Report from China – Progress at Tianjin Eco-city and Promise at Nanjing

By Richard Register, Founder and President, Ecocity Builders
Richard Register 2012
Richard Register

What on Earth is going on? Well, the US is big and cars are losing popularity gradually as young people turn to portable electronic communications, take in the advantages and direct experience of the pleasures of urban life – and can rent the damn things for travel to the country any time they want and save thousands of dollars every year. (Maybe rising college tuition is a factor against cars for the youthful…) In Russia, still bristling with nuclear weapons, Pussy Riot is threatening to bring down the 13 year Putin regime – at least someone still prays over there even if in dance and song. In China, biggest of all, four times the population of the United States, they are building automobile infrastructure like crazy and, for the last two years buying more cars than Americans are. And attempting at the same time to build what they call eco-cities.

tianjin ecocity flowers
“Tong Yen Ho, the former UN senior diplomat from Singapore and CEO of the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-city Investment and Development Co. Ltd. Sent us this image of the new building cluster just completed with solar electric power and showpiece field of sunflowers

That’s the strong card in my hand since I came up with the term many years ago and there and in Korea I get credit for the linguistic innovation. California Governor Jerry Brown doesn’t answer my mail though I knew him and worked with him for a couple years just before he became Oakland Mayor, traveled with him three times to his 25,000 acre spread west of Williams to dream about his ranch’s future and ecocity designs and organized a number of seminars at his We the People “compound” in Jack London Square. But in China I meet with the country’s second in command for housing, rural and urban development Qiu Boaxing, big developers and heads of city planning agencies. So we do the best we can and China is currently more friendly than the US to my work. To say, with its stunning rate of building, China is the place to be if you are interested in new city development is a 21st century understatement.

This was my third trip to Tianjin Eco-city and second to speak at the world Binhai Eco-city Forum in the new development district on the coast next door to Tianjin proper. I was hired earlier this year by Xuefeng Lin, Director of the project known as the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-city. My assignment: to write a report from Ecocity Builders’ perspective on the SSTEC effort, throwing in a few added suggestions for amendments into the future. I found their project inspiring.

There was to be a predecessor: Dongtan, the “worlds first ecocity” according to Arup, the engineering firm from England that was doing the main design and planning for that effort to be located on Chongming Island just north of Shanghai. But mysteriously all work ceased on the project. I think it had something to do with the fact that the chief local champion of the project, a high politician in Shanghai, ended up in jail for 18 years for corruption and influence pedaling, which tends to dampen things in that country where honor and saving face is a prerequisite for surviving, much less leadership. That, back around 2009, left standing only Masdar in Abu Dhabi and just-starting Tianjin Eco-city as the world’s two remaining serious new town ecocity contenders. Given that Masdar represents the weirdest of circumstances – deep pockets of money from literally deep pockets of oil nearby, which almost nobody else in the world has, makes considerably less relevant as a model for any kind of city much less an ecocity. And it’s in an enormous desert so hot and large the only way it can survive is by shipping in massive amount of food from great distances spending the energy they save on compact development just to keep the city relatively cool. News has it that much of the early enthusiasm and considerable investment money has dried up and left Masdar close to spinning its wheels there with little progress happening at the present time. That leaves Tianjin Eco-city, and the first to use the word I made up back in 1979 in its official name. Am I happy to be involved? Very.

How’s it doing? Pretty well. The first 200 families are moved in and more coming quickly. But you’d think by looking at the scale and number of the buildings 20,000 families would already be there. That’s because the interiors of dozens of buildings in the 10 to 20 story range are still being worked on while many are rising pillars, slabs and floor plates surround by ever rising scaffolding and those green sheets of cloth that keep falling material under control and dampen the breezes in the structures under construction. The first shopping center has about five stores, an exercise club, a couple restaurants and more stores being outfitted for opening shortly. A modest sized Hilton Hotel in traditional Chinese style is to be opened in the early New Year. Classes are underway at the first high school for residents and a few students from outside.

China 1
A section under construction of the future eco-valley pedestrian and bicycle pathway that will run the full north to south length of Tianjin Eco-city.

The pedestrian and bicycle path that runs the length of the whole project from south to north, which they call their “eco-valley,” which it looks something like since buildings lift up like hills around it, is linking up block by block. The national animation center, a big, high tech facility is buzzing along, and cart wheeling wind electric machines are popping up here and there some reaching higher than the tallest buildings. A string of solar electric panels is stretched out what looks like a couple miles along the highway to the east of the project providing a significant slice of the energy for the eco-city. The neighborhood buildings around the project offices are nearing completion, heated and cooled largely by geothermal energy, sometimes called geo-exchange, exchanging heat from ground to piped water to buildings. The system uses the steady mid range temperatures of the earth deep below the surface to augment and reduce the requirements for achieving comfortable temperatures for interiors by pumping water underground then around the neighborhood buildings. For heating in winter some gas is burned in their co-generation facility that provides some of the site’s electricity, “waste” heat added to the mid range temperatures from the geo-exchange system.

Restoration of natural habitat in the area? Better than restoration since they are creating environments along their waterways that harbor more biodiversity than existed there before. That initiative is more like an example of cities’ ability to turn a net contribution to life systems if you simply design them that way.

The weak side of the story there is the general layout following the development pattern so well established in China at this point, which looks every bit as if created to encourage driving. Their goal is 90% “green trips” by 2020, meaning that 90% of all trips anywhere, commuting or local, would be by foot, bicycle or transit. I’m assured that the long, wide streets that stretch along the “super blocks” that must have four to eight times the land area of the typical American urban block, will be interrupted by signal light controlled pedestrian and bicycle crosswalks to dampen the speed and mellow out the psychology of the driver in the car while making the whole environment more friendly to the cyclist and person on foot. Their goal that improves the alternatives while not talking about what they are alternative to, is a somewhat delicate criticism of cars – they could name names and say, “We are trying to get rid of them as quickly as we can.” But in China, as in the USA, and everywhere else I can think of, the automobile has almost sacred status, the fetish of overmobility as a German friend once called the hurtling boxes of metal and glass on rubber. It is so taboo that of course the Key Performance Indicators guiding development at Tianjin Eco-city don’t mention the car at all, and even our own International Ecocity Framework and Standards (IEFS) eschew direct criticism. Implied yes, explicitly stated, not so much. Meantime I dream of the day we pass over the threshold and can just say with impunity that this strange thing that weighs 30 times as much as a human being, goes ten times and fast and takes up 1000 times the volume of space over the surface it requires – parking as well as driving space – is just a dangerous, damaging thing to design cities around. Better to design cities for people. But meantime we prepare the ground for the leap over the threshold into a new world of ecocities pouring forth.

Kenneth Boulding once said peace in the world might be something like the myth of Sisyphus: you keep rolling the rock up the hill toward the summit but it slips away and falls back and you try again and again. It’s hard but once you get to the top and over the rock rolls ever faster down the other side. He used the example of slavery, an institution that goes back thousands of years to even before city-based civilization began… evaporating in the 19th century. (People quibble that we have economic slavery among some now – but they aren’t thinking through the full meaning of the reality that was full-on slavery.) Steven Pinker in his book “The Better Angeles of Our Nature – why violence has declined” points out the same humanizing trend put an end to dueling too: he says, “…dueling petered out in the English-speaking world by the middle of the 19th century… Historians have noted that the institution was buried not so much by legal bans or moral disapproval as by ridicule. ‘Solemn gentlemen went to the field of honor only to be laughed at by the younger generation, that was more than any custom, no matter how sanctified by tradition, could endure.’ (He credits only ‘Stevens,’ ‘Ridicule ended Dueling,’ 1940.) Today the expression ‘Take ten paces, turn, and fire’ is more likely to call to mind Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam than ‘men of honor.'”

All that to suggest that a civilizing trend my be just a glimmer in the eye of places like Tianjin Eco-city, but the small, almost counter culture trend away from cars might just break free and usher in a flood of real ecocities fairly soon.

Traffic jam in Beijing.

I traveled from Tianjin to Beijing to Nanjing and the morning the day after I’d arrived in Nanjing the headline in the China Daily News proclaimed “Beijing’s Traffic Slows to a Crawl.” It was good timing in that later in the morning I made a presentation to the chief city government planners of an enormous new development on the West side of Nanjing, far side of the Yangtze River, and I quickly added the image you see here, with headline, to my presentation.

The fact is that the number of cars in Beijing increases by about 8% a year and at that rate the photograph could be taken in just two or three years of a record very light day of traffic. As they are building massive development in China, though dense, the pattern is also largely designed around the demands of cars, a real disaster seems to be very close to freezing up the entire city.

Pedestrian overpass, Beijing.

Out my hotel window on another day, this time in Beijing, I noticed an enormous structure rising over the adjacent intersection. Traffic was so intense the entire surface of the intersection had been given over to cars, buses, trucks and scurrying little motorcycles and bicycles. All the pedestrians had to climb up and over the intersection on this table-like structure with stairs and a hole in the middle to connect perpendicularly across a street or diagonally across the intersection. Needless to say, there was no wheelchair access. Later I was picked up by my hosts from C&P Architects, our design and planning partners in China, who we are working with in both Beijing and Nanjing and I counted eight blocks of driving down the street that ran in front of the hotel and under such crosswalks with no opportunity for pedestrians to cross anywhere except by climbing up and over the motorized barely controlled chaos.

The happy cacophony of trees, wind electric machines and cranes in Tianjin Eco-city.

But… the opportunities for redesign, and after that on another nearby site completely fresh design from the land use patterns on up look promising in Nanjing. I was shown a model of a project involving dozens of buildings over several hundred acres. Though it was immediately evident that major commitments had been made to the usual super-sized blocks of big buildings it was also evident that a smaller area of several blocks could be carved out of the scheme for a powerful ecocity fractal. One site was especially tempting: the point where two major canals branching off the Yangtze split from one, a kind of reverse confluence. It could be a good location for what we call an ecocity “fractal,” a fraction of the whole with the essential parts of the ecocity present and well organized in miniature in just a few blocks. The big river itself is just a block’s width to one side of the interesting water course feature. The tentative layout showed in model and drawings the placement of a tall building right on the peninsula-like point of the confluence, or reverse confluence as it would more accurately be characterized, a small marina on one of the two side canals about a block from the peninsula tip of the land at the point where the three waters focused. Along one side of the development area an automobile stuffed boulevard ran and then spanned over the point of the peninsula, covering it in asphalt, and landing on the bank on the other side of one of the canals, continuing up stream along the shoreline, a daunting barrier to crossing from the town to the water’s edge.

To me the better solution by far would be to place their large building a block or two back from the point of land between the canals and integrate it into the back or side of a keyhole plaza with its open side to the point where the waters of the canals diverge. Other high density and very mixed use buildings would surround the back and sides of the plaza, looking out and over the waterways at a natural vegetation and habitat fringe of the canals, perhaps with orchards and/or various plaza arts and design elements but not the alternately careening and clogged highway right there fuming and making loud noises while completely obscuring the water and landscape that could be a restored natural feature. That, the highway, I my design, would pass north of the ecocity fractal development area including the keyhole plaza and cross the river upstream from the truly “eco-“ development. For several blocks just above the confluence, and all the way to the point, naturally, would be strictly pedestrian, serviced by bicycle and transit. I counseled all the bells and whistles, which are not frivolities at all but what would make the project the genuinely complete living organism that an ecocity fractal or whole ecotown or ecocity should be. All those features contribute essentially: accessibility to rooftops and terracing, pedestrian bridges for intimate pedestrian accessibility, gardens up there on the buildings, both native plants and orchards, restaurants, cafes and other places of pleasure with spectacular views, exterior glass elevators as part of the vertical pedestrian transportation system and facilities to make convenient, even celebrate the bicycle and transit connections. It is apparently a hot place for about half the year, so shade structures might be a good idea and yet at the same time the articulation of solar greenhouse to be tapped into for heat in the winter and plants year round. The small sheltered marina? Definitely – people love watching boats wander the waters, and taking advantage of the opportunity to be on them once in a while.

There was a basic principle here in addition to creating a full-on design for people, not cars, and that has to do with the principle of honoring both culture and nature simultaneously. The (I have to say) reflexive design offering of placing the most iconic building right on top of the most precious natural/ecological feature, the point where the canals join, with a highway jumping right over the river there and dominating the view with yet more cars, is a cultural conceit blind to nature. The product of culture, the big, fancy building gets all the attention and the key point of the people-centric design. Where is nature in this design? We can’t see it. Instead we look down from the tall building, far removed from the ground at the traffic below or at the building if we are anywhere else, missing the poetry of the beautiful location completely.

The keyhole plaza at Pira, Slovenia on the Adriatic Sea. If I were to design this plaza I would have left the opening to the water about twice as wide, but it is one of the world’s very rare plazas with a side open to an experience of nature framed by colorful building that grace the lives of the citizens.

Enough on all that, but I’ll include here a photograph of a keyhole plaza in the city of Pira in Slovenia. Imagine the basic arrangement – in the Pira case looking out over the Adriatic Sea, in Nanjing’s case toward the canals that connect with the grand Yangteze River.

One last item of note. I’ve been advocating the idea of a World Ecocity University since about 2002 and even came up with the idea on an early trip to China. The latest trip was my 16th by the way… Mr. Lan Jian, head of the office for C&P Architects at Beijing thinks the idea has enormous potential. Maybe that project too!

So it all does make me wonder if the inertia, the mental blockage that clogs up the imagination about what ecocities might be might burst away any day now releasing the flood of ecocity advance. Both the negative and the positive are strengthening – when will the bolt of lightning span the gap in a flash of enlightenment? Ah-hah! So this is the ecocity future.

Let’s go.

Myself and Xeufeng Li, Director of the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-city project enjoying a joke at dinner at the large city of Tianjin next door to the eco-city.


Richard Register is Founder and President of Ecocity Builders and can be reached at

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