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TIANJIN ECO-CITY, China -- Three years ago, this coastal area fit perfectly into the dictionary definition for "wasteland." Its soil was too salty to grow crops. It was polluted enough to scare away potential residents. Sometimes the few fishermen who lived here saw investors driving in, but they quickly turned around and left, leaving nothing behind except dust.
But then some people showed up to buy a piece of this land. It is about half the size of Manhattan. They restored the soil, cleaned up water pollution and began preparing the once-deserted place for a city that will host green businesses and some 350,000 residents by 2020.
This is Tianjin Eco-City, basically a wasteland-to-community experiment carried out by the Chinese and Singapore governments. The two nations are taking this effort seriously, pouring in capital and expertise, including a minister-level committee from Singapore, to ensure its success.
Once the project is completed, the experience of how to build a city in which people can work, play and live without damaging nature is expected to influence national blueprints for future urbanization.
A new urban model is badly needed. Already, China's food supply and social stability are under strain as sprawl eats up agricultural land and claims farmers' livelihoods. As China's economy has boomed, many cities have been exposed to dirtier water and more air pollutants. And this is just the beginning. As the growing and more prosperous urban population demands more cars, homes and electricity, conditions will worsen as more gasoline and coal are burned.
Unless something is done, the pollution, the crowding and the emissions will only grow. Over 350 million Chinese -- slightly more than the entire population of the United States -- are expected to flow from the countryside into cities within one and half decades.
To head off this nightmare, planners here have been mulling over more environmentally friendly urban development strategies for almost 20 years. Eco-city initiatives have been rolled out in at least 100 Chinese cities. While such measures have gotten more Chinese to ride mass transit and live in buildings that consume less energy, experts say that a full-featured eco-city has never been realized.
Yang Haizhen, an expert at Tongji University who has oversaw many of China's eco-city projects, blamed part of the problem on a lack of supervision. In Shanghai, for instance, a site planned as a habitat for wildlife actually ended up as villas for the rich, since local authorities didn't bother to check whether their plan was followed, Yang said.
There was also a gap in terms of local engagement. Richard Brubaker, a professor of sustainability at the China Europe International Business School, said that many Chinese eco-cities were designed without consulting those who would live there. Thus, some newly built houses have attracted more spiders than buyers.
For Tianjin Eco-City, Brubaker and others say, the determination of whether it is successful or not will have to wait for several years, as the project's development is still in its early stage.
"But it has lots of opportunities [to succeed], at least more so than many of the other projects," Brubaker added. "Tianjin Eco-City has clear goals, strong political backing, and has already begun developing its first investments. It is the best practice I've seen in China so far."
Planting a city on infertile soil
Tianjin Eco-City (a suburb about an hour's drive from the more widely known Tianjin, China) started out as the frog that was supposed to turn into a prince. Unlike other eco-projects that got valuable terrain, Tianjin Eco-City was given an area of played-out soil that was short of fresh water.
"This increases challenges," admitted Ho Tong Yen, CEO of Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City Investment and Development Co. Ltd., a joint venture in charge of building the city.