," Gutierrez says, subtly dismissing some of the architecture world's biggest names (including at least one that angled for the Dongtan job). "But they're not addressing the central problem of this age ！ resource efficiency ！ and how it relates to cultural, social, and economic development."
Mao Tse-tung believed the natural world was all that stood between Communist China and its industrial future. His country, he said in a 1940 speech, "must use natural science to understand, conquer, and change nature." And conquer it did. Forests were razed, up to 90 percent of the trees in some provinces. The government, in a scheme to accelerate steel production, forced Beijing residents to smelt metal in hundreds of thousands of polluting backyard furnaces. New factories dumped untreated waste into the rivers until they turned a deep, noxious black. When China's economy began to take off in the 1980s, conditions got worse. Foreign firms put their most toxic manufacturing operations in China. Sudden prosperity, and a rush to boomtowns like Shanghai, drove energy demand well beyond what the grid could provide. Today, China opens an average of one new coal-fired power plant per week, the main reason it will pass the US in the next two years as the world's biggest source of CO2 emissions. Since 2001, China has increased its emissions more than every other industrialized country in the world combined.
The plan was never to pollute forever; it was to chase wealth at any cost and clean up later. And that made some sense. Even now, after three decades of rapid economic growth, more than 160 million Chinese still live on less than a dollar a day. The trouble is, environmental degradation has become a drag on China's development. The government revealed last year that environmental damage costs the economy $200 billion a year, a full 10 percent of China's GDP. The cost to public heath and quality of life may be even greater. Overcultivation, overgrazing, and massive timber consumption have turned a quarter of China's land into desert. Over 400 million Chinese drink contaminated water. When still air settles over Shanghai, the sky turns thick and white, the horizon the color of a nicotine stain. The government figures that 300,000 people die prematurely each year from polluted air. When I visited the neighborhood surrounding Shanghai's oldest power plant ！ a maze of narrow streets and tiny homes that seem piled one on top of the another ！ I caught a breath of warm air from a row of exhaust vents, coughed until my chest burned, and then gagged.
Arup believes good design can do something about this mess. Dongtan's master plan ！ hundreds of pages of maps, schematics, and data ！ has almost nothing to say about architectural style. Instead, it outlines the world's first green city, every block engineered in response to China's environmental crisis. It's like the source code for an urban operating system. "We're not focused on the form," Gutierrez explains. "We're focused on the performance of the form." He and his team imagine a city powered by local, renewable energy, with superefficient buildings clustered in dense, walkable neighborhoods; a recycling scheme that repurposes 90 percent of all waste; a network of high tech organic farms; and a ban on any vehicle that emits CO2.
From the beginning, the operation has been risky. Foreign architects can quickly lose control of their Chinese projects and lose face when developers decide to cut costs and redesign on the fly. Many glimmering Shanghai towers look like Tokyo on the outside but Moscow on the inside. And China loves its monuments. Dongtan could easily devolve into a Potemkin eco-village, a show-offy display of green technology that fails as a living, working community. "We were dubious, of course, at the beginning as to whether the client was really committed," Gutierrez says. And even if SIIC stayed idealistic, nobody had ever designed and built a green city before. Arup could get it wrong and simply push sprawl into one of the few remaining green spaces around Shanghai. But China is in a position to chart a smarter path, not just for its own exploding cities but for the booming urban hubs around the world ！ Dubai, Khartoum, Lagos, Mumbai, Rio de Janeiro ！ where populations are set to double in the next 30 years. "We thought Dongtan was a rare chance," Gutierrez says, "to demonstrate that growth could happen a different way."
When he sees Shanghai for the first time, in May 2004, Gutierrez is wide-eyed with excitement and wide-awake with jet lag. He meets an SIIC delegation downtown, and they drive an hour north, through Shanghai's brutal traffic, to the Yangtze River. There, the group sets off on a ferry for Dongtan.
Inside the crowded cabin, a television plays soap operas. Outside, men in baseball jackets and fake leather bombers line the railing and smoke. The water is a milky brown, full of silt from upriver that, about a millennium ago, began to pile up where the river and ocean currents meet ！ a sandbar that has grown into a 470-square-mile alluvial island.
The SIIC group drives Gutierrez through the island's biggest port, a short strip of low concrete boxes where locals sell vegetables, sugarcane, and cold drinks. Pedal-powered rickshaws outnumber automobiles, making Shanghai's neon swagger seem far away. They turn onto a narrow, newly paved road to Dongtan, and development disappears. Flat fields of bok choy and swampy rice paddies stretch to the horizon, crisscrossed by long irrigation canals carved out by banished Shanghai intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution. The site is gigantic. And except for the occasional, rickety shed, built for farmworkers who stay in the fields overnight, it's completely empty. Because Gutierrez came here to think about bird habitat, they drive to the marsh at the eastern edge of the island, a huge expanse of tall, golden grass that seems to extend over the horizon into the East China Sea.
Nearly all land in China is owned by the state. But SIIC, the second biggest builder in China, owns Dongtan. In the 1990s, when China's business climate was less liberal than it is today, many Chinese firms ran parallel businesses in Hong Kong, where it was easier to attract foreign capital. SIIC was the Shanghai mun icipal government's Hong Kong operation, a public-private pharmaceutical and real estate company. When most of Asia's economy tanked in the late 1990s ！ and Hong Kong had it especially rough ！ many of the businesses in that city went under. To replenish SIIC's shrinking assets, Shanghai gave the company a piece of Chongming Island. That land ownership allows SIIC an unusual degree of freedom to think longer-term and do something bold.
Shanghai's bureaucrats let it be known that Chongming Island must stay green, and SIIC agreed. The developer commissioned a series of ecological studies. Then it invited Philip Johnson, the late icon of American architecture, to design a master plan. SIIC showed Johnson's staff the site and briefed them on the environmental constraints. For months, designers flew back and forth to the site, making plans for a leafy, low-density garden suburb built around a huge man-made lake. Finally Johnson's team arrived in Shanghai to present its plan ！ and found it was not alone. London-based Atkins and Paris-based Architecture-Studio, both giants in the architecture world, had also created master plans for SIIC. Nobody knew it was going to be a competition. Dinner afterward was awkward, and none of the proposals went anywhere.
Part of the problem was that SIIC wasn't sure yet what it wanted. Its people talked about Dongtan as an eco-city, but they also talked about it as a quaint green suburb or as Shanghai's Hamptons, a place for the city's wealthy to flee for the weekend. They seemed to have good intentions but little direction.
That night of Gutierrez's trip to Chongming Island, Arup's team huddled in their Shanghai hotel rooms, calling colleagues in London and Hong Kong. They had decided to do the bird thing for McKinsey, but they would also shop some bigger ideas directly to SIIC. Dongtan could be the kind of grand project Arup had been looking for.
Founded by engineer Ove Arup in the 1940s, London-based Arup has 86 offices in more than 30 countries and a staff of nearly 9,000, including 1,500 in China. The firm dispatches engineers and architects but also economists, environmental scientists, MBAs, energy experts, transportation gurus, and cultural anthropologists to projects around the globe. Still, its work is often anonymous: When a famous architect designs a dramatic skin for some big building, Arup designs the guts. It engineered the overlapping shells of the Sydney Opera House and figured out how to turn a building inside out when it worked on the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
Gutierrez, though, was part of an ambitious new initiative at Arup, a kind of skunkworks, organized around something the firm called "integrated urbanism." Instead of focusing on something like water or stadiums or waste management, this team would pull expertise from every corner of the firm. If the idea worked, Arup could get in earlier on big planning projects. This way it could help design cities that work better ！ not just as grids or transport networks or skylines but as ecosystems engineered from the start to foil gridlock, energy waste, pollution, even economic inequality. Instead of sketching out the look of a future city, Gutierrez would avoid form altogether. He'd focus on coming up with the rules and standards Arup would follow to deliver a city. SIIC was intrigued.
Later that May, Gutierrez joined a team back at Arup's headquarters near the University of London, across an old stone courtyard from a house where Virginia Woolf and George Bernard Shaw had once lived (at different times). There was Roger Wood, a manager who joined Gutierrez in Shanghai; an environment expert from the Newcastle office; a pair of economists; some urban designers; and of course, the bird guy. They were also about to get a boss: Arup hired Peter Head, a prominent member of the London Sustainable Development Commission and green guru for London's Olympic Construction task force, as the firm's first director of Planning and Integrated Urbanism. He would negotiate a contract to design Dongtan. Gutierrez and the rest of the team had to turn abstract concepts of urbanism into a real city. The team began to gather around a long table and debate. Gutierrez would usually lead the conversation, sketching the group's ideas on copier paper.
Their first decision was big. Dongtan needed more people. Way more. Shanghai's planning bureau figured 50,000 people should live on the site ！ they assumed a green island should not be crowded ！ and the other international architects had agreed, drafting Dongtan as an American-style suburb with low-rise condos scattered across the plot and lots of lawns and parks in between. "It's all very nice to have little houses in a green field," Gutierrez says. But that would be an environmental disaster. If neighborhoods are spread out, then people need cars to get around. If population is low, then public transportation is a money loser.
But how many more people? Double? Triple? The team found research on energy consumption in cities around the world, plotted on a curve according to population density. Up to about 50 residents per acre, roughly equivalent to Stockholm or Copenhagen, per capita energy use falls fast. People walk and bike more, public transit makes economic sense, and there are ways to make heating and cooling more efficient. But then the curve flattens out. Pack in 120 people per acre, like Singapore, or 300 people, like Hong Kong, and the energy savings are negligible. Dongtan, the team decided, should try to hit that sweet spot around Stockholm.
Next, they had to figure out how high to build. A density rate of 50 people per acre could mean a lot of low buildings, or a handful of skyscrapers, or something in between. Here, the land made the decision for them. Dongtan's soil is squishy. Any building taller than about eight stories would need expensive work at the foundation to keep it upright. To give the place some variety and open up paths for summer wind and natural light, they settled on a range of four to eight stories across the city. Then, using CAD software, they started dropping blocks of buildings on the site and counting heads.
The results were startling. They could bump up Dongtan's population 10 times, to 500,000, and still build on a smaller share of the site than any of the other planners had suggested, leaving 65 percent of the land open for farms, parks, and wildlife habitat. A rough outline of the city, a real eco-city, began to take shape: a reasonably dense urban middle, with smart breaks for green space, all surrounded by farms, parks, and unspoiled wetland. Instead of sprawling out, the city would grow in a line along a public transit corridor.
That was pretty much it for the easy stuff.
Arup had to figure out how to keep Dongtan above water. Chongming Island is flat and barely higher than sea level. The previous planners, thinking defensively, had pulled development back to the middle of the site, imagining Dongtan as an island city with no harbor, no waterfront caf s, no ocean-view condos. Gutierrez thought that was kind of a waste.
"We went back to the site," he recalls, "and, being completely ignorant Westerners, we asked the client, 'Have you seen Venice?'" Gutierrez had been sketching Venice's waterways and floodgates. "They said, very politely, 'Yeah, we know about Venice,'" Gutierrez recalls, smiling sheepishly. "Then they took us to see these fantastic, beautiful water towns in the Yangtze River Delta that are much older. They have decks and terraces and promenades that are very close to the water," Gutierrez says. "In one part of a town, they developed a pond to control water levels, in another they had a wider canal, in another they developed a lake. They had a much more fine-tuned understanding of how to manage water than the Italians did."
Inspired by those ancient Chinese water towns, Gutierrez began drawing canals in one zone, ponds in another, and a big lake in a third. He designed courtyards and lawns to drain away from buildings. And he created flood cells within the city, like chambers in a submarine, so if Dongtan got slammed by a once-in-a-century storm, the seawater would stay in a single cell. At the water's edge, instead of a high levee, he drew a gentle hill that would recede into a wide wetland basin ！ a park, bird habitat, and natural storm barrier.
Next, the city needed green power. But the planning process grew complicated. A city is a huge mess of dependent variables. The right recycling facility can turn trash into kilowatts. The right power plant can convert waste energy into heat. The right city map will encourage people to walk to the store instead of drive. "These are things people don't normally plan together," Gutierrez says.
They needed something they started calling an "integrated resource model," something to show how each change would ripple across the city plan. So Arup's programmers wrote software that stitched together databases detailing the inputs (say, the cost of photovoltaic panels) and outputs (electricity generated per panel) of any facility, process, product, and human activity on the island. If the team moves an office park a mile, the software can recalculate average walking distances for commuters, figure how many people will drive or take public transit instead of walk, and then add up the ultimate change in energy demand. Maybe more important, the software makes it easy to spot places where one process creates waste that another process could recycle. "Design was very trial-and-error," Gutierrez says. "The only thing we knew was that we wanted to connect things, to create virtuous cycles."
A power scheme started to take shape. Dongtan's plant would burn plant matter to drive a steam turbine and generate electricity. What to burn, though? They could have planted miscanthus, a tall, feathery grass. It sprouts fast and burns clean. But if Arup planted miscanthus fields, it would sacrifice lots of land to a single purpose. Then it struck them: rice husks. China already grows mountains of rice, and farmers just trash the husks. Dongtan could take a useless byproduct and use it to light the city.
Instead of building the plant far away and out of sight, Arup would put it up near the city center, capture waste heat, and pipe it throughout the town. With good insulation and smart design, the plant could heat and cool every building in Dongtan. "We can get something like 80 percent efficiency in our fuel conversion," says Chris Twinn, the Dongtan team's energy chief. "The Prius is probably only 20 percent efficient. The rest is wasted. Why are we satisfied with that?"
Between biomass, a big wind farm, and numerous tiny contributions to the grid ！ including photovoltaic panels and small wind turbines ！ Arup figured Dongtan could get 60 percent of its energy from renewable sources when the city opened in 2010, and 100 percent within 20 years.
As the plan expanded, so did Gutierrez's team, from about a dozen in May 2004 to more than 100 today. And as they pulled in new experts from around the firm, they saw new virtuous cycles. Arup investigated hollowing out the hills at the edge of the city and installing underground "plant factories" ！ stacked trays of organic crops, growing under solar-powered LEDs, that seem to yield as much as six times more produce per acre than conventional farming. Arup would run twin water networks throughout the city: one that supplies drinking water to kitchens and another that supplies treated waste water for toilet flushing and farm irrigation. Trucks delivering goods from across China would park at consolidation warehouses on the edge of the city, then load up shared, zero- emission delivery trucks to reduce traffic and save gas. Waste would be either recycled or gasified for energy, and the captured heat would be converted into more power; no more than 10 percent of the city's trash would be permitted to end up as landfill. To invite in cooling summer breezes, block winter winds, and reduce demand for heat and air-conditioning, they would position trees strategically and persuade the client to twist the city grid slightly off a traditional north-south axis (a feng shui idea that has become an almost inviolable rule of Chinese city planning). Meanwhile, traveling spoonbills would find their marshy grassland undisturbed ！ far from the center of town and sheltered from people and industry by a wide buffer of farmland.
Dongtan was looking less like a city, at least the urban resource hogs that exist today, and more like an ecosystem, a closed loop. "It's a green island that shows you can decouple economic development from environmental impact," Gutierrez says.
In October 2005, armed with a city design and a strategy to build it, Gutierrez, Head, and a handful of specialists returned to Shanghai and presented their plans to SIIC. Dongtan will go up in three phases, each one adding a new, mixed-use neighborhood, complete with condos, offices, and retail space that will all sprout up at once. Gutierrez cleverly designed each neighborhood with two downtowns: one at the center, modest and intimate, within easy walking distance from homes and offices, and one at the edge. The three at the edges will overlap and gradually grow into metropolitan Dongtan. "Our worst-case scenario is that Dongtan starts out as a tourism-based settlement," Gutierrez explains, "but grows over time to include other industries." Best-case scenario: China's huge market for renewable energy and Dongtan's bright-green reputation persuade clean technology firms to set up labs and commercial outposts in the city.
The presentation lasted a couple of hours. When it was over, SIIC's chair spoke. He liked Arup's plan a lot. But he wanted Dongtan to draw every bit of its power from local renewable energy starting the first day. "We had been very proud that we could get 60 percent of our energy from renewables!" Gutierrez says, smiling. "But the client said that's not good enough." Arup was thrilled ！ kind of. If anything, the firm expected pressure to simplify Dongtan, not to make it more ambitious.
The answer, the team decided, was building up the green power infrastructure faster and slashing energy demand further. A recent change in China's energy law would allow Dongtan's power company to sell surplus green energy to Shanghai's grid, justifying the expensive new hardware until the new city grew into its supply. Reducing demand was harder. But Arup hit upon a clever solution. Instead of hiding indecipherable energy meters behind buildings, it would put a simple meter in an obvious location like a kitchen or office. Residents could track their own use ！ and get regular reminders over SMS and email. Up to a reasonable limit, energy is pretty cheap. Go over and the price spikes.
SIIC approved Arup's master plan last summer: hundreds of pages covering everything from the permissible range of heat transfer through condo walls to the surface area of ponds and canals that must feature native aquatic plants. By the end of the year, builders will begin installing the city's infrastructure, and SIIC will hire architects to start planting buildings in Arup's ecosystem. Arup, meanwhile, is already considering a pair of modest Dongtan sequels ！ a small neighborhood outside Shanghai and a town near Beijing ！ and is working on several other green communities across China, plus one in St. Petersburg, Russia.
This year, for the first time in history, the majority of the world's population lives in cities. By 2050, two-thirds will call a city home. Most of that urban growth will happen in the developing world. "Tokyo, London, and New York are extremely interesting," says Ricky Burdett, director of the Cities project at the London School of Economics. "But their massive development has already happened ！ in London, 150 years ago, in New York, 100 years ago, in Tokyo, 50 years ago." Shanghai represents the forward edge of the planet's next urban explosion.
These new megacities could evolve into sprawling, polluting megaslums. Or they could define a new species of world city. Unlike New York or London, they are blank slates ！ less affluent, perhaps, but also free from legacy designs and technologies tailored to the world of the 19th and 20th centuries. That is a huge advantage. It took Boston 20 years and more than $14 billion just to reroute a freeway underground. New York can hardly install a second network of water pipes. Most of Los Angeles is too spread out for fast public transit or combined heat and power plants. And because these cities are so isolated from agricultural land, most of the food that locals eat gets shipped hundreds of miles. "Shanghai today is making 90 percent of the mistakes that American cities made," Burdett argues ！ spreading out, building up single-family homes, replacing naturally mixed-use neighborhoods with isolated zones for living, shopping, and working, and connecting it all with car travel. But fixing these problems is still possible.
If Dongtan lives up to expectations, it will serve as a model for cities across China and the rest of the developing world ！ cities that, given new tools, might leapfrog the environmental and public health costs that have always come with economic progress, a relationship Gutierrez calls "the nightmare of the 20th century." Even old American and European cities may find bits and pieces of Dongtan that they can use, especially when they redevelop industrial plots or build out at the edges. Arup would like to apply lessons from Dongtan to a pair of new developments in San Francisco and Napa County. Parts of urban Europe are approximately the right density for a combined heat and power system to work. London mayor Ken Livingstone visited Dongtan hoping to get inspiration for a huge zero-emission development about to break ground in East London.
"Shanghai will grow," Gutierrez says. "The question is how it will grow. We can program into its DNA a sustainable growth pattern. We have to make cities, as much as we can, future proof ."
Douglas McGray (email@example.com), a fellow at the New America Foundation, wrote about the designer of the $100 laptop in issue 14.08.