"But we decided to take this project," Ho continued, "because we believe that if in this harsh environment you can build an eco-city, then you can replicate it elsewhere."
To that end, during the past three years, developers here have been enriching the soil, cleaning up polluted waterways and working to cover half of the land with lush, green plants.
Besides fixing the city's foundations, its planners have also been looking for ways to get more water. Their plan includes: monitoring pipeline leakage, harvesting rainfall and refusing to let sewage simply go down the drain. Instead, sewer water -- sometimes called gray water -- will be collected, treated and sent back to families for flushing toilets.
Tianjin Eco-City is also being equipped to deal with a more invisible enemy -- greenhouse gas emissions. Every building here must have adequate insulation and double glass windows, to save energy. Meanwhile, a fifth of the city's power must be emission-free, coming from solar, wind and geothermal sources.
Green living not just for the rich
The city planners have rejected carbon-intensive industries, promising funds to support clean tech research and development. In their words, the Eco-City was a "last mile" platform to link new innovations with users.
That got Philips on board. The Dutch technology giant recently announced it will pilot its latest energy-saving lighting solutions in Tianjin Eco-City, the first of its piloting programs in Asia. When another approved cooperation plan materializes, General Motors electric cars will drive from the company's lab to the street of the city.
Nearly half of Tianjin Eco-City's received investments in 2010 came from Singapore clean-tech companies. They plan to come here to manufacture green products and provide all sorts of environmentally friendly services, like recycling materials in urban waste, for instance.
As more companies move in, so will residents. The eco-city's planners are preparing for a mixed society rather than green living for the rich only. To do that, a fifth of the homes here are subsidized by the Chinese government and will be sold at a price of 20 percent lower than the market price. For those who prefer renting, apartments targeted for blue- and white-collar workers are already under construction and can be found just outside factories.
Challenges ahead, maybe some lessons
With residents starting to move in late next year, the biggest question is whether they will really adapt to a greener lifestyle.
Tianjin Eco-City is betting that its design elements will lure them along. For instance, stores, office buildings and anything else that people need in their daily life have been placed within easy distance for walking or cycling. For longer-distance trips, residents can always find an electric-powered bus or a light rail station near their homes. According to the planners, by the end of the decade, only one out of 10 journeys here will need a car.
Some have already been questioning the cost of all this. One doubt points underground, where the city will set up a pneumatic piping network, using air pressure to move trash. Although such a design could prevent pollution problems caused by traditional waste transportation by trucks, there is no detailed analysis on its cost-effectiveness, according to a 2009 report issued by the World Bank.
Despite such issues, Axel Baeumler, lead author of the report, says that the creation of Tianjin Eco-City will be a help for many other cities.
"It is a project actually taken on the ground," explained Baeumler. "It is very important to take a look at what works and what doesn't work, and take the lesson to the next stage."
Richard Register, president of Ecocity Builders, a nonprofit organization in California, agrees. Register, who coined the term "eco-city" some 20 years ago, views Tianjin Eco-City as a seriously green signal from China.