Developed under a joint venture between the governments of China and Singapore, Tianjin Eco City has been heralded as the most sophisticated, yet practical sustainable city ever built. This month, after years of waiting, the first of its anticipated 350,000 residents started moving in.
According to a recent report on the BBC, the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco City, just an hour by train from Beijing, ‘will be a model for how Chinese cities could develop and solve some of the enormous problems facing them: permanent gridlock, a lack of water and ruinous electricity bills.
Indeed if only a few of the lessons being learned in Tianjin were applied in the rest of the country, the derived benefits could help significantly reduce China’s environmental footprint.
“Our eco-city is an experiment, but it is also practical,” said Wang Meng, the deputy director of construction.
“In Tianjin, the residents will not be expected to make any particular effort to be green. If they take the bus and sort their rubbish for recycling, they will be making their contribution.”
Facets of the city’s everyday systems are being used as guinea pigs for new sustainable technology.
General Motors, for example, is running a project in Tianjin to test the operation of electric driverless cars in normal traffic.
“Some eco-cities are too idealistic. In Tianjin they do not want to stop people from driving, but they do want to put into place policies that will help our vehicles to operate successfully,” said Chris Borroni-Bird, the head of GM’s autonomous driving project in Detroit.
According to the BBC report, Tianjin will allow GM to road-test the next generation of vehicles: small urban cars that drive themselves but are safe in an environment full of unpredictable drivers, pedestrians and cyclists.
Other trial projects include Dutch electronics giant Philips’ low energy lighting installations and rubbish bins that empty themselves by sucking their contents into an underground removal network.
The city has certainly come a long way since work began just 3 years ago, when it was a ‘desolate wasteland of abandoned salt pans’. Sitting on an area about half the size of Manhattan, the local environment had been the victim of years of chemical pollution from the factories around it.
Works at Tianjin are ongoing and it will take a few years yet to expand the sectors that are already being occupied. Total development costs, which are being shared by the Chinese and Singapore governments and private companies, are expected to reach 250 billion yuan (£25 billion).
The experimental city has already produced one significant technological discovery, which could have massive benefits for the rest of the country.
“We had an industrial reservoir that was full of heavy metals,” said Mr Wang. “It used to be so bad that people could not go near it because of the smell. Now we have cleaned it with a special process that we can send to other parts of the country.”
Considering that 70% of China’s rivers contain too much pollution to provide drinking water, this could be a game-changing new technology and one which could also be easily exported to other parts of the world with poor water supplies.
China is often depicted as the one of the worst contributors to greenhouse emissions as a result of its rapid industrialization over the last 20 years. More for the shear size of its population, than for its per capita contribution to annual global emissions though it has to be said.
But a great deal of effort is actually going on in China, and neighbouring countries like Singapore, to help them jump quickly onto a sustainable energy platform.
It is something which the Chinese government seems to take very seriously.
Testament to which is the fact that eight out of the nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the country’s highest level of government, have visited Tinajin during its development.
“The idea is to create something that can be adapted to other cities in China,” said Mr Wang. “What we want to develop is cheap technology that we can industrialise, produce and sell on elsewhere. We have to change people’s ideas that being green is expensive.”
And if anyone can do that quickly…