According to a study by Nanjing University’s School of the Environment, smog has been linked to 31.8% of all deaths in China, with major cities in Hebei, the province that encircles Beijing, ranking among the worst. Conscious about the country’s environmental challenges, the Chinese government has slowly but surely introduced regulations to counter the effects of years of overpopulation and industrialization. Adding to China’s established 650 cities, the country is building 285 eco-cities, from the eastern seaboard to the outskirts of Central Asia, and from Inner Mongolia to the jungly hinterlands of the south.
“In the West, eco-cities are supposed to save the world; in China they are simply meant to provide a decent quality of urban environment,” says Jiaotong-Liverpool University professor and urban writer Austin Williams. “In the West, eco-cities are about nature: carbon reduction, restricting cars, minimizing consumption, and restraint; while in China they are still about people, economic growth, improved conditions, better mobility, and social progress…China’s eco-cities are simply intended to be much-needed urban improvements and infrastructural development with an eco-prefix.”
As such, the eco-cities will look nothing like the Forest City slated for completion by 2020 in Southern China. Part of a collaboration between Liuzhou Municipality and Stefano Boeri Architetti, an Italian urban planning studio, the Forest City will cover 175 hectares with 40,000 trees and one million plants of 100 different species.
Little has been said about the eco-cities’ project underway. However, it is confirmed that 80 percent of prefectural cities – those ranking below a province and above a county in China’s administrative structure – are estimated to have at least one project contributing to the environmental “cleanup” that the government is working on. It is estimated that more than half of the country’s urban development projects will have “green,” “smart,” “low-carbon,” or “eco” included in their labels. Most eco-cities are built on once-polluted or non-arable land, complying with the Chinese Three Star system green architectural standard (equivalent to the American LEED system), and using innovative, progressive urban planning with a focus on mass transit and road infrastructure.
The World Bank has been urging China to pull back urban sprawl, increase the population density of Chinese cities and improve intercity connectivity. If the Chinese government follows the World Bank’s recommendations, it will make financial as well as environmental improvements, according to the World Bank. Five years ago, the government started working on new cities, gave them labels with “eco-” prefixes. It then began marketing the cities as a more convenient and affordable alternative for populations struggling in big established cities like Beijing.