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.
"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.
"China is in the lead in lots of ways," Register said. "One thing that you can simply see is that China is trying to build an ecological city. You don't see the United States doing that."