Visiting Tianjin Eco-city, continued…

Buildings under construction behind a decorative restraining wall of a bridge


Very positive really because they are both trying out physically and adding to their ambition by committing the name “eco-city” in their project. The project is a joint effort with the Singapore City/State Government and the Chinese National Government, with the official name Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-city. In quick outline that anyone can read on Wikipedia it’s “a collaborative agreement between the governments of China <> and Singapore <> to jointly develop a socially harmonious, environmentally friendly and resource-conserving city in China. Designed to be practical, replicable and scalable, the Tianjin Eco-city will demonstrate the determination of both countries in tackling environmental protection, resource and energy conservation, and sustainable development, and serve as a model for sustainable development for other cities in China.” (I’m gloating over my good luck to have come up with the term under which they march toward a healthier future! I hope it counts to the credit of our hard work in the organization publishing this newsletter and leads to much more influence and better funding. Take that as a hint, dear members or prospects, to send in your dues now or join if you are not already a member.)

Looking from a plank walkway along a river’s edge toward construction in the heart of Tianjin Eco-city

Anyway, to continue with the positive… Wind machines fluttering everywhere, wetlands designed to help attract birds and serve as nurseries to fish are already constructed along the borders of the waterways here, including one canal that’s 1,000 years old, apparently best of building materials (other than the as usually required for taller buildings: concrete and steel), methods not yet put into physical form for catching rain water and recycling such that the city would require half what would be otherwise expected in this location per person. They are expecting to desalinate ocean water too. The plan for transport is for a single streetcar line to link down the middle connecting one big, dense and two almost as big centers of development that rise from the medium high remainder of the city. Throughout the city there is to be a network of bicycle and footpaths between the big buildings under construction as I write. Waterways, half natural, half artificial penetrate the city in many windy corridors. Another positive, it seemed to me while having lunch at their cafeteria for employees in a bright red building on the edge between a higher density area and a nature preserve, was the project’s spirit of enthusiastic pioneering.

But… The streets are laid out as extremely wide avenues and the blocks ungainly large. True, the inside of the blocks are to feature bicycle and pedestrian trails connecting with the streetcar line, and since the distances are not prohibitively great, with a little effort a large percentage of people should be able to get where they need to go without car. The goal is to replace 90 percent of the usual Chinese new city car traffic with people traveling on foot, bicycle and transit. While I was there, looking at a large model in the grand display room at the red office building, opposite end of the building from the cafeteria, and commenting that it seemed the island city was wide enough to require more than one metro line – why not streetcars branching out in a few places and covering the margins of the city too. In fact, I was told, that was being considered – and that’s positive.

Distant coal fired power plant and elevated barrier highway, electric transmission lines and highway street lamps

About those extra wide streets and long blocks… even with public transit and plenty of width to accommodate dedicated bicycle-only paths along the edges, the pattern for such streets in China now is that hurtling traffic that tends to pick up serious speed with such long blocks and wide avenues presents the pedestrian – and the bicyclist too – with one of the most daunting obstacles for crossing you can imagine. In Tianjin proper about 20 minutes away by car, the pedestrians in the street, what few there were on such streets among such blocks, had either the eyes of the terrified or the stride of the ancient Chinese warlord. In any case, the look and feel of the layout in Tianjin Eco-city was definitely unfriendly. It appeared to me it would be difficult (though maybe not impossible) to carve out a cheerful neighborhood center at any point in the generally very large pattern layout.

I saw no areas that looked like they could become such lively centers unless substantially rethought – think sociable European or ancient smaller plazas even in China. Most notable in it’s history of larger urban areas, though, China sports enormous grand, even imperial open flat hard spaces good for showing the power of state and intimidating the commoner but not so good in days moving toward the people, that is, toward some form of democracy infrastructure that also serves that interesting capitalistic mix at modest scale called the small city or town marketplace. Looking at the expansive model in the visitors’ entry for the project headquarters and touring around lasted only a mere two hours. We had to rush back to the conference that was paying my bills and serving as the stage upon which to place this project and the nearby Binhai New Area of the “TEDA,” (Tianjin Economic Development Area) on the world stage. So I was only getting a first glance, but it was enough to remind me that models and renderings of coming attractions produced by architects in the development process aren’t necessarily what gets build. It looked to me that under pressure of build fast, the Tianjin Eco-city buildings looked suspiciously like the many others I’d seen all over China and laid out similarly. My own drawings showing terraces and rooftops linked by bridges between buildings, highly mixed use areas around plazas, small blocks with generally narrow streets, with emphasis on views from the plazas, both on ground level and with some such plazas elevated five or so stories into the sky, were completely absent. My own conviction is that such built places would be very well loved as almost adventures in new ecocity architectural design, and I’ve been showing such drawings to conferences and meetings with official city planners and mayors, vice mayors and so on since 2000. Adding up the number of cities where I’ve presented these alternative visions it comes to 17 different cities from Chongqing to Shanghai, Zhuhai to Beijing. Some elements have been built: a fair number of bridges between buildings and buildings that are bridges, for example, and a fair number of rooftop gardens, not necessarily influence by my efforts. Also a very significant number of natural areas have been restored for bringing back native species, and that includes what is beginning now at Tianjin Eco-city. All that’s good, but regarding the models and the imagery produced for Tianjin Eco-city, some is true to what is being build and some is not. (See accompanying imagery.)

Elevated highway between Tianjin Eco-city and salt pans and the Bohai Sea, which is connected to East China Sea and the Pacific

A final complaint: going to Google Earth it seems that before the Eco-city saw groundbreaking back in 2008, the gently sloping, in fact almost flat shoreline was open to the sea. There, toward the salt water drained either small rivers through the ecocity site or perhaps they were ancient canals – it’s hard to tell since the canals have been in the area for so very long. Traditionally this area had been used for salt extraction from seawater, a very large economic product of the area, solar energy powered evaporation in extensive artificial basins built to augment the local natural processes. Now I’m standing on the currently-under-construction seaward edge of Eco-city Tianjin, on a bridge over one such waterway, modified natural or strictly canal, with host Brian Heimberg, looking toward the Bohai Sea, Korea, Japan way beyond us to the east and the Pacific Ocean. I take a couple pictures (included with this article). The view from there was obliterated by a new highway elevated on pylons with thin traffic of heavy trucks and an occasional car zipping back and forth under a string tall arching street lamps. The view also featured the usual high voltage electricity lines, possibly from the fuming coal fired power plant with its white plums of smoke and steam located a few miles north. Presumably the electricity was on its way to Tianjin proper to the south, and almost certainly to the future Eco-city Tianjin if not already providing it much or most of its electric power. I told Brian about the way people in the US used to build freeways because cars were supposed to be the modern future, right along the most beautiful coastlines to be found. It was in style to sacrifice the city’s edge with nature to rote commerce and shortsighted get-in-you-car-and-drive-reflexively along lines of least resistance and intellectual strain. I mentioned the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco and what a Godsend, if you are religious about such things, it was to have the Earthquake of 1989 damage the thing so badly that the disastrous decision to build it and wreck San Francisco’s connection with San Francisco Bay was at long, long last, reversed. With a breath of relief the heavy weight of the elevated wall of soot and noise was deconstructed and the area sprang back to life. Tianjin was building the mistake all over again right
in front of us. Between the hulking legs of the highway along the coastline I could see the distant glinting of sun off sea waves as through a glass darkly – and between the stalks of street lamps and legs of high-tension line towers. And yet the small rivers and canals of Tianjin Eco-city, that could esthetically connect the city with ocean, flowed directly toward to a possible but destroyed beautiful view of nature’s spectacle in that location. The traditional “scene” of subtle Chinese art going back thousands of years, of nature’s edge with village, with farm, pagoda, high arching round bridges seeming to rise out of the natural landscape and disappear seamlessly back into it, weeping willows and gliding sail boats in the foreground with distant shimmering waters, mysterious mists and so on… gone.

Ecocity Correctables?

Can the mistakes of the past be corrected? That’s a good question when you look out over American suburban sprawl with ecocity insights. It is equally good if a magnitude more maddening to think about how to make new mistakes like the negatives I site above into solutions heading in the right direction, in the case at hand, to make what they are building at Eco-city Tianjin actually much more “ecocity,” given such a mixed start. In the case of sprawl development that goes back in the US to the 1950s through now, especially with the vigorous freeway building, imminent domain, clear-the-way binge for universal driving when it was young and self-righteous in the 1960s through 1980s, there is the prescription from Ecocity Builders: use our Ecocity Mapping System (open source, essentially, as a product of our educational corporate status and available in my books – or we can be hired to run workshops and analysis of city development plans, zoning codes and general plans). The approach with America’s auto-sprawl syndrome is to find the vital centers, actual and potential, and reinforce them while removing the dead wood from the areas that should never have been developed so that a new form of the city evolves. The American suburbs are largely falling apart now with differed maintenance, higher concrete costs and much higher asphalt cost now that we are over the top of the “Peak Oil” chart. Due to sheer aging making remodels less reasonable than demolitions and starting over, we now have the opportunity to find means backing up the changes guided by ecocity mapping for removing development and restoring farming and natural areas. Where we have been most dependent on cars, paving and massive use of energy for access and basic functioning we now have the opportunity to create open space far more valuable than sprawl development is damaging. The mixed uses in the centers then can be augmented with new more balanced development to spark the ecocities/ecotowns/-ecovillages with nature and agriculture restored into life. Presto!: ecotropolis! The ecologically healthy metropolitan area in its thriving bioregion.

But where there is massive density on a model that has evolved only in the last 15 or 20 years in China – car dependence and directives for planning and design of high density that tries to meet the “needs” of cars and their drivers… that’s something very different and quite another challenge. Unfortunately the high density city structure that tries to accommodate cars, because, the theory goes, if you have a thriving auto industry the rest of industry will follow and drag whole nations into prosperity, is a new infrastructure and if it is as full of problems as I think it really is, many of them in the nature of contradictions that confound ecocity progress (density without fine grain diversity of functions, primarily), the solutions also seem radically different from those that might apply to transforming auto sprawl syndrome into ecocities. Problem number one in China’s new urbanism is that the big buildings on oversized blocks surrounded by wide, long boulevards for cars and almost impossible to cross on foot are new, not old and beginning to fall apart en mass. One solution might be an early conversion of larger single use buildings to uses that might add greatly to the diversity of activity at very close proximity, turning some office buildings in office areas into office/residential buildings and some residential buildings in areas of mainly residential development into buildings with a mix of uses. The buildings are too new to be economically removed anytime soon in large numbers, but maybe yet taller new structures in the ecocity designs I suggest in my books and talks could be inserted in areas that are already dense. And natural features could be enhanced close by, rooftops planted, bridges built between buildings, a rare building in a particularly bad location that could become a beautiful plaza, ideally with a view to nature through an open side or corner, could be removed and a transformation made in a radically happy ecocity direction.

The big one there at Tianjin Eco-city would be to expand the inland north-south roads, that is, those that pass the city to the west and make new rail connections in that direction too while removing that horrible elevated highway that cuts the city off from the sea. That rather radical action, admitting a mistake and setting things right in a very big way, would provide an open space for the rivers, canals and human eye to connect city with sea. Long ago salt formed naturally there under the sun – let some of that happen again and to emphasize and capitalize on some measure of nature’s bounty, in a few restricted places, let the salt manufacture come back too.

The challenge would be this to the national Chinese Government and its Singapore partners: if you want to make a real ecocity and take the world lead, you need to make it a powerful example, a symbol, a model and make it complete. And among other things that means don’t cut it off completely from its connection to the sea that is so wonderfully there and nowhere else potential for positive ecocity development and celebration all the way west to Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmir, India and Nepal.

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

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