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In China, overambition reins in eco-city plans

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“Anyone who hopes for a sustainable future cannot fail to see China as an opportunity for dramatic steps forward,” says Kira Gould, a spokesperson for William McDonough + Partners, a US architectural firm active in ecodesign in China.

The impact of a warming earth – which scientists trace, in part, to atmospheric gases that trap heat – would be felt in Shanghai, a city of 17 million that is vulnerable to rising sea levels. That made the promise of a low-carbon community on Chongming Island, a 30-minute boat ride across the Yangtze River, all the more appealing to former Shanghai mayor Chen Liangyu.

His enthusiasm was catching. Other Chinese cities are planning their own ecocommunities, including an Arup-designed project outside Beijing. While their scale varies, what these proposals have in common is a desire to use renewable energy to heat, cool, and power homes, while discouraging car-oriented sprawl.

In 2005, then-Prime Minister Tony Blair hailed Dongtan as a symbol of British-Chinese cooperation during a state visit to London by President Hu Jintao. Successor Gordon Brown has continued to plug the project – most recently on a visit to Shanghai in February – and frame it as a model for future British ecotowns.

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