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Tianjin's eco-city is a model for Beijing
Published on: 2010-07-28
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Despite being one of China's four provincial level cities, Tianjin has always been in Beijing's shadow. Residents of the capital often look down upon their neighbor city, viewing it as a hick town. Indeed, my Chinese friends in Beijing often say that Tianjin is the Middle Kingdom's "biggest village".

However, thanks to the new Tianjin "Eco-city," Beijing's smaller sibling city is now set to teach the capital a thing or two on how to design new mega housing complexes. In particular, this joint Sino-Singapore project, which was started last year and will house 350,000 people when it is completed, better balances high-density urban living with environmental protection.

For example, some 60 percent of the Eco-city's waste will be recycled. The organic waste will be used to generate heat and power, while "gray" water will be used in low-flush toilets or naturally treated in adjacent wetlands.

In addition to being environmentally friendly, the Eco-city is socially responsible. Officials have pledged that one-fifth of the flats will be subsidized low cost housing and the 2,000 villagers who are being relocated for the project are guaranteed jobs and housing in the city.

The design of the Eco-city incorporates the ideas of Harrison Fraker, dean of the College of Environmental Design at the University of California, Berkeley. After visiting China in 2006, Fraker and his design team devised innovative ways of making housing super-blocks not only greener, but enhance the sense of community within these developments and their surrounding areas as well.

The ideas include placing photovoltaic panels (PVs) on building rooftops and using them as sun shades for south facing windows. Fraker calculates that these PVs, along with rooftop wind conversion machines, could supply up to 80 percent of the electricity load of apartments using energy efficient light bulbs and appliances.

Fraker's team also suggests that only individual apartment blocks, rather than the entire super-block should be gated. This design feature recognizes that gated communities, exemplified by Beijing's Siheyuan, or courtyard houses, are ingrained in the Chinese cultural consciousness, while keeping the larger super-block open for pedestrians and cyclists.

Such ideas and the Tianjin Eco-city are a radical departure from how Beijing's housing super-blocks, especially ones on the outskirts of the city, are typically constructed. These get built after the city government lays out an arterial road system and utility companies put down power, water and sewage mains. The developer then throws up the complex, which is typically gated with just one entrance, and gets it plugged into the centralized power and water grid.

Thanks to the grossly underpriced power and water supplied by the centralized utility grid, developers have little incentive to harness recycled waste water and biomass to supply electrical power and gas for cooking and hot water (as will done in Tianjin's Eco-city). The same holds for Fraker's ideas regarding locally generated wind and solar power. And even with the recent exemplary Chinese push for green energy, much of the power for Beijing's new housing complexes will come from coal-fired plants.

Moreover, surrounding these mega-complexes with single entry/exit fences degrades the rich street life that has long been a staple of Beijing. Individual Siheyuan may be mini-gated communities, but the hutong alleys around them are marked by dense pedestrian traffic consisting of both locals and non-locals.

Finally, this gated layout has pernicious environmental effects. Residents face longer trips to outside destinations, as they must first exit via a distant gate, encouraging them to drive, rather than bike or walk. The same goes for outsiders, as these vast fenced obstacles are hard to bike or walk around. Pollution rises and, as traffic congestion worsens, it's time to build a sixth and seventh ring road.

To be sure, the current super-block building model is cheap and convenient in the short run. However, these savings must be balanced against its considerable negative environmental and social externalities. And projects like Tianjin's Eco-city more than pay for themselves over the long run.

It is now estimated that in just five years, over 50 percent of China's people will be city-dwellers. While much of this ongoing rapid urbanization will occur in other cities, the population of Beijing is set to rise. Building new housing for these future residents matters hugely, as it can generate enormous energy savings and reduce pollution.

Indeed, Premier Wen Jiabao recently expressed concern over China's rising rate of energy consumption. Let's hope Beijing can learn from Tianjin and become a leader in building housing that is both green and socially harmonious.
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