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The Death and Life of Model “Eco-cities”

From Florida to China, showcase "green" communities are popping up all over the globe. But some have already failed. Here are four model cities that might actually make it.

Dongtan, China was supposed to be "the world's first eco-city." And if you were to believe the press releases, government officials, and a deluge of articles lauding the project a few years back, construction of this planned low-carbon, car free community near Shanghai-should be well underway.It is not.Rather, the site on Chongming Island where planners had promised to showcase "a methodology for sustainable communities across China and beyond"-where superefficient buildings would be clustered in dense, walkable neighborhoods, where 90 percent of all waste would be recycled, where energy would be produced locally by wind, solar, and bio-fuels, where high tech organic farms would produce nearly all the food, where public transport would run on hydrogen fuel cells, and where half a million people would call home within 30 years, at least 25,000 of them settled in in time for the Shanghai World Expo in 2010-remains an untouched greenfield. Permits to develop the land have expired. Pretty much everyone involved-from Chinese officials to the prominent British design and engineering firm Arup-have distanced themselves from the project. A local farmer with fields inside the development site told the Telegraph earlier this year that he'd "never heard of it."Dead is Dongtan, the project that Worldchanging publisher Alex Steffen once described as "absolutely the best current model for bright green Chinese city planning" and that a similarly glowing Wired article summed up as such: "If Dongtan lives up to expectations, it will serve as a model for cities across China and the rest of the developing world-cities that, given new tools, might leapfrog the environmental and public health costs that have always come with economic progress."So much for expectations.But what happened? It's hard to pinpoint a single cause for the abandon of Dongtan. Some scapegoat the Shanghai official who was in charge of the project, and who is now serving 18 years for fraud. Since his sentencing, the project has been a political hot potato in China. Some claim that the Chinese government and Arup couldn't agree on who was paying for what.Still others more cynically believe that Dongtan was never more than smoke and mirrors, a much hyped government greenwash that created a ton of positive PR for Shanghai and Chinese leaders, hiding the realities of rampant, dirty, inefficient urban development behind pages upon pages of fancy renderings.But just because Dongtan has fallen flat, that doesn't mean there aren't other places to look for the "model green city" of the future. Here are a couple other candidates:MASDAR CITY, United Arab Emirates If anyplace is the frontrunner to take over the mantle of premiere model green city, it's surely Masdar.Using wealth accumulated over half a century of oil extraction, the Abu Dhabi government is purportedly aiming to shift their local economy to one of clean, renewable energy technology, and Masdar will be a living showroom. If all goes according to plan (a huge if), within 15 years the city of 50,000 will burn no oil or gas, allowing for it to become the "first city where carbon emissions are zero."Personal cars will be banned, but electric "personal rapid transit" systems (which look like something out of The Jetsons), will move residents around. Seawater will be desalinized by a solar-powered plant, and 80 percent of water will be recycled. Nearly all waste will be recycled or converted to energy. Produce will come from local greenhouses.These are all bold claims, but some early skepticism over the true carbon neutrality of the construction process have been quieted by the completion this week of a 10-megawatt solar plant that will power the building boom.Likelihood it'll live up to the hype (1-10): 8The project weathered some uncertainty as the UAE economy stalled, but as oil is back on the rise, it will get built. Whether a completed Masdar will showcase all the bells and whistles (and personal transit pods) that it now boasts is another question.BABCOCK RANCH, FloridaAmidst the strip malls, sprawling subdevelopments, and golf courses of Southern Florida, ex-NFL lineman Syd Kitson is building a solar-powered "city of tomorrow." ("Some people think I got hit in the head a few too many times," he says.) A deal with Florida Power & Light ensures that the self-contained, "live where you work" city of 45,000 will be powered by a 75-megawatt photovoltaic plant (nearly twice as big as the world's current largest in Germany), and the company's slick website paints the picture of an eco-utopia: "Ultramodern electric vehicles will glide along avenues beneath the glow of solar-powered street lamps, plugging in to recharge at convenient community-wide recharging stations. Revolutionary smart-grid technologies will monitor and manage energy use, while smart-home technology will allow residents to operate their homes at maximum efficiency."Likelihood it'll live up to the hype: 7Kitson might have picked the nation's toughest real estate market to launch this experiment. Still, his deals with the state of Florida and the utility are promising. In a more progressive (and less foreclosed) part of the country, Babcock Ranch would be a better bet.TIANJIN, ChinaPossibly China's best shot at Dongtan redemption, the Tianjin Eco-City, a joint project with Singapore, aspires to create a home for 350,000 migrants from the countryside in an area described as "wasteland" from decades of salt farming. All water demand will be met by desalination and rain capturing, public transit will cover 90 percent of all transportation, and buildings will be outfitted with renewable energy systems.Likelihood it'll live up to the hype: 5We've learned our lesson from Dongtan, and will keep a skeptical eye on Tianjin. Still, the project has sped from concept (revealed in April 2007) to groundbreaking (last September) with ridiculous ease, an enormous contrast to the dozens of other Chinese "eco-cities" that have languished on the drawing boards for years. (Many credit Singapore's involvement for the actual progress.) It'll be worth following the reporting of Julian Wong, who writes the great Green Leap Forward blog about China's sustainability evolution, who most recently posted some great images comparing the lofty plans for Tianjin with progress on the ground. GREENSBURG, KansasTwo years ago, a tornado ravaged this town of 1,500 residents, killing 11 and leaving little more than concrete slab foundations and driveways. Even before the twister, the town was struggling with a declining population and a scarcity of jobs. But in the aftermath of the disaster, some folks saw potential in this new blank slate.And an opportunity for the town to grow into its name. Now Greensburg is rebuilding sustainably-new homes will be 50 percent more energy efficient than old structures, businesses are being decked out with solar panels and green building materials, and the new City Hall plans call for geothermal heat pumps, rainwater collection systems, solar energy cells and ‘living walls' of plants and grasses.A "green" town in plaid country is something of an anomaly. And, hopes Daniel Wallach, director of the non-profit Green Town Greensburg, a model for other not-so-liberal heartland communities. "These are conservative people," said Wallach, "so you talk about conserving energy, conserving money. People get it."Likelihood it'll live up to the hype: 9Given all the national attention focused on Greensburg, it's nearly impossible to imagine anything short of great things. Leonardo DiCaprio has produced a show about the town's plight for Discovery's Planet Green (soon airing it's second season), and the respected carbon offset company Native Energy has created a special offset product for the town. And while there won't be too many lessons for cities to learn from the small town's eco-resurrection, Greensburg will certainly live up to very lofty expectations and prove the benefits of sustainable design at any scale.Illustration by Jonathan Park.

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