Ecocity 5: Shenzhen, China, 2002

Host organization: City of Shenzhen

Conveners: Rusong Wang and Richard Register

Garden City Shenzhen

Garden City Shenzhen enthusiastically hosted Ecocity 5, organized by Rusong Wang, director of the Center for Environmental and Ecological Sciences at the Chinese Academy of Science. Since then, Rusong has become a member of the People’s Congress of China. Shenzhen had just won a national prize as a garden city for its natural restoration efforts: in strips and patches of natural and agricultural areas, in mangrove forests on the coast and agricultural allotments adjacent and inside its rapidly expanding boundaries. In Shenzhen, ecocity practitioners from around the world were a little worried to see that a “greenbelt” was a strip of green hedges and colorful flowers along a new freeway, rather than a large zone of land legally precluded from development surrounding the city. Cars were the passion of the prosperous — prosperity the goal of everyone. Enormous new buildings, rising everywhere almost from horizon to horizon under a forest of cranes, were separated by double-wide streets and separated further yet with golf courses dividing the city into distances well beyond the walkable or even bikable.

And yet, buses zipped about full of people looking as satisfied with things as people anywhere else. Below-street pedestrian and bicycle passageways that were wide, high, roomy and so pleasantly shady provided a new environment for small streetside businesses, like food stands and bicycle repair stations. Buildings often had rooftop gardens alternating with hovering shade structures to cool the buildings in the hot climate of south China. The gardeners on these rooftops were saturating the lawns, flowers, bushes and trees with insecticide; but at the same time, somehow, thousands of colorful dragonflies patrolled the skies with aerobatic impunity! The towering monsoon thunderheads breathed down waves of cool breezes, then hot, then cool again — refreshing, then stifling, then refreshing.


Ken Yeang, architect of “bio-climatic” buildings adapting cooling and air freshening design to larger buildings was one of our key speakers in a country building cities at a withering rate. His three- or four-story “sky courts” carved into the sides of tall buildings for dense hot climate cities laid down the challenge for innovation for transit-oriented dense cities. Richard Register gave the keynote, following the history of evolving urban form leading up to the enormous problems and potential for healthy change. He didn’t candycoat the car culture leadership of the United States in the wrong, energy squandering, climate-distorting direction. Ecocities, he said, are a large part of the solution. Leadership can come from anywhere.

Using art and historic preservation in transforming aging port facilities into a wildlife refuge, presented by Chinese landscape artist You Kongjian, preserving migratory bird sanctuaries on the Chinese coast discussed by Vice Mayor of Shenzhen Zho Qinruji, biological treatment and recycling of human waste in the slums of Egypt, India ad the Philippines by Mayling Simpson, and the ecological costs of the stampede into materialism in Southeast Asia related by Fong Wai Fong were among the many topics. From Vancouver, British Columbia to Auroville, India city designs were compared by planners Ian Smith and Lalit Bhati. English waterways restoration and economic redesign of whole industrial cities for reversing decline was a powerful case study related by Ian Douglas. Progress in Adelaide, Australia for Urban Ecology Australia’s ecological downtown project was reported by Paul Downton, latest news from Curitiba and the latest and coming public transportation news from the European Union were presented by Maria Rosario and Belgian architect and planner Pierre Laconte.

With a whole new cultural experience following on conferences in Brazil, Senegal, Australia and the US, delegates left Ecocity 5 with the sense of excitement and foreboding that a serious peek into a healthy future on a development juggernaut provides. Those of us from the US were particularly concerned that our country was setting a poor example for developing countries with hundreds of millions of people following, or even celebrating the “stampede.” It was evident that even if our country changed its course to provide a better example most would insist on their turn at the wheel and feel successful and even righteous in their driving. But with stronger theory and experience shared at Ecocity 5, the conferees returned home with a clearer mission and stronger set of tales and tools for change.