Clean City

What looks like a sketch for a sunny Florida retirement community is actually a very early prototype of a plan to turn Dongtan, China, into the world's first carbon-neutral city. Last August, the British engineering firm Arup won the contract to design a multibillion-dollar self-sustaining urban center nearly the size of Manhattan, on Chongming, an island 25 miles outside of Shanghai. With roughly 400 million people expected to relocate to its cities by 2030, China is relying on Arup director Peter Head and his team to dream up a new blueprint for urban living. (Architect William McDonough is planning similar green enclaves in six other Chinese cities.) Human nature isn't exactly on Arup's side: China is the world's second-largest consumer of energy and producer of greenhouse gases; it is plagued by soil erosion, frequent toxic spills, and near-lethal air pollution. Unsurprisingly, some critics say the project can't possibly meet expectations: "My real problem is with . . . claiming that these cities will be truly eco-friendly when all they can be is potentially less wasteful," says William E. Rees, coauthor of Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth. Arup says the biggest hurdle will be getting investors to pony up the billions of dollars it needs to make the plan real. Either way, you have to admire the scale of its imagination.

  • Roughly 40% of Chongming Island will be urbanized, while 60% will remain agricultural. Sophisticated organic-farming techniques linked to the waste-recycling system will create a sustainable cycle of local food production to supply businesses such as restaurants and hotels.

  • Rather than importing building supplies from around the world, structures such as the sports stadium will be built with local materials.

  • Dongtan will have no petroleum- driven transportation. Cars, trams, and boats will use electrical power or hydrogen fuel cells, also reducing noise pollution.

  • Unlike most cities designed around roads, Dongtan--projected to house 20,000 people by 2010--will teem with pathways, cycling routes, and canals.

  • The dome-shaped Energy Centre will supply the entire city with power from renewable sources. It will also serve as a tourist attraction, science exhibition, environmental education center, and park.

  • In a reinterpretation of traditional Chinese housing, low-rise buildings will allow natural light to spill onto the streets; the local brick will be a natural insulator and protect against severe wind conditions.

  • Green rooftops will collect, filter, and store water; solar panels will heat it.

  • Wind turbines will line the city's western edges, meeting about 20% of its energy needs without infringing on the natural bird habitat to the east. Visitors arriving from the west will see the environmental wall around the city.

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