In August 2005 the Shanghai Industrial Investment Corp. hired global engineering firm Arup to design a city for the booming commercial capital of China. Dubbed Dongtan—or "East Beach"—the new satellite city would sit on the edge of the alluvial island of Chongming in the mouth of the Yangtze River. The government finished a tunnel and bridge to the island in 2009, paving the way for a development that would produce little waste, rely largely on sea breezes to generate its electricity, and permit only cars that emit no carbon dioxide, such as those powered by hydrogen fuel or electricity.

Originally, the plans for this "eco-demonstrator" city called for opening in time for the Shanghai Expo 2010 with its theme of "Better City, Better Life." Hundreds of pages of plans, maps and charts laid out in great detail the inner workings of the three new villages that would meet to form an eco-city center. In this vision of a new town, energy-efficient buildings clustered together to promote walking from the 50 residents per acre and organic farms arrayed around the new development would feed the local population. Arup envisioned a central combined heat and power plant in the city fueled by rice husks, China's staple crop. Canals and ponds incorporated the surrounding wetlands into the city's design itself, providing natural splendor and a continuing respite for the migrating birds.

Instead, construction has yet to begin—and may never happen.

In essence, Dongtan is a would-be environmental Potemkin village that never was built. Mud flats surround Chongming rather than paved roads for zero-emission cars, and the low-impact residents are not people, but rather birds hidden among the marsh grasses. Nor is it clear whether the project has been completely abandoned, given the opacity of the government forces behind it. "Implementation of our master plan was postponed, and we are not aware of the reasons behind this delay," explains Peter Head, chairman of global planning at Arup. "Urban development is a long-term activity which requires the alignment of central and regional political and economic wills."

Cities needed in a hurry
As a long-term activity, utopian cities such as Dongtan may really be pipe dreams considering the need for speed in booming nations. The majority of the world's population now lives in cities for the first time in recorded history, and the number of urban dwellers has risen from roughly 260 million in 1900 to 3.4 billion today, largely thanks to urbanization in countries like China and India. By mid-century, two thirds of humanity will either squat in slums, squeeze into apartments or sprawl through suburbs.

"In the next 40 years we need to build the same urban capacity that we built in the last 4,000 years, or people will live in slums," says Konrad Otto-Zimmermann, secretary general of the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI), a city government group. "We need to increase [urban] density and make more efficient use of existing infrastructure." Uwe Brandes, vice president of initiatives at the Urban Land Institute, a think tank, echoes that concern: "We have to get cities right. Everything else rides on that."

A key goal for the 21st-century city is to weaken the link between economic growth and natural resource exploitation, and experimental centers like Dongtan and Tianjin Eco-City, a more recently planned effort that is the new mantle-bearer, would have provided crucial data. Instead, China is building hundreds of cities without such detailed sustainability in mind in a bid to house the roughly 10 million people leaving the countryside and flocking to urban areas each year. The country already boasts more than 120 cities with more than one million inhabitants—that's more than the total number of cities the country had in 1950. Its national bird should perhaps be changed to the construction crane.

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.

Concrete solution
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."