Tale of a thousand cities

 
 

The glowing blue ripples of China’s National Aquatic Centre – better known as the Watercube – have made the Australian-designed 2008 Olympic Games venue a Chinese icon. Travel anywhere in China and you will see the building plastered across billboards and television advertisements, and in July Google reported that the Watercube was the most searched Olympic subject.

However, the Watercube has won international acclaim for more than its attractive exterior. The aquatic centre’s internals, which use cutting-edge techniques in sustainable design, signpost a new direction for the Chinese construction industry – if it is willing to take it.

The centre’s translucent polymer pillows, which create the distinctive bubble outer layer, greatly reduced the need for steel and other conventional support materials. They also maximise natural light and solar radiation, illuminating and heating the interior. The roof traps and recycles rainwater, the building recycles all wastewater and the design relies on natural ventilation. The end result is a 30 per cent reduction in energy use over a comparable-sized building, says John Bilmon, managing director of Australian architectural firm PTW, who drafted the design.

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Sustainable design is a hot topic in China. Faced with acute environmental problems such as air and water quality and spiralling energy consumption – according to some reports, China has already passed the US to become the world’s biggest producer of greenhouse gases – building environmentally friendly buildings is a national priority.

China’s central and provincial governments are heavily promoting sustainable design. New national energy efficiency standards have been mandated for all new construction. Based on the average energy efficiency of Chinese buildings in 1980, the national target is to decrease energy use in all new construction by 50 per cent before 2010 and by 65 per cent before 2020. In both Shanghai and Beijing, city governments have already increased the minimum requirement to 65 per cent. The central government has made a more aggressive announcement that existing buildings must reduce their energy use by 50 percent by 2010.

The question is whether the combination of high profile, very expensive sustainable projects and tough regulation will make any real impact on the tidal wave of construction engulfing China.

By 2025 China will add 40 billion square metres of new construction, including up to 5 million buildings and between 20,000 and 50,000 skyscrapers (buildings of 30 or more storeys). China will have 221 cities with a population of one million or more, compared to just 35 in Europe. The findings come from Preparing for China’s Urban Billion, a report on China’s urbanisation revolution published by the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI).

The driver of the construction boom is rapid urban population growth. By 2025 MGI forecasts that China’s urban population will increase from its current total of around 600 million to over 920 million. By 2030 it will exceed 1 billion. Around 70 per cent of the increase – or 230 million people – will be made up of new migrants.

The World Bank has released figures predicting a similar rise in urban density. From 2001 to 2015, the urban population will double and the number of cities with populations over 100,000 people will increase from 630 to over 1000.

The result resembles a logistical nightmare. The MGI report predicts urban energy demand will double and the demand for water – already a major problem for many Chinese cities – could increase by 70-100 per cent. Unless carefully managed, China could also lose 7-20 per cent of its already scarce arable land in the process. Between 900 and 1100 gigawatts of new power production capacity will be needed, along with five billion square metres of new roads and 28,000 kilometres of commuter rail. The demand for new social services and support systems will also be immense.

If Chinese cities of the near future are to be more liveable and sustainable than today, China will need to adopt sustainable design standards as standard practice, and do it quickly.

Silas Chiow, an architect in the Shanghai office of  Skidmore Owings Merrill (SOM), says sustainable design is becoming more popular in China. He says the Chinese government is generally more supportive of sustainable design than the US. But the big difference between China, and Europe and the US, according to Chiow, is the relatively lower demand from private sector clients for sustainable designs.

But Chiow is optimistic that innovative projects can influence private developers and builders to adopt sustainable practices. As an example he cites SOM’s current project in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, the Pearl River Tower. SOM won an international competition to build what is expected to be one of the world’s most energy efficient structures, using solar panels, wind turbines and rainwater for energy generation and heating and cooling.

“Already we are seeing more interest in the building, it’s getting a huge amount of coverage and when it is completed it will introduce ideas that will have a very positive impact,” says Chiow.

PTW’s Bilmon describes Chinese government bodies as “very strong advocates of sustainable design”, and he also sees increasing interest in sustainable design from private clients in China. In Wuxi, PTW has developed what Bilmon describes as a “zero-energy building” – one that generates all its own energy.

But what is said in Beijing, or done in Shanghai, is not necessarily what happens in the provinces.

For millennia, China’s local officials have won renown for their ability to creatively sidestep central imperatives. The MGI report notes that decentralisation of decision making has been a successful feature of Chinese reform policies. As a result, lower-level cities and townships exercise a high degree of autonomy in interpreting and implementing national policies. This creates problems when the central government wants to push through uniform national environmental regulations and guidelines.

John Spears, president of the Sustainable Design Group, says new trends in major urban centres like Beijing and Shanghai will not easily translate to small and medium cities, much less to China’s remote rural areas.

Spears, who has a successful track record of designing and building sustainable health and housing projects in rural China, says it’s vital to understand that urban and rural China are different worlds.

“There is a huge demand in the cities to be like everyone else, to be just like modern industrial countries,” he says. The larger cities have the base of well-educated people needed to sustain a strong green movement. But rural China is largely cut off from the technology advances in major urban centres; visiting remote rural areas can feel like going back in time. In these places, sustainability must be linked to practical benefits before it gains support.

Unfortunately for rural Chinese, a nation-wide incentive already exists. Coal is the single biggest environmental problem for China. Every factory and every apartment  block has coal-fired boilers, and every home burns coal briquettes for heating and cooking. In many rural and urban areas the air is thick with dust from coal burning, which hangs like storm clouds over towns and communities.

This pollution affects peoples’ health, the environment and agricultural output. Recent studies have shown coal pollution can diminish agricultural output by up to 20 per cent due to a lack of solar radiation reaching crops. Nationwide coal burning is a major contributor to high rates of respiratory illness and death.

While unlikely to replace the baseload power required by industry, renewable energy could reduce the amount of coal-generated electricity used by residential buildings. China is already a world leader in using solar power and it holds huge potential for widespread use in both rural and urban areas. Spears has developed sustainable energy projects for communities in rural Sichuan, where entire villages have made the shift away from coal burning to methane gas and solar panels for household cooking and heating.

Indirectly, urban migration provides another incentive for sustainable development. Spears says the most highly motivated and enthusiastic supporters of sustainable development are often the mayors of small and medium-sized cities, which typically combine rural and urban zones; a ring of encircling farms feeds the urban population.

Urban migration threatens to undermine this system as farm workers drift to larger cities in search of higher wages and better lifestyles. Small-town mayors need to keep farmers happy so that they keep producing food for the local population. The answer may be that China needs to share more of the fruits of its booming urban economy with the countryside.

“The problem facing Chinese cities is solving the problem of rural areas,” says Spears. “A higher quality, sustainable rural lifestyle is needed.”

Anthony Anderton is a freelance writer and photojournalist.

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