CHONGMING ISLAND, China — The world's first major eco-city designed from the ground up to minimize environmental impact may soon take shape on this island near Shanghai. That is, if developers don't hijack the plan.
As word spreads of the Dongtan Eco-City and its whisper-quiet streets and canals, where battery-powered buses will transport residents, the whiff of money is in the air, and developers already talk of building a Disney theme park to raise property values.
Dongtan is still just a vision. Groundbreaking won't occur until next year. On the drawing boards, though, it's a showcase of low-impact living. Each resident will live within a seven-minute walk of the buses and solar-powered water taxis that will pulse silently through the city.
Such an eco-city would be a novelty in what's arguably the most polluted major country in the world, a place where rivers run fetid and skies often darken from smog. China's leaders endorse Dongtan as the nation's first major sustainable urban project.
The plan calls for a city crisscrossed by canals. Windmills will jut skyward, whirring softly. Large shaded areas will cool buildings, letting residents open windows. Gardens may sprout from rooftops.
The dream goes far beyond simply cutting energy usage and recycling sewage. Plans call for urban "food factories," where organic vegetables can be grown with hydroponic techniques, employing liquid from the city's waste stream. Rice husks will power biomass generators for electricity, while human waste will be treated as a resource, recycled into biogas energy.
Greenery will be everywhere. A broad variety of native vegetation will be introduced to line canals and streets — and even rooftops — bringing an array of butterflies, insect and bird life into the city.
"The urban parks and the edges of the waterways are going to be explicitly designed to have biodiversity," said Peter Head of the London-based engineering and design consultancy Arup, the chief of planning for Dongtan.
Dongtan will have an ecological "footprint" of one-eighth of a typical U.S. city, Head said, referring to the amount of land needed to supply resources for each resident.
Buildings will consume 70 percent less energy than is typical, and meters will be on constant display so residents can see how much energy they're using and generating.
City planners expect tourists to flock to Dongtan, which will arise on the eastern tip of alluvial Chongming Island in the Yangtze River Delta, barely 28 miles from downtown Shanghai, China's largest city. The isolated island, which is three-quarters the size of Manhattan, is a semi-rural enclave of rice paddies, citrus groves and crab ponds. Wetlands on the island lure migrating bird species on their biannual journeys between Siberia and Oceania.
One hops a ferry across the wide and turbulent Yangtze to arrive at Dongtan, although that will change by 2010 when a tunnel and bridge connect it to Shanghai. Plans also call for a subway line to link the island to the city.
Experts on sustainable development praise the Dongtan vision as an urban ideal.
"You can walk the city without fear of being run down by a truck. Even your auntie can do it," said Zhu Dajian, a professor of sustainable development at Shanghai's Tongji University.
Visitors to Chongming Island now only see an indoor model of the project and watch a video of the development plan. Scratch around, though, and it becomes apparent that competing visions are at work, including some more focused on the profit potential of an eco-city label than in reducing carbon emissions.
Lu Yi, the president of the Shanghai Chenjia Chen Construction & Development Co., one of the builders, grew animated as he described how to lure rich Shanghai residents to buy country idylls in Dongtan, saying that the natural surroundings will ensure them of great longevity, a traditional Chinese dream.
"Disease is unknown here," Lu said, with some hyperbole. "The first way we'll attract Shanghai people is with the fresh air. The second way is from the health benefits."
In describing potential property prices, he said Dongtan "won't be more expensive than Shanghai," one of Asia's more costly cities.
Some of the more radical innovations in the Dongtan design, including a possible ban on traditional gas-burning vehicles, nettle developers.
"The car problem is the most difficult to tackle," Lu said, adding that he hopes investors will be able to "park close to the residential areas."
The goal is to have a demonstration village with 10,000 people by 2010, when nearby Shanghai hosts the World Expo. In later phases Dongtan will grow to a population of 80,000 by 2020 and half a million by 2050.
Surrounding Chongming Island already has some 650,000 people.
Some designs would cater to the wealthy. A heliport and a cruise ship terminal are planned. Printed material includes drawings of golf courses and a marina filled with huge yachts, presumably not powered by solar panels.
Most at odds with the eco-city label is the notion of setting aside a corner of the island for a major theme park.
"When I met people from Universal Studios, they told me that Chongming Island has ideal conditions for a theme park and that we should invite them here," said Lu Lixin, the deputy propaganda chief for Chongming County.
Earlier this month, the state-run China Business Post reported that Chongming Island might be a potential site for a Disneyland theme park to be constructed after 2010, rather than Shanghai's Pudong district.
Disney wouldn't confirm the report, saying that it remained focused on developing a Disneyland in Hong Kong.
Lu, the deputy propaganda chief, said a theme park wouldn't be out of keeping with an eco-city development.
"What are the negative influences of a theme park? One is sewage. But there are ways to deal with this. A big theme park could actually promote the development of an eco-island," Lu said. He later called a reporter to ask that no mention of a theme park be included in an article.
An ecologist who's studied Chongming's wildlife, He Wenshan, said financial interests clearly were coming to the fore for Dongtan's lead developer.
"He thinks the theme park should be built in Chongming because it would be very good business," she said, noting that property prices would climb.
McClatchy Newspapers 2007