Criticisms and Failures of the Dongtan EcoCity Proposal, Version 1.0: Excerpts from the Media

10 January 2015

“Political leaders who supported the project were ousted due to corruption scandal. Former Shanghai Communist Party Chief Chen Liangyu was sentenced in 2008 to 18 years in prison for bribery and abuse of power, process stalled after transition of shanghai mayors.”

“Though publicized internationally, most locals knew little about it.”

“Environmentalists and academics have spoken out against the project, citing its location as the last extant wetlands outside shanghai and a home to rare migratory birds.”

“Foreign forms plunge into the projects with little understanding of Chinese politics, culture, economics, or needs of local residents.”

“According to Paul French, one problem was a feud over who would fund the project (Arup- or Shanghai Industrial Investment Corporation- the Chinese government arm that owns the land). Arup assumed they would design a project then sell it to the Chinese, but the Chinese thought Arup would build the project themselves.”

“On the whole, within China, there has lately been more enthusiasm for expanding green building codes than building new cities from scratch.”

“Austin Williams, director of the Future Cities Project, writes “Dongtan, the city that was intended to be the ‘model for how to build sustainable cities worldwide’ should still provide a lesson for us all. Blindly praising its environmental credentials without recognising its squat, low-rise, parochial, carbon-fetishising, architecturally unappealing, unworkable urban eco-clichés, is a recipe for future disasters.””

“Peter Head, project leader from Arup told Fred Pierce in his article for the Guardian “China does everything by the rules handed down from the top. There is a rule for everything. The width of roads, everything. That is how they have developed so fast, by being totally prescriptive. We wanted to change the rules in Dongtan, to do everything different. But when it comes to it, China cannot deliver that.””

“Most developed sustainable urban community may be sino-singapore Tianjin EcoCity- it has commitments from companies and investment groups that have provided a high level of support beyond that of its major stakeholders.”

“Buildings in Shanghai continue to spring up without loft insulation or double glazing. “Just fixing that would reduce electricity massively,” Paul French (Shanghai-based director of the market research company AccessAsia) said.”

“China’s Eco City projects face at least one of the following challenges:

Shifting Political Leadership

Dedicated upper-level political support can make a huge difference to project success.  In most cases, Chinese local officials, especially those in the top ranks (i.e., Secretary-Generals of local party committees and/or local mayors) have service terms of five years, and can serve for a maximum of two terms. So if a local leader resigns or is transferred elsewhere, this could signal termination of the local Eco-City development plan that the leader originally supported.

This happened to the Dong Tan project when former Mayor and Party Secretary-General of Shanghai, Chen Liangyu, was removed from his position in 2006 due to corruption charges. Dong Tan has since had trouble bringing in additional investment to continue the project, and  some previously committed investment was withdrawn because donors did not want to be connected with projects supported by a convicted leader.

Non-green incentives 

Green design never comes free. Large-scale development projects like Eco-Cities require significant investment that generally exceeds the financial capacity of local governments. As a result, governments typically bid out the development rights to business groups, which are tasked with investing in and building out components of the project under the government’s macro-management. Out of self-interest, business developers tend to start with sub-projects that guarantee the quickest and highest return on investment, which in the current economic situation usually means residential housing units.

It’s no wonder, then, that most ongoing Eco-City initiatives are actually real estate projects. Some are indeed built in adherence with strict green codes, but others are purely commercial facilities with no specific environmental or ecological goals. For example, there were reports (see one of the report here [in Chinese]) that some of the projects under Wan Zhuang Eco-City’s development plan were actually for private golf clubs. Moreover, because many of the residential communities that have been built with concrete environmental standards are significantly more expensive than their non-green counterparts, China’s Eco-Cities might eventually become enclaves for high-income households only. This raises the question of whether this is in line with Eco-City principles, or, more profoundly, whether access to green goods or services creates an unjustified gap between urban dwellers.

A convenient truth 

The fact that China’s existing Eco-City projects tend to focus largely on real estate development also raises a quality-control question at the conceptual level: does a green-designed residential community even count as an Eco-City? By definition, a city should be able to accommodate a full range of functions covering all the major aspects of its residents’ work and life. Under Paloheimo’s definition, an Eco-City is designed to be a closed system (on the resource and material level) and doesn’t address such qualification questions.

Maybe the Eco-City concept isn’t really relevant when applied to existing cities. But in China’s case, where a significant share of these projects is based on the development of previously non-existent city districts, the question becomes crucial. It’s hard to imagine an Eco-City where most of its population would have to travel in-and-out of city bounds frequently to earn a living (green or otherwise).

Reviewing all of the so-called “Eco-City” initiatives on China’s map (see right), we couldn’t help but notice that this moniker is being conveniently added to any urban development plan, as long as the planned municipality boasts some “low-carbon economic sectors” such as tourism, recreation, and information technology, and that it vows to depend to some degree on renewable energy and a closed-cycle material management system.

If this is accomplished and operates strictly as planned, then these newly built cities might generate minimum or even zero environmental impact. But it seems that none of these plans opted to internalize the wider costs associated with urban development, specifically the tremendous materials and energy needed to build up the infrastructure of these Eco-Cities. Certainly, tourism or recreation alone would generate far fewer carbon emissions. But if the environmental and energy costs of developing these low-carbon sectors were included, it is unlikely that any of these Eco-City projects (from a life-cycle perspective) could achieve carbon neutrality, much less their intended goals of reduced carbon emissions and energy use.

Bigger ecological concerns 

Even if life-cycle analysis proved that China’s Eco-City projects themselves would result in near-zero environmental impacts, these efforts would likely present other ecological impacts that are not currently factored into the equation. Developing a new Eco-City could easily eat up hundreds of square kilometers of land that might be of indispensable ecological or other value to China or the world. One of the reasons that the Dong Tan project was put on hold is that the planned Eco-City would have been built on valuable farmland, which China is now viewing as a strategic asset in terms of food security.

In addition, Dong Tan is an important stopover for migratory birds, including 12 endangered species and dozens of other birds listed in the National Protected Animal Catalog. The potential impacts on migration patterns of the region’s Eco-City and other large-scale urban planning projects has yet to be assessed. In 1998, years before the inception of the Eco-City, more than 326 square kilometers of Dong Tan was established as a National Nature Reserve to protect area wetlands—a potential conflict that local government officials must have been aware of before they started conceiving the Eco-City idea.

In principle, cities can be ecologically or environmentally friendly, but a long-term green vision alone is not enough. Project implementers and local officials need to pay special attention to the steps that they are taking to achieve those goals. Most importantly, green concepts like Eco-Cities should not be used as an advertising tactic to attract outside investment for less environmentally friendly, more traditional development. In short, to build a sustainable future, the approaches and processes being utilized should be sustainable in practice as well.”

“Dongtan hit the headlines first when it began in 2005, then when it was put on hold a few years later. It is a Chinese-British new building project outside Shanghai on the island of Chongming, in the estuary of the Yangtze River. Here there are plans for an urban area with half a million inhabitants, able to produce both their own energy from renewable sources and some of their food through organic farming. Buildings are to be energy efficient, and transportation almost carbon-free by means of fuel-cell-driven public transport and a network of bicycle and pedestrian paths. But almost nothing has been built as of yet. The World Bank states that this has to do with many factors: problems of funding; changes in priorities with local government; and issues of environmental policy such as the great commuting distance to Shanghai and the choice of Dongtan’s location in globally vital wetlands.”


Research on Eco-City viability relevant for Chongming Island:

One planner of Chongming eco-island described the decision to adopt Arup’s Dongtan eco-city approach as more historical accident than intentional action:

“The Shanghai Government opened the competition for Dongtan’s master plan withonly one criterion in mind: Shanghai wanted to use the large undivided parcels of undeveloped land on Chongming Island to build something that either had not been seen in other cities or would be the biggest among whatever other cities have… Several international architectural companies submitted their designs for competition, with wide coverage of themes like convention centers, hotels, theme parks… After Arup first presented their idea of building an eco-city, the [Communist] Party secretary of Shanghai was convinced that an eco-city would be a good idea as it goes well with the General Secretary of the Party’s political guidelines for creating a harmonious society and sustaining agricultural development.


Studio Press Release

April 17th, 2013

Georgia Tech Group is Planning the Future of International Urban Waterfronts

A group of City & Regional Planning and Architecture graduate students  traveled to Taiwan during their Spring Break to conduct research and share ideas with government and higher education as part of a semester-long studio project. Led by Professors Perry Yang, Richard Dagenhart, and Nancey Green Leigh, the group is working with the government of  Kaohsiung, an industrial port city, to create a waterfront redevelopment plan.

The group met with the Deputy Mayor and representatives from the Taiwan Port Authority and local Bureaus of Urban Development and Economic Development. Kaohsiung’s port land was previously owned by the Port Authority and used exclusively for heavy industry and shipping.  This activity has increasingly moved away from the historic waterfront piers as Kaohsiung became one of the largest container ports in the world.  The city government is now engaged in plans and projects to redevelop hundreds of acres of contaminated land along the waterfront.

Local government officials presented their four high profile  and innovative design waterfront projects of a pop music center, passenger cruise ship terminal, convention center, and library. The Georgia Tech students and professors presented ideas on the use of urban Free Economic Zones, areas of deregulated economic activity created to promote foreign direct investment and boost job growth. Additionally, they discussed fostering urban redevelopment with international educational institutions as anchors, utilizing urban design to create waterfront accessibility for a wide range of users, and revising zoning regulations to allow a mix of residential and economic activity for a vibrant, sustainable waterfront. They cited examples from their earlier research trip to New York City exploring its waterfront redevelopment, and especially notable efforts to support manufacturing and creative industries in the historic Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Having the chance to see firsthand the area of redevelopment need, gather support information, and share ideas directly with the city of Kaohsiung, greatly enriches the students and professors’ understanding of the challenges and opportunities for redeveloping Kaohsiung’s historic portlands.  The group was also featured in Kaohsiung’s local newspaper just days after their visit to the city.

The studio’s waterfront redevelopment plan will be completed by the end of the spring semester. For more information, visit the studio group’s website:


Photo Credit: Sinan Sinharoy

Kaohsiung Photos

We’re back from our Spring Break in Taiwan! It was a great experience to finally see the city of Kaohsiung by car, train, foot, boat, and bicycle. The local government officials were incredibly hospitable and made us feel right at home. We presented our information to the Deputy Mayor and representatives from the port authority,  the bureau of Economic Development, and Urban Development.

The discussion that resulted from our presentations was very useful–it gave us a much better idea of the projects that are currently going on in the city, as well as the work that we need to do for the rest of the semester. We are excited to move forward and create a waterfront redevelopment plan for the city that will be useful for the government and citizens of the great city of Kaohsiung. Now, here are some of our photos.

Organizational Framework

We are now clear about the framework of the team operation in this stage. The studio will target on producing a hypothetical proposal before the Taiwan field trip. This is the initial team profile–we will make modifications in the future as we see fit.

1. Policy group, focusing on Free Economic Zone, a review of its concept, global best practices and a planning framework for Kaohsiung – Sinan, Liwei

2. Design group: Johnny, Canon, Dawn, Sherene, Rebecca

North bank Piers 1-12: Dawn, Sherene and Rebecca – to develop conceptual urban design for the creative design industry and small-medium size business community. The public spatial framework has been clearly set, as you can see in your sketches as well as my 2006 International competition submission. We aim for visualizing the unique waterfront quality, maritime image, industrial and port feature by adaptive reused design strategy to provide an adaptable, flexible framework and detailed quality for accommodating diverse groups and programs. The design should demonstrate the shaping of a stimulating innovative working environment, waterfront as a public urban room and a display stage of creative design industry.

South bank Piers 13-22: Johnny and Canon – to define urban form and strategy of the core area of the Free Economic Zone, an “off-shore financial center” that is in priority agenda of the Kaohsiung City Government, with a political tension to Central Government. Urban design as a development proposal would define its function, scale and then the physical organization of the special district. Interpretation of values and interested from multiple stakeholders will be the key, including  the city government, central government, stakeholders (like those state-owned corporation) and international investors and local community.

3.  Zoning Group- City GIS Laboratory group: Daniel, Lauren, Rebecca, Liwei, Sinan and Steven

To examine Kaohsiung’s current zoning system, their problems and limitation, and then propose a revised system that is performance based and then deal with urban design quality control. This job may define one of the most significant impact of Georgia Tech’s work to Kaohsiung’s current planning and its waterfront.

3D GIS as the City Laboratory/The zoning and rezoning modeling of Kaohsiung: We will build a data, performance analysis and scenarios planning modeling from “existing”, “current zoning model” to “rezoning model”.  — North bank by Daniel and Rebecca; South bank by Lauren, Sinan, Liwei and Steven; Daniel to coordinate the 3D GIS system management.

NYC Zoning models and best practices: Lauren (Overlay zoning systems, special district planning) and Daniel (rezoning). Lauren to coordinate the NYC zoning model and case study chapter


New York Photos

We’re back in Atlanta from a great weekend in New York. Thanks to Bruce Stiftel, the Chair of City & Regional Planning, for making it possible for so many of us to go. We enjoyed meeting with Patrick Too and others from the Department of City Planning who are working on New York’s waterfront planning. The areas we visited included Chinatown, Central Park, the Midtown densification area, the West waterfront, Chelsea Market, the East waterfront near the UN headquarters, and Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Schedule for New York

We’re going to New York, yall! Here is our itinerary.

Georgia Tech Field trip to NYCFebruary 8-11, 2013

Feb 8 Friday

6:45am – Flight Atlanta – NYC (LaGuardia)

9:45am – Meeting point: 22 Reade St. (Near Brooklyn Bridge, north of City Hall, West of Municipal Bldg)

10am – Meeting at Department of City Planning NYC with Mr.Patrick Too, Thaddeus Pawlowski, Michael Marrella,

Venue: the 3rd FL conference room

1. Michael Marrella on NYC waterfront master plan

2. Patrick Too on East Midtown Rezoning

2pm – Visit Ground Zero Site

Feb 9 Saturday

8:30am – Meeting point: high line entrance at 23rd Street

8:30am-1pm – Site walk at West Side waterfront, High Line Park and surrounding

2-5pm – Site walk at Battery Park City waterfront

6pm – Dinner at China Town (Chinese New Year Eve)

Feb 10 Sunday   (Daniel to send out tour proposal)

9:00am –  Meeting point: Grand Central Terminal, the Apple shop

9:00-10:30am – Site walk at East Midtown projects

11am-3pm – Site walk at East Riverfront

3pm –  Free time

Feb 11 Monday

9:20am – Meeting point: BLDG 92 Exhibits and Programs, Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation. 63 Flushing Ave. (and Carlton Ave), Unit 300.

9:30-11:00am – Meeting with Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation and bus tour

11:00-11:30am – Site walk in the neighborhoods, Navy Yard and Green Point surroundings

11:30am-12:30pm – Meeting with Jenifer Becker at Pratt Center of Community Development, 536 Myrtle Avenue, 3rd floor (The entrance to the building is actually not on the street but you will see a Utrecht art supply store and a post office.  In between those two storefronts is a courtyard. Walk through the courtyard and to the left and you will see the entrance to the building.)

7pm – Flight NYC (LaGuardia) to Atlanta


Thanks for visiting the official website of Professor Perry Yang’s Waterfront Revitalization studio. Our team of Georgia Tech graduate students and faculty members is working with the city government of Kaohsiung, Taiwan to develop a waterfront revitalization plan for the city. We will be using Manhattan’s waterfront as a benchmark for the analysis, and the eventual goal is to present a well-rounded report will assist the city of Kaohsiung to develop its waterfront to be economically vibrant, environmentally sustainable, and resilient to climate change.