China's Sustainable Cities of the Future

Megan Ruan examines the emergence of eco-cities as a potential solution to Chinese environmental and economic troubles.

On a sunny afternoon in Jiangxi Province, Professor Roger Ruan of the University of Minnesota stands on a grassy knoll overlooking . . . another grassy knoll. To the unsuspecting observer, this 400-acre piece of land seems like nothing more than green hills and rice paddies. But for Ruan and his team, it is about to become the physical arm of their renewable energy lab from across the world. Their vision is to create a pilot version of a system that has rapidly picked up speed in the past decade: an eco-city.

Eco-cities are urban centers built or modified to function within the limited means of the environment. The end goal is to eliminate all harmful emissions, making use of renewable resources to enhance efficiency, health, and social welfare.

Of many initiatives proposed, eco-cities address a few major concerns about China's future. First, though China rigidly governs migration, local administrations have struggled to provide affordable housing to the influx of people moving into urban areas . Second, scrutiny of China's accelerated growth consistently prompts concern about its impact on the environment. The development of eco-cities gives China an avenue to build a healthier and more sustainable future.

The idea of building a "green city" is no recent innovation. In 1975, Richard Register at the University of California in Berkeley formed an organization called Urban Ecology, dedicated to ecological city design and planning. His approach outpaced traditional urban greening methods such as revised land-use and voluntary resource conservation, and instead focused on creating "decent, affordable, and economically mixed housing," promoting technology to reduce pollution and hazardous waste, and supporting "ecologically sound economic activity." Today, Urban Ecology acts as a consultancy helping neighborhoods in the San Francisco Bay Area design sustainable streetscapes, architecture, and land use arrangements.

Eco-cities have come a long way since Register first conceived of the idea. Technologies for clean power, waste management, agricultural resource recycling, and water conservation have been vastly refined, and governments have invested in municipal frameworks for these technologies.

The Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City, a flagship cooperative project between the governments of Singapore and China, is one current effort to build a large scale eco-city. The city is compactly planned for 350,000 residents and accessible from a variety of major transportation routes, less than 150 kilometers away from Beijing. Figure 1 shows the energy, transportation, and natural resource targets that the Tianjin Eco-City hopes to hit. Of note, the city supplies 100 percent potable tap water, a feature unusual in the majority of large Chinese cities, much less in rural areas.

However, though the Tianjin Eco-City is moderately sized compared to China's largest cities, housing few hundred thousand people still poses a challenge for ecological sustainability. Often, the very process of building an eco-city can be "inherently unsustainable." Some researchers claim it is more important to prioritize development of existing cities than to fund idealized master plans for brand new eco-cities. However, doing so would eliminate the possibility of creating jobs via demand for 'green' workers.

Lastly, an unintended consequence of being located near existing urban centers is the disincentive to move into the eco-city versus an established city like Beijing. For example, the Caofeidian project, just south of Beijing, has been dubbed a "ghost city" in reference to its trickling inflow of residents. Now, rapidly filling the ranks of new eco-cities has become a vital step in easing fear of a real estate meltdown, but enough job incentives must exist in order to attract residents. China's economic targets are traditionally outlined in its "Five-Year Plans," which have increasingly focused on jobs in green industries. During the 11th Period (2006-10), more than 9,000 jobs were generated by the solar power sector alone. Between 2011 and 2020, the government hopes to increase this to an average of 6,000 direct jobs and 16,000 indirect jobs per year, in industries such as solar, wind, and sustainable transportation.

At the University of Minnesota, researchers Roger Ruan and Paul Chen are exploring an alternative to the massive eco-cities that have been built so far. Both are experts in the field of biosystems and bioengineering and believe that a truly environment-friendly, pollutant-free "eco-city" must be built on a small to mid-size scale. In November 2014, they received a grant from the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology to build a pilot version of their "green metropolis" in rural Jiangxi Province.

The city aims to create an entirely contained cycle of production, consumption, and waste recycling. Solid bio-waste will be funneled to produce feed and fertilizer, while liquid waste rich in phosphorus and nitrogen will be used to grow hydroponic (water-rooted) plants. Since plants can directly submerge their roots in reservoirs of wastewater, growing crops for edible use and livestock feed will require vastly reduced land area (Figure 2). "This kind of complete recycling and reuse system can be used to produce truly organic living with zero pollutants to the soil, water, or air," said Ruan. Used in conjunction with more traditional forms of green energy such as solar, wind, and hydraulics, these "distributed eco-cities," as Chen calls them, have the potential to be completely emission-free.

The demo city is labeled as 'distributed' because it employs different energy-recovery methods depending on where the eco-city is built. Bioregionalism, or harnessing resources specific to each region, creates a much more versatile ecological framework than a massive commercial venture such as the Tianjin Eco-City. Building eco-cities in rural rather than near-urban areas also attracts unskilled rural laborers by providing a host of conservation-related jobs. These jobs could change the lives of rural citizens that have been historically neglected by the government.

Fortunately, eco-cities can help resolve the social divide that exists in China today, between those of rural and urban residency status. The household registration that China has operated under since 1949, called hukou, is partly used to control internal migration, a fact which has severely limited socioeconomic mobility.

In the mid 1980s, policies were enacted allowing holders of rural hukou to migrate to cities in order to fill industry's exploding labor demand. China experienced an estimated influx of 200-250 million rural citizens into urban areas -- the equivalent of the United States moving its entire population, except Florida and California, into urban residency. Following this so-called "Great Migration," many cities were unable to meet housing demands, prompting the rapid growth of urban slums.

In the words of Professor Kam Wing Chan, from the University of Washington, Seattle, these rural-urban migrants are "trapped, through institutional mechanism, in a permanent social 'half-arrival' situation, with little hope of acculturating into the urban permanent population."

This class of unskilled rural migrant labor, or nongmingong, is in substantial need of urban employment and affordable housing. As China moves to complete its push for urbanization, eco-cities can provide the necessary outlet. The viable stream of jobs, both in standard industry capacity and sustainability and renewable energy production, simultaneously addresses the problems of overcrowding and environmental hazard. Relocating to an eco-city, where production uses modern green technology, will inherently encourage further expansion of such methods.

In November 2014, China and the United States struck a landmark accord to limit emissions of greenhouse gases through 2025. China ambitiously plans to cap its carbon emissions by 2030 and also to "increase its share of non-fossil fuels to 20 percent of the country's energy mix" (Harvey). Intuitively, eco-cities are a framework under which China can begin to satisfy this goal. All that is needed now is a mechanism that encourages more citizens and businesses to live and work in eco-cities.

Standing atop the hill in Jiangxi Province, Ruan says the never-ending hills in front of him are a reminder of how much further there is to go. But he then turns to the land behind him, which has already been surveyed and marked for development. He says, "Look how much progress has been made. We are giving people a truly once in a lifetime opportunity -- to live and work in a place that is not only fruitful, but also sustainable and beautiful. It shouldn't take much more convincing than that."

Megan Ruan is a sophomore at Yale University. Contact her at

This article also appears in China Hands.