How Many Of China’s 200 New Eco-Cities Will Actually Be Built?

As China races to house 1 billion new urban residents and address environmental decline, a new scale of sustainable thinking is emerging. But good intentions aren’t enough.

In the 1990s, billionaire Zhang Yue was the first person in China to own a private jet. Now, he’s given up his planes and helicopters, along with most other material possessions. He seems embarrassed by his office building, which was modeled on the Palace of Versailles. Zhang’s new mission: To help save the environment by building ultra-efficient skyscraper cities around the world, starting with Sky City, a project that aims to house 31,000 people in a single sustainable building.


Zhang isn’t alone in his quest. There are more than 200 “eco-cities” planned in China now, as the country races to address issues like climate change while providing homes for the 1 billion people who will move to cities in the next 15 years.

A documentary called Ecopolis China tells Zhang’s story, along with that of another pioneer, Eero Paloheimo, a Finnish professor who has failed to bring his own eco-city vision to Europe for the last decade, and now has turned to China.

“The thought of a bunch of Finnish engineers in an office in Helsinki, planning an eco-city for China, struck me as an important story about our time of globalization, climate change, and the challenges of urbanization,” says filmmaker Anna-Karin Grönroos.

As the movie begins, Paloheimo is full of hope for his design for Eco Valley, a carbon-neutral, totally self-sufficient city to be built in a village not far from Beijing. After struggling to get anyone to listen in Europe, suddenly things are happening almost instantly in China.

“It’s all the red tape and bureaucracy that makes it so slow,” he says. “But when I come here, it just takes a month to get off the ground.” Later, though, things change. Paloheimo seems to be missing the political savvy needed to get the funds to start the project, and after over a dozen trips to China, everything falls apart. First compromises are suggested in the sustainability of the design, and then it seems like the project is completely abandoned.

Zhang and Paloheimo are opposites: Zhang’s the prototypical entrepreneur, energetically jumping to solve every challenge he encounters, and Paloheimo, who looks a little like a cross between a mad professor and a Finnish version of Santa Claus, is quiet and resigned.


In the end, despite some frantic progress, neither project is guaranteed a future. Eco Valley seems like it may never happen. And Sky City was supposed to be completed in a record-breaking 90 days in 2013, but the project was stopped because of concerns about safety. “The construction halted last summer and hasn’t proceeded after that,” says Grönroos, who hopes to return to China to make another film when construction resumes–perhaps, if all goes well, later this year.

The movie is only available in Europe at the moment; here’s hoping someone decides to distribute it in the U.S. There’s a quote at the beginning of the documentary that sums up how important these projects are: “The choices made in the construction of China’s cities will determine the future of the world.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.