China's sustainable city projects: Edens of the East

1st June 2020


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Helen Denham

Rick Gould takes a look at China's sustainable city projects, and how the country is using its experiences to help shape standards in this area

Sustainability is not a concept many would associate with China's staggering rate of urban development. However, the Chinese government has committed itself to building hundreds of sustainable cities, while also transforming existing cities to meet the same goals. It has worked with partners internationally to share its experiences, contributing to relevant ISO standards.

From the ground up

A decade ago, German chancellor Angela Merkel visited China to sign a Memorandum of Understanding for a joint venture to develop the Sino-German Ecopark – part of a programme to strengthen Germany's economic and strategic ties with China. Located near the city of Qingdao, the aim was to create a sustainable city that would serve as a learning and demonstration project.

Close to Beijing, the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-city shares many features with the Ecopark; established a few years earlier, it also sprang from international co-operation and shares the same aims. Both cities were designed on sustainable principles from the ground up, and include features such as energy-efficient buildings, distributed energy systems with a high proportion of renewable energy, green spaces, low-impact industries, and infrastructural planning that minimises transport needs.

Both cities have influenced sustainable city standards, although they are still progressing towards zero-waste and zero-carbon development. So how is sustainability defined in this context, and what can we learn from these cities?

What is a sustainable city?

“The UN's definition of a sustainable city includes the economy, society and the environment,“ explains Shanfeng Dong of Bluepath City Consulting, which has worked to sustainably transform and develop cities in China and elsewhere. “The aim is to make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.“

Dong is an architect who became involved when he returned to China 20 years ago, after completing a masters in city design and social science at the London School of Economics.

How did the concept of sustainable cities develop in China, and how has it evolved? “The concept has kept evolving from the beginning – now it means an equilibrium of the optimal outcome for every element within the city, including the human, societal, environmental, cultural, economic, infrastructure and lifestyle aspects,“ he says.

The concept of an ecological civilisation was highlighted by China's central government in 2002 and became official policy in 2007. “In my view, being sustainable is deeply rooted in Chinese philosophy, which emphasises the harmony of the universe,“ Dong adds.

Sustainable development is a pressing necessity for China because of its economic growth and increasing number of large cities. The idea behind the initiative is to reverse environmental pressures while meeting economic and social objectives. Do the projects show that this can be achieved? Dong is confident that they will, having been involved with the Qingdao Ecopark and Tianjin Eco-city since their inceptions.

The importance of indicators

Cities are complex, and sustainability approaches can become fragmented. Common metrics and harmonised systems of operation were needed to connect cities' different functions and allow them to work effectively together.

In the early days, it was also clear that indicators were essential for setting objectives and targets. “We started by researching indicators for implementing a sustainable system,“ says Dong. The evolving system also included interrelated provisions for policy, strategy, planning, design, management, data collection and evaluation – all the elements of the typical 'plan-do-check-act' (PDCA) management system that is found at the core of standards such as ISO 14001, but applied at a macro, city-wide level to foster sustainability.

“The key for sustainability is the way people think and act; such philosophy has to be ingrained within the system, and the PDCA cycle provides a good way to progress this,“ explains Dong. “In the Tianjin Eco-city, we developed something similar to the PDCA cycle, which is the eco-TREE principle: target, realise, evaluate, enhance. The indicators and systems standards can fit into this loop, and provide a handy tool.“

“Standards should make the sustainable development approach simpler, not more complicated“

Developing standards

In 2013, Dong was among the Chinese representatives on the ISO technical committee (TC) 268 tasked with developing international standards for sustainable cities. TC 268 developed 2016's ISO 37101, a management-systems standard for sustainable development in cities and communities. This was followed by ISO 37104, published in 2019 and providing implementation guidance for ISO 37101. “ISO TC 268 has produced 10 international standards that provide tools for sustainable cities and communities, such as ISO 37106, which covers operating models for smart cities, and ISO 37120, for indicators for city services,“ says Dong.

He is an enthusiastic advocate for international cooperation, assessment and certification. To this end, he served as the convenor for developing ISO/IEC 17021-8, the accreditation standard for ISO 37101, as well as supporting and initiating the development of related standards in the ISO 37000 series. Since ISO published ISO 37101, it has been trialled in several cities worldwide; the Tianjin Eco-city is a demonstrator city.

Big ambitions

The Qingdao Ecopark and Tianjin Eco-city were built from scratch, and are small compared with most cities. Can the ISO 37000 series be applied to bigger, existing cities?

Dong points outs that ISO 37101 has been applied successfully in many cities around the world; the Chinese megacity of Hangzhou, for example, was among the first. In 2017, it worked with the French national standards body AFNOR and other cities worldwide to create the International Smart Sustainable City Club (ISSCC), which supports and promotes the application of the ISO 37100 series. There were initially 16 member cities, half being in China.

When China embraces a goal, it can muster enormous resources and achieve rapid results. The city of Gaobeidian, for example, is building an estate of high-rise buildings, flats and related infrastructure using passive house principles; these will have an area of over 1,000,000m2 and be the largest passive house project in the world. Meanwhile Shenzhen, a megacity with poor air quality, is a founder member of the ISSCC and has embraced sustainability – evident in its creation of roof gardens across the city, stricter environmental standards and all-electric bus fleet.

“As well as highlighting important issues, providing indicators and helping to align data and reporting, standards should make the sustainable development approach simpler, not more complicated,“ concludes Dong.

Further information

RICK GOULD, MIEMA CEnv, is a technical advisor at the Environment Agency. He is writing in a personal capacity

Image credit: Alamy

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