A "green" Smart City district focusing on environmental harmony and sustainable development is taking shape in a heavily-populated area of China. However, people are not rushing to take up accommodation there.

Tianjin eco-city struggling to attract residents

Since 2007, an eco-district has been under development on the outskirts of the major metropolis of Tianjin in northern China. The project is the result of an agreement between the Chinese and Singaporean authorities, who between them have so far spent over $6.5 billion on the venture. The designers explain that the philosophy underpinning the new district can be summed up in what they call three ‘harmonies’: ensuring that the inhabitants live in harmony with each other, with the economy and with the environment. The project, which covers an area half the size of Manhattan, seems highly ambitious, with the demanding goal of linking social, ecological and economic considerations.  In particular the planners are targeting waste processing and pollution, two major issues in a country that is now one of the world’s most polluted.

Smart City based on ‘green’ energy

In highly polluted urban China, there is now a desperate need for the government to create ‘green’ cities. One worrying statistic illustrates the urgency of such measures: in 2012, 57% of all water supplies in Chinese cities was either ‘relatively poor’ (treatable for drinking purposes) or ‘very poor’ (totally unsuitable for drinking). Meanwhile forecasts predict that close to 70% of the Chinese population will be living in cities by 2030. Against this background, the Tianjin eco-district is focusing hard on green energy and sustainable practices. Photovoltaic panels and wind turbines are a common feature here and even the road paving has been designed so that rainwater can be collected more easily. The planners have created a set of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to measure the environmental impact of the various initiatives. They enable the startups working on the eco-city to assess just how effective their work is. The KPIs have in fact led to the realisation that for the moment pollution levels remain very high, largely due to the area’s environs, since the eco-city is surrounded by the rest of the existing city of Tianjin.

Only 20,000 takers so far

Despite all investment injected into the eco-district, the planners appear to be having difficulty getting people to go and live there. The target is to have a population of 350,000 by 2020 but at the moment only 20,000 have made the move and increasing the number by 330,000 in five years seems rather a tall order. “It’s very pleasant to live in this kind of environment,” enthuses Fan Hongqin, one of the first residents of the new city. But he complains nevertheless that the area is too far away from the rest of the town; for instance it takes him an hour to go and buy clothes. So it seems that the usual problems which beset cities built from scratch, including getting people to take the plunge, also apply to Tianjin’s new quarter. A similar example is Masdar in the United Arab Emirates, which is planning for only 50,000 residents. Population density there will certainly be far lower, but investment is on a par. At a time when an increasing number of Smart Cities are being built from scratch, Tianjin is facing the key question of how to populate new cities, which will otherwise disappear as quickly as they arose.

By Guillaume Scifo