Artist Impression of Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City

Tianjin Eco-city - blueprint for the future

There is no single internationally accepted definition of an 'eco-city', but China believes it has a pretty good suggestion in Tianjin Eco-city.

We all have a rough idea of what an eco-city is: some perfect unison of nature and technology. Countless proposals of sci-fi utopias have adorned the glossy pages of architect's portfolios, showing a bold new way of addressing the imbalance of these seemingly opposing forces. But when it comes down to harsh reality, how realistic are these artists' impressions? And, seriously, who has the budget to commission them?

The term 'eco-city' was coined by Richard Register, founder and president of Ecocity Builders. He says his ideal eco-city is one that shies away from the town-planning of typical American cities that centre on the car; all boulevards, urban sprawl and wide pavements. "We must begin," he says, "by building our cities, towns and villages literally much smaller, based on the human body's dimensions and needs for energy, shelter and land as compared with building cities for the demands of automobiles."

Asia's answer

One collaboration between two of the most opulent countries in central Asia may present a viable solution to Register's conundrum. Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-city is a 30km2 Chinese and Singaporean government eco-initiative situated 150km from China's capital, Beijing.

As the fastest growing economy in the world, China is also one of the planet's most heavy-duty air polluters. But the arrival of new leaders at the helm of this vast nation - and leaders that who seem more concerned with the effect its environmental reputation may have on its potential to become the most powerful country on the planet - could mean that change is on the horizon.

The way in to this, China's proposed answer to its burgeoning air-pollution problem, is via a humpback bridge on to vast salt plains. The site currently resembles the initial construction stages of Stratford's 2012 Olympic Village. The Chinese government specified a brownfield location, which meant that in order to fulfil its brief the project had to utilise a salt and alkaline site lacking in water, transforming formerly barren land into a thriving urban hub.

The site's location is mid-way between two of China's most historical, bustling cities; its current and former capitals Beijing and Tianjin. By comparison, this city will represent a marked move away from the polluted, overcrowded cities of China's past, showcasing a proposed future of tranquil living and genuine eco-credentials.

A sense of scale

Critics argue that for all of China's wealth and innovation Tianjin-Eco-city is not a stellar example of the perfect eco-city. They cite the renewable energy target of 20 per cent, disappointingly small when compared to Foster & Partner-designed Masdar in Abu Dhabi, which boasts a 100 per cent target.

There are various reasons for Tianjin Eco-city's more modest ambitions. First there's the population; Tianjin Eco-city is providing residency for 350,000 inhabitants compared with Masdar's 40,000. Second, Ho'Tong Yen, CEO of Tianjin Eco-city, argues that one of his city's key objectives is to make the project a scalable, adaptable and affordable blueprint to replicate across China, one which would not be possible were they to fulfil rigid requirements such as 100'per cent renewable energy targets.

Tianjin Eco-city's town-planning instead pays particular attention to green master-planning, creating compact and walkable communities and maximising passive design features, all of which make a major contribution to sustainable development without adding significantly to cost of construction. It will incorporate 'themed' areas including a Lifescape, an Eco-Valley, a Solarscape, an Urbanscape, a Windscape, an Earthscape and Eco-Corridors.

"Designing and living in an eco-city means to say that we must live in a way that is not destructive to the environment," says Ho Tong Yen. "But at the same time the city must be one that is economically vibrant, where residents can find jobs and enjoy a high standard of living. We mean that whatever we do in the eco-city must be practical, replicable and scalable. This means that the solutions we implement here must be affordable and can be replicated in other cities and on different scales.

"What we are building is not a high-cost, futuristic city in a glass dome, but one which almost any local government can build."

The eco-city is being used as a test-bed to trial new green urban solutions on a commercial scale and in the eco-business park only green companies are given commercial space.

"For example, Philips is using the city to test-bed new energy-efficient lighting solutions; Hitachi's Home Energy Management Systems are being used in one of the residential projects; and GM has signed a memorandum of understanding with the city and the local government to explore the feasibility of piloting the use of the next generation of their Electric Networked Vehicles here."

The city is also located 10km from TEDA, a successful industrial park in northern China. This means although the city will provide employment for 50 per cent of its employable population, its location will also provide an opportunity for those who would like to work further afield.

Built for humans

Tianjin Eco-city has been described as a city of people powered by food, rather than of cars powered by petrol. This statement is perhaps an over-simplification, but it is a core message that lies at the heart of the city. The five districts in the city are planned as 'eco-cells' adapted from the Singaporean Neighbourhood Concept.

An eco-cell is a 400x400m square based on the human experience of what is considered a comfortable walking distance. Each Eco-cell can accommodate some 2,500 dwelling units with approximately 8,000 residents.

"To promote walking and cycling, we have 5m-wide cycling paths on both sides of the road," says Ho Tong Yen. "We also have a 12km long linear park, or what we call the Eco-Valley, running through the eco-city and connecting all its major centres and nodes. There will also be a tram line running along the Eco-Valley. These are all features that promote convenient walking, cycling and the use of public transport, [encouraging people] away from using cars, especially when making short journeys."

This does not mean that cars will be banned in the city. At China's current stage of economic and social development, where many people have recently risen from poverty and progressed from riding bicycles to affording cars, it would be impractical to stop the use of cars completely. Instead, a proposed 90 per cent of journeys will be green, utilising electric vehicles and a high-speed train network.

The eco-city centre represents the 'living' aspect of its residents' lives. When completed it will become a leisure hub; home to gyms, sports facilities, cinemas, shopping centres and restaurant food-courts and the city will also feature several amusement parks. As with every other aspect of the site, its eco-credentials will be incorporated into the recreational areas in the form of lakes and wetlands. After the waterways in the eco-city have been cleaned up, it is hoped increasing numbers of residents will fish on the waterfront and wild ducks have also returned to this once-polluted area.

Green buildings

All of the city's buildings meet the hybrid Chinese-Singaporean GBES regulations, based on China's Three-star certification programme. The Institute for Building Efficiency says the biggest barriers for green building in China is a lack of consensus on what makes a building green, and in particular a proliferation of different national, provincial and city regulations.

Tianjin Eco-city's buildings focus on innovative ways to naturally heat, ventilate and light buildings, and have therefore have been planned to utilise the natural wind pockets and light sources that occur on site. One self-ventilating system features large vents on the peripheral of the units, facing into the wind. The wind enters the building via these vents and travels through a subway under the building, before being released into the building through small vents in the floor.

Commercial buildings have integrated natural lighting, including façade shading devices, green roofs and vertical greens and minimised openings on the north-facing wall to prevent heat loss. Glass facades have been increased on south-facing walls to maximise light and summer cooling.

Sustainable facilities

In terms of renewable energy, solar PV, solar water heaters, wind turbines, street lamps powered by wind and solar energy, and ground-source heat pumps are all used on site. These may not be particularly innovative new solutions per se, but the scale and comprehensiveness in which they are being implemented is quite unusual.

Five giant wind turbines announce the gateway into Tianjin Eco-city, providing five million kilowatt-hours every year, enough for 4,000 households, while solar panels installed along the city's boundary have a total installed capacity of 6.6 million kilowatt-hours, enough to power 5,000 households.

Energy efficiency is also a cornerstone of the city's overall design. Some 700 street lamps line the green boulevards of the city, running on a combination of solar and wind to provide a constant level of power during cloudy or calm days. But the centre of Tianjin Eco-city's effort is its geothermal energy plant, dubbed Energy Station II, providing 20,000kW of cooling in the summer and 14,000kW of heat in the winter, plus an electrical energy output of 1,500kW.

The final major component in urban design is how to deal with waste. An overall target of 60'per cent material recycling has been set, with the use of separate recycling facilities encouraged and kitchen waste broken down into fertiliser and methane for electricity generation. Six large pneumatic waste disposal units sit behind the apartment blocks to collect and distribute non-recyclable waste underground via pipes to help achieve the city's target of 0.8kg waste generated per person daily.

A wastewater treatment plant that partly utilises a cost-effective dehydration process will produce 12,000 tonnes of grade B-standard recycled water per day. Recycled rainwater will be collected via rooftop systems and 100 per cent permeable bricks. This recycled rainwater, along with treated industrial and domestic waste water will be recycled for landscape irrigation and used for car washing, toilet systems and construction.

An attractive place to live?

The residential skyline is currently dominated by rows of regimented tower blocks, which are eerily quiet in the city's current state of construction. There is no doubting that Tianjin Eco-city's design could be duplicated, but do people want to live in identical sky-hung apartment blocks?

Gensler - the Shanghai-based firm that architected Shanghai's colossal Shanghai Tower, which contains apartments of a similar concept to those found in Tianjin Eco-city - believes that the Chinese apartment block represents the merging of the traditional and modern ways of Chinese living. Traditional lane houses found in Beijing's hutongs and Shanghai's shikumen are close-knit dwellings arranged around a communal family area, much like the design of Tianjin Eco-city's standard residential unit and other apartment blocks encountered in urban areas across China.

Although it is arguable that this model would be successful throughout the West, Gensler insists in modern Chinese urban design the neighbourhoods are becoming vertical; with gardens in central courtyards to foster interaction. Another factor to consider is China's 'one child' policy. The majority of families in China will feature only three core members, meaning the spacial needs of large families are unlikely to be of prime concern. Green and blue network planning is a priority for the city as an aspect of its 26 environmental and social key performance indicators, meaning green outdoor spaces and 'green-relief' eco-corridors will not be in short supply.

Whilst many in the West will deem the eco-city too regimented for their tastes, Ho Tong Yen is confident that the eco-city will become a highly desirable proposition in economically thriving China.

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