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Three years ago, Alejandro Gutierrez got a strange and tantalizing message from Hong Kong. Some McKinsey consultants were putting together a business plan for a big client that wanted to build a small city on the outskirts of Shanghai. But the land, at the marshy eastern tip of a massive, mostly undeveloped island at the mouth of the Yangtze River, was a migratory stop for one of the rarest birds in the world â€” the black-faced spoonbill, a gangly white creature with a long, flat beak.
McKinsey wanted to know if the developer, the Shanghai Industrial Investment Corporation, could bring businesses to the island without messing up thet bird habitat. The consultants thought Gutierrez's firm could figure it out. Gutierrez, an architect and urban designer for engineering and design giant Arup, didn't know anything about birds. But he was a veteran of several big-city design projects in his native Chile and something of a young star at Arup's London headquarters. The scope of the idea awed him. A whole new city? Were they serious? More important, could Arup get in on it? He quickly caught a flight to Shanghai.
Today Gutierrez and a team of Arup specialists from Europe, North America, and Asia are finalizing a plan for a scratch- built metropolis called Dongtan. Anywhere else in the world, it would have been a thought exercise, done up pretty for a design book or a museum show. But Shanghai's economy is growing three times faster than the US economy did at the height of the dotcom boom. More than 2,000 high-rises have gone up within city limits in the past decade. The city's most famous stretch of skyline, including the jewel-box-like Jin Mao Tower and the purple rocket-shaped Pearl TV Tower, was a rice paddy just 20 years ago. Now some 130 million people live within a two and a half hour drive of downtown. Even the wild ideas get built here.
Dongtan breaks ground later this year on a plot about the size of Manhattan on Chongming Island. The first condos and commercial space will hit the market by 2010, around the time a 12-mile bridge and tunnel combo and subway extension will link the city to Shanghai's new international airport (45 minutes away) and financial district (30 minutes). By 2050, Dongtan will have a half-million residents, more than Miami or Atlanta today.
That may count as a cozy little town in a country of 1.3 billion people. But Dongtan is a dramatic gambit, and not just because a whole city will rise, fully realized, from nothing. With Dongtan, Arup is testing a radical new approach to urban design, one that suggests cities across China and the rest of the developing world can actually get greener as they grow. "Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, SOM, HOK are all doing better or worse design," Gutierrez says, subtly dismissing some of the architecture world's biggest names (including at least one that angled for the Dongtan job). "But they're not addressing the central problem of this age â€” resource efficiency â€” and how it relates to cultural, social, and economic development."
Mao Tse-tung believed the natural world was all that stood between Communist China and its industrial future. His country, he said in a 1940 speech, "must use natural science to understand, conquer, and change nature." And conquer it did. Forests were razed, up to 90 percent of the trees in some provinces. The government, in a scheme to accelerate steel production, forced Beijing residents to smelt metal in hundreds of thousands of polluting backyard furnaces. New factories dumped untreated waste into the rivers until they turned a deep, noxious black. When China's economy began to take off in the 1980s, conditions got worse. Foreign firms put their most toxic manufacturing operations in China. Sudden prosperity, and a rush to boomtowns like Shanghai, drove energy demand well beyond what the grid could provide. Today, China opens an average of one new coal-fired power plant per week, the main reason it will pass the US in the next two years as the world's biggest source of CO2 emissions. Since 2001, China has increased its emissions more than every other industrialized country in the world combined.
The plan was never to pollute forever; it was to chase wealth at any cost and clean up later. And that made some sense. Even now, after three decades of rapid economic growth, more than 160 million Chinese still live on less than a dollar a day. The trouble is, environmental degradation has become a drag on China's development. The government revealed last year that environmental damage costs the economy $200 billion a year, a full 10 percent of China's GDP. The cost to public heath and quality of life may be even greater. Overcultivation, overgrazing, and massive timber consumption have turned a quarter of China's land into desert. Over 400 million Chinese drink contaminated water. When still air settles over Shanghai, the sky turns thick and white, the horizon the color of a nicotine stain. The government figures that 300,000 people die prematurely each year from polluted air. When I visited the neighborhood surrounding Shanghai's oldest power plant â€” a maze of narrow streets and tiny homes that seem piled one on top of the another â€” I caught a breath of warm air from a row of exhaust vents, coughed until my chest burned, and then gagged.
Arup believes good design can do something about this mess. Dongtan's master plan â€” hundreds of pages of maps, schematics, and data â€” has almost nothing to say about architectural style. Instead, it outlines the world's first green city, every block engineered in response to China's environmental crisis. It's like the source code for an urban operating system. "We're not focused on the form," Gutierrez explains. "We're focused on the performance of the form." He and his team imagine a city powered by local, renewable energy, with superefficient buildings clustered in dense, walkable neighborhoods; a recycling scheme that repurposes 90 percent of all waste; a network of high tech organic farms; and a ban on any vehicle that emits CO2.
From the beginning, the operation has been risky. Foreign architects can quickly lose control of their Chinese projects and lose face when developers decide to cut costs and redesign on the fly. Many glimmering Shanghai towers look like Tokyo on the outside but Moscow on the inside. And China loves its monuments. Dongtan could easily devolve into a Potemkin eco-village, a show-offy display of green technology that fails as a living, working community. "We were dubious, of course, at the beginning as to whether the client was really committed," Gutierrez says. And even if SIIC stayed idealistic, nobody had ever designed and built a green city before. Arup could get it wrong and simply push sprawl into one of the few remaining green spaces around Shanghai. But China is in a position to chart a smarter path, not just for its own exploding cities but for the booming urban hubs around the world â€” Dubai, Khartoum, Lagos, Mumbai, Rio de Janeiro â€” where populations are set to double in the next 30 years. "We thought Dongtan was a rare chance," Gutierrez says, "to demonstrate that growth could happen a different way."