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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 June 2006, 16:18 GMT 17:18 UK
Making Cities Work: China
By Dejan Sudjic

Government officials inspect new, low-energy houses in Huangbaiyu. Pic: Dorothy Cross
It's a big day here in Huangbaiyu, a rural village in north-east China.

A motorcade of no less than 14 black limousines brings government officials bumping across the dirt track to inspect a new development of sustainable houses being built here.

What's happening is a small story which is part of a much larger one.

In cities all around the world, the holy grail at the beginning of the 21st Century is sustainability.

Self-sustaining communities more than anything minimise the consumption of energy.

Some of those projects are large ones, whole cities such as Dontan near Shanghai.

But some models for the future are based in rural China.

The Huangbaiyu village project started as a top level collaboration between a group of Chinese and Americans who formed the China US Sustainable Development Group in 2002, to explore new thinking about energy-conscious building.

Ground breaking

Their aim for this project was two-fold.

Some people want to stay in their old houses with accompanying smallholds. Pic: Dorothy Cross

Firstly, to create an example of low-energy housing that will inform China's city makers as they build for the future.

Secondly, to provide a model of housing that might make staying in the countryside a more attractive proposition for rural people.

Huangbaiyu was chosen because it is accessible, there is a local entrepreneur prepared to put up money and because of the dizzying pace of China's urbanisation.

Shannon May, a research student at Berkeley, has been monitoring the experiment since it started a year ago

"It is amazing that there are 42 houses almost finished. It hasn't been so easy to get there and there have been a lot of difficulties along the way."


The houses do offer a more modern lifestyle but when you look more closely you begin to realise some things have come unstuck.

Unlike the local traditional stone and tile houses around here, these are regimented rows that lack the original charm.


What is also noticeable is that each house comes with its own garage, a complete deviation from the prototype designed by US architect William McDonough, who chairs the project.

Crucially they do not face south and there is no sign of the solar panels or special insulation coating that was part of the original design.

As financer of the project, Dai Xiaolong has been closely involved with developing and building up the project at every stage.

But at the same time he is the head of the village and responsible for making key decisions on behalf of the villagers.

"I don't think it's a conflict of interest. As head of the village I want to lead locals here to a sustainable future," he said.

"Look I've made some minor adjustments to the designs here, I had to for financial reasons.

"But these houses will be much more comfortable than those the villagers live in at the moment and above all much more efficient and economic to heat.

Original dream

It's clear that the original dream put forward by the politicians and designers is not what's happening here.

The initial consultation was not with the villagers but with their leader, the very same Dai Xiaolong.

He runs many businesses but this is poor China and reality for the villagers is different.

Cu Cian Cha, who has lived in the village for more than 25 years, remains sceptical about the new houses.

"I think they're very ugly. They're packed together without any space around them. There's no garden. Let's face it my house is much nicer than those."

And villagers fear that moving away from their existing houses, with accompanying smallholdings, would leave them without reliable income.

In cities like Shanghai the holy grail is sustainability
Building more densely is a fundamental cornerstone of this and other models of sustainability.

Twenty-two percent of the world's population lives here in China but the country only has 9% of the world's land and only 8% of that is arable or crop farming land. The rest is mountainous or desert.

New settlements must be dense if there is to be any land left for growing food.

What the small Huangbaiyu experiment shows is the danger of trying to impose a new way of life on people without fully understanding their needs and the realities of their lives.

Sustainable city

So can a much bigger, massively well-funded project do it much better?

In the south east of the country, Western expertise has been put to the test in a massive development called Dontan, on an island in the Yangtze near Shanghai.

Here planning permission has just been given to build what claims to be the world's first sustainable city.

People don't willingly face up to change. People don't voluntarily use less electricity and less petrol because they know the next man is not going to do that
Terry Farrell, architect and city planner
The client is the Shaghai industrial investment corporation owned by the city government and they're investing billions in this project.

This satellite city will rise out of the mud flats over the next four years.

Peter Head is the director at Arup, the British design and engineering company, chosen to manage the project.

"What we've been doing is planning the first phase of this development which is about 600 hectares of land, to be turned into a city," he said.

"The first third of that 600 hectares is intended to be built by 2010 and to be a model for sustainable cities of the future."

According to Mr Head all the city will be powered with renewable energy.

Panels which collect sunlight and turn it into that electrical energy will also be set and there will be large scale wind generators on the island.

But it's worth asking whether this supposedly sustainable city will just be a fashionable address for China's new middle classes or will there be space for all sectors of society.

Real solutions

For a lot of people here the issue is not one of sustainability in a technical sense, it's about human nature.

"People don't willingly face up to change. People don't voluntarily use less electricity and less petrol because they know the next man is not going to do that," says architect and city planner Terry Farrell said:

"So it's not until you get to situations like New Orleans submerged under a hurricane that people are collectively made to take stock and say we have to change.

"Part of the problem is that for people in the West to tell the people in under-developed countries, 'I'm terribly sorry, you can't have your power station or your motor car,' it is seen quite rightly as hypocritical and damaging to the future of them and their children and their children's children.

"How can they volunteer to maintain a lower standard of living?"

Dejan Sudjic is the Guardian's architecture critic.

Making Cities Work is broadcast on the BBC World Service at 1100 GMT on 3 July.

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