The majority of these cities simply replicate the mistakes of the past: sprawling single-family homes connected by arterial roads to major highways whose entrances are guarded by the gas stations to fuel the internal combustion engines in cars. Building codes fail to account for energy use, and little thought is given to how cities might function holistically to, for example, reduce or reuse waste, according to engineer Ding Jianhua of the China Urban Construction, Design and Research Institute.
The reality of modern China is more Communist-style apartment blocks, known as "bed cities" because people only go there to sleep, which are hastily thrown up and surrounded by sprawling industrial parks on the outskirts of provincial capitals such as Shenyang or Chongqing—the latter of which alone adds more than 100,000 square meters of new building space every day.
Faced with this reality, China could forgo brand-new eco-cities in favor of the most sustainable, if unglamorous, act it can undertake: ensuring the longevity of its construction. One ton of cement—the substrate of urban infrastructure—equals at least one ton of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. So continuous new construction adds a lot of the greenhouse gas causing climate change. (China already leads the world in CO2 emissions). "The building quality just needs to be better," Zimmermann says. In fact, buildings from the 1980s and 1990s are already slated for demolition. "Tearing down buildings is, in my opinion, essentially the most high-carbon factor in China at present," says Ding, who is working on a low-carbon plan for a community in Beijing's Dongcheng District. "Poor urban planning, lack of accountability, weak regulation and absence of legal framework all together makes buildings in China so vulnerable."
In fact, some Chinese buildings last as little as 10 years even as some 259 Chinese cities claim to strive to be low-carbon. Such hasty construction, not surprisingly, can lead to safety issues, especially when paired with official corruption, tragically illustrated by the collapse of shoddily built school buildings in Sichuan Province during the earthquake of 2008.
Of course, China may find the means to move ahead with Dongtan and other ambitious eco-cities. But even if it doesn't, China and the other countries with booming metropolises could do much for the environment with higher-quality buildings. As Ashvin Dayal, managing director–Asia for the Rockefeller Foundation, which is funding efforts to enhance developing cities' ability to cope with climate change, puts it: "Just construction standards alone, as dull as that might sound, are going to be one of the most influential areas in urban climate change in the next 10 years."