13 Feb 2012: Report

Can Smarter Growth Guide
China’s Urban Building Boom?

The world has never seen anything like China’s dizzying urbanization boom, which has taken a heavy environmental toll. But efforts are now underway to start using principles of green design and smart growth to guide the nation’s future development.

by david biello

Coal money, generated by one of the world’s largest open-pit mines, has built a new Ordos, a municipality in the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia. A modern city is rising there from the steppes, featuring monumental government buildings, an imposing museum, and row after row of apartment buildings and subdivisions, all designed to accommodate more than a million new residents. Spacious roads wait for cars to zoom between residential and commercial areas or feed into the highway that leads to the existing — and inhabited — old city, some 15 miles away. But cars and people remain sparse.

Ordos is emblematic of China’s urbanization boom, a construction frenzy unlike anything seen in the history of the planet. Today, half of the nation’s 1.35 billion people live in cities. From the outskirts of Shenyang in the cold northeast to the mountainous precincts of Kunming in the subtropical southwest, buildings are rising to accommodate the people now crowding into the 170 cities in China that host more than a million residents. Across the country, construction firms have built some 2 billion square meters of new apartments, offices, and skyscrapers annually in recent years. The national bird of China has become the construction crane.

The environmental impact of this construction boom is enormous. The greenhouse gas emissions associated with producing all the steel, concrete,
One big problem is local governments derive much of their revenue from selling land.
and other building materials are staggering; one ton of the cement that is the substrate of this new urban infrastructure equals at least one ton of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, another reason China is now the world’s leading CO2-emitting nation. In addition, shoddy construction means that many buildings will have to be torn down and rebuilt within a decade or two, and that new homes and offices often are not energy efficient.

To tackle the problem, a growing number of experts in China, as well as foreign conservation groups working in the country, are attempting to incorporate elements of smart growth, energy efficiency, and green design in China’s construction industry. Basic reforms, such as better building codes and mandated efficiency standards, could make a significant difference, experts contend.

“The issue is not really about restraining the growth of cities, but ensuring that the growth is smart [and] well-planned,” says Deborah Seligsohn, principal advisor in the World Resources Institute’s China Climate and Energy Program.

A major impediment is a simple fact of economic life in China: Local governments, which do not have the power to levy property taxes, derive a large portion of their revenues from development fees and selling land.

New Buildings in Ordos Inner Mongolia China
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images
Apartment buildings under construction in Ordos, a city in Inner Mongolia.
“The single best way for Chinese cities to make money during this unique 40-year urbanization cycle is to sell land to developers,” explains Peggy Liu, chairwoman of the Joint U.S.-China Collaboration on Clean Energy (JUCCCE), a nonprofit aiming to accelerate environmental improvement in China. “Infrastructure uses enormous amounts of cement, steel, aluminum — all of the heavy industry that causes emissions and is thirsty for energy. China imports a lot of building materials as well, which requires even more energy to package and transport. This doesn’t bode well for the next two decades.”

The environmental impact of rapid urbanization and poor construction is hardly limited to China. The number of people living in cities worldwide has risen from roughly 260 million in 1900 to 3.5 billion today. By mid-century, two-thirds of humanity will be living in urban areas.

“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 governments group. “We need to increase [population] density and make more efficient use of existing infrastructure. We cannot afford to just double it.”

China’s epic spate of city building is in a class by itself, however. The country’s primary policy at all levels of government remains economic growth, and real estate development fulfills that goal while also providing
Millions of laborers throw up dormitories and apartments, only to see them torn down less than a decade later.
new housing for the millions of recently urbanized Chinese.

Millions of peasant laborers throw up factories, dormitories, and apartments, only to see them torn down less than a decade later. Communist-style apartment blocks, known as “bed cities” because people only go there to sleep, are hastily erected and surrounded by sprawling industrial parks on the outskirts of cities. Contractors and clients sketch out and design buildings in a few hours, quickly followed by construction, with local governments blessing the pell-mell growth.

For all the Chinese demonstration eco-cities like Tianjin or “carbon neutral” pledges from smaller cities like Rizhao, thousands of new homes in rural townships are poorly constructed and made of substandard brick or cinderblock. As a result, China’s buildings consume more energy than its heaviest industries, such as steel and cement, combined. The low-cost construction makes them hard to heat and cool. And low-quality cement, notes Stephen Hammer, a professor of urban planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, means that “after a decade or two, it’s so cracked and deteriorated that it realistically needs to be replaced.”

Partially as a result, a single Chinese character has come to dominate urban planning: Chai (demolish). It is scrawled on buildings constructed as recently as the 1990s, now destined to be rubble. “Poor urban planning, lack of accountability, weak regulation and absence of legal framework, all together makes buildings in China so vulnerable,” says engineer Ding Jianhua of the China Urban Construction, Design and Research Institute. “Tearing down buildings is, in my opinion, essentially the most high carbon factor in China at present.”

The Chinese government and various organizations are beginning to come to grips with the challenge, however. The central government has eliminated real estate as a priority industry in the latest Five Year Plan in a
Simply improving existing building codes would have a bigger impact than any new eco-city.
bid to restrain this unsustainable growth. It has also begun to consider mandated efficiency measures for new construction. China’s central government hopes ultimately to build an “ecological civilization” via a “circular economy” of recycling and sustainability. Tianjin Eco-City, scheduled to be completed by 2018, exemplifies many of the proposed attributes: minimal waste, wise water use, and power generated mainly from renewable sources such as the sun, wind, and geothermal wells.

But simply improving existing building codes would have a bigger impact than any new eco-city. “Just construction standards alone, as dull as that might sound, is going to be one of the most influential areas in urban climate change in the next 10 years,” argues Ashvin Dayal, managing director for the Rockefeller Foundation in Asia, which is funding efforts to help developing cities cope with climate change.

Most organizations interested in ensuring the sustainability of cities have a similar focus, whether in China or the rest of the world. “Mandates for little things like enough insulation are really the smartest way to go,” notes Rohit Aggarwall, special advisor to the chair of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, an international planning organization for 59 major cities engaged in efforts to combat climate change.


A Once-Polluted Chinese City
Is Turning from Gray to Green

A Once-Polluted Chinese City Is Turning from Gray to Green
Shenyang — once a key in Mao Zedong’s push to industrialize China — has begun to emerge from its smoggy past, cleaning up its factories and expanding its green spaces, Christina Larson reports. In doing so, this city of 8 million people has been in the forefront of a growing environmental consciousness in urban China.
China’s central government is planning such a mandate for energy efficient materials in new buildings, along with greater adoption of renewable energy to go with the solar hot water heaters already covering rooftops across the country, according to CUCD’s Jianhua. Her work with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation includes developing “low-cost, high-effect, low-carbon measures” for Min’an, a community that comprises 22 residential buildings and a park in the Dongcheng District of Beijing. The plan is to deal with subjects as mundane as building insulation, better transportation, and water consumption — measures that can then be replicated across the country.

As for Ordos, it and other “ghost cities” may not remain empty for long. “Given that 350 million people are moving into Chinese cities by 2030, and that the middle class is doubling from 300 to 612 million by 2025, I’m not that worried about these cities staying completely empty forever,” JUCCCE’s Liu says.

But the Ordos model of pell-mell development must be jettisoned if China hopes to control its CO2 emissions and become more energy independent, experts contend. Says ICLEI’s Otto-Zimmermann, “To just expand [cities] at the current rate and build the same Soviet-type prefab buildings another 20 to 30 kilometers around the city, that’s certainly not the solution.”

POSTED ON 13 Feb 2012 IN Biodiversity Climate Policy & Politics Urbanization Antarctica and the Arctic Asia 


The great economic progress China has made over the past 30 years is something all Chinese celebrate. China's model of authoritarian capitalism appears triumphant, but there is nothing genuinely new about this model like all dictatorships, it deprives people of political rights and freedom of speech.

Indeed, it is becoming increasingly clear that China opened its economy only to maintain the country’s over-mighty rulers in power, not to respect and enhance the lives of ordinary Chinese.

Explain China’s core values — not what the country achieved, but what it stands for?

Why shouldn't China be a democratic, free and morally conscious new China?

Does "anti-CCP" really mean "anti-China"?

Is the CCP actually necessary for China's growth and prosperity?

Clearly, the all-pervading aim of the Chinese regime is not the conversion of the PRC into a pluralistic political system with a free market economy modeled after, and integrated with, Western institutions. Rather, its purpose is to perpetuate the Communist Party's rule.

Sorry, but try living in China, then you will know the real story, that Mao weakened morality. Now corruption is rampant, as government officials squander natural resources sacrificing their own environment to be acceptable.

It was better for China to be agricultural, not factory of the world by using the worse dirty energy methods. The U.S. outsourced to China, to ESCAPE U.S. government regulations that EPA considers harmful. What do they care in China is the sky turn black with pollution, 361 days out of 365 days a year?

No other countries should adapt China's development method of legacy Soviet-type prefab buildings.

If China to to survive it MUST not become wasteful Americanized. With 1.3 billion individuals, it cannot afford 6x more of everything.

A solution is change the economy, to a SUSTAINABLE model. One method of doing that is to transition from a market-economy into a resource-based economy.

As long as the government supports the wealthy, the elite will bribe government officials.

The same is happening in the U.S., just look at Obamas eligibility! Father was NOT even a citizen of the US, his mother underage and couldn't confer citizenship, and then there is the missing birth certificate, etc...

While Dr. Orly Taitz, Esquire has evidence of social security fraud that the IRS confirms, but no U.S. Court finds that of any interest and throws the Constitution under the bus!

If China can RISE so much on dirty energy and all the wrong stuff, why cannot the U.S. with all the BEST stuff function better?

U.S. has better building codes, better city planning, and yet with everything going for itself the U.S. cannot APPLY it's own solutions to even manage it's economy.

How many trillions in debt is the U.S.? While the U.S. pulls out of the Olympic Games. First it was healthcare, then schools and now prisons all being sold to private enterprises to run them for PROFIT.

How many unemployed now, how many U.S. citizens on mortgages, out in the street and on food stamps?

It's NOT just China with ghost cities. Look around in the U.S....

Posted by Shenyang Li on 16 Feb 2012

Thanks Dave. Thorough and to the point piece. Especially like the unglamorous, but essential suggestion, of the need for greener, high performance building codes. Of course, building code enforcement in Chinese cities, like cities elsewhere, is equally critical.

Posted by Sallan Foundation on 16 Feb 2012

The Chinese must realize how destructive it is to produce a particular construction material. They must know THE CACATIAN'S MODEL FOR THE ENVIRONMENTAL DESTRUCTION CAUSED BY A PRODUCT". The model shows that to extract (quarrying only) a mineral ore more or less 1.234 trillion units of different kinds of inputs are involved. Each of these inputs will pass through different economic activities (more or less 7 activities) which also require several and different kinds of secondary, tertiary up to the nth product in the performance of these activities. Each of these products also require at least five inputs and so on and so forth.

Posted by Evelyn rodriguez - Cacatian on 21 Feb 2012

Comments have been closed on this feature.
david bielloABOUT THE AUTHOR
David Biello has been covering energy and the environment for nearly a decade, the last four years as an associate editor at Scientific American. He also hosts 60-Second Earth, a Scientific American podcast covering environmental news. In previous articles for Yale Environment 360, Biello has written about China’s ambitious nuclear power plans and the energy-saving potential of retrofitting buildings.



A Tale of Two Northern European Cities:
Meeting the Challenge of Sea Level Rise

For centuries, Rotterdam and Hamburg have had to contend with the threat of storm surges and floods. Now, as sea levels rise, planners are looking at innovative ways to make these cities more resilient, with new approaches that could hold lessons for vulnerable urban areas around the world.

How China and U.S. Became
Unlikely Partners on Climate

Amid tensions between the U.S. and China, one issue has emerged on which the two nations are finding common ground: climate change. Their recent commitments on controlling emissions have created momentum that could help international climate talks in Paris in December.

Beyond Sprawl: A New Vision of
The Solar Suburbs of the Future

The concept of the "solar suburb" includes a solar panel on every roof, an electric vehicle in every garage, ultra-efficient home batteries to store excess energy, and the easy transfer of electricity among house, car, and grid. But will the technological pieces fall in place to make this dream a reality?

Natura 2000: EU Reserves Are
Facing Development Pressures

An astonishing 18 percent of the European Union’s land area is protected under a network of preserves known as Natura 2000. Now, at the urging of business interests and farmers, the EU is examining whether regulations on development in these areas should be loosened.

In Romania, Highway Boom Poses Looming Threat to Bears
Romania, one of Europe’s poorest nations, badly needs a modern highway system. But conservationists warn that unless the movements of wildlife are accommodated, a planned boom in road construction could threaten one of the continent’s last large brown bear populations.


MORE IN Reports

For Storing Electricity, Utilities
Are Turning to Pumped Hydro

by john roach
High-tech batteries may be garnering the headlines. But utilities from Spain to China are increasingly relying on pumped storage hydroelectricity – first used in the 1890s – to overcome the intermittent nature of wind and solar power.

On Thin Ice: Big Northern Lakes
Are Being Rapidly Transformed

by cheryl katz
As temperatures rise, the world’s iconic northern lakes are undergoing major changes that include swiftly warming waters, diminished ice cover, and outbreaks of harmful algae. Now, a global consortium of scientists is trying to assess the toll.

The Haunting Legacy of
South Africa’s Gold Mines

by mark olalde
Thousands of abandoned gold mines are scattered across South Africa, polluting the water with toxics and filling the air with noxious dust. For the millions of people who live around these derelict sites, the health impacts can be severe.

The Sushi Project: Farming Fish
And Rice in California's Fields

by jacques leslie
Innovative projects in California are using flooded rice fields to rear threatened species of Pacific salmon, mimicking the rich floodplains where juvenile salmon once thrived. This technique also shows promise for growing forage fish, which are increasingly threatened in the wild.

A Delicate Balance: Protecting
Northwest’s Glass Sponge Reefs

by nicola jones
Rare and extensive reefs of glass sponges are found only one place on earth – a stretch of the Pacific Northwest coast. Now, efforts are underway to identify and protect these fragile formations before they are obliterated by fishing vessels that trawl the bottom.

As the Fracking Boom Spreads,
One Watershed Draws the Line

by bruce stutz
After spreading across Pennsylvania, fracking for natural gas has run into government bans in the Delaware River watershed. The basins of the Delaware and nearby Susquehanna River offer a sharp contrast between what happens in places that allow fracking and those that do not.

Will Tidal and Wave Energy
Ever Live Up to Their Potential?

by sophia v. schweitzer
As solar and wind power grow, another renewable energy source with vast potential — the power of tides and waves — continues to lag far behind. But progress is now being made as governments and the private sector step up efforts to bring marine energy into the mainstream.

The Rapid and Startling Decline
Of World’s Vast Boreal Forests

by jim robbins
Scientists are becoming increasingly concerned about the fate of the huge boreal forest that spans from Scandinavia to northern Canada. Unprecedented warming in the region is jeopardizing the future of a critical ecosystem that makes up nearly a third of the earth’s forest cover.

Northern Forests Emerge
As the New Global Tinderbox

by ed struzik
Rapidly rising temperatures, changes in precipitation, and increased lightning strikes are leading to ever-larger wildfires in the northern forests of Alaska, Canada, and Siberia, with potentially severe ecological consequences.

For U.S. Tribes, a Movement to
Revive Native Foods and Lands

by cheryl katz
On ancestral lands, the Fond du Lac band in Minnesota is planting wild rice and restoring wetlands damaged by dams, industry, and logging. Their efforts are part of a growing trend by Native Americans to bring back traditional food sources and heal scarred landscapes.

e360 digest
Yale Environment 360 is
a publication of the
Yale School of Forestry
& Environmental Studies


Donate to Yale Environment 360
Yale Environment 360 Newsletter



About e360
Submission Guidelines

E360 en Español

Universia partnership
Yale Environment 360 articles are now available in Spanish and Portuguese on Universia, the online educational network.
Visit the site.


e360 Digest
Video Reports


Business & Innovation
Policy & Politics
Pollution & Health
Science & Technology


Antarctica and the Arctic
Central & South America
Middle East
North America

e360 VIDEO

The 2015 Yale e360 Video Contest winner documents a Northeastern town's bitter battle over a wind farm.
Watch the video.


The latest
from Yale
Environment 360
is now available for mobile devices at e360.yale.edu/mobile.

e360 VIDEO

A 2015 Yale e360 Video Contest winner captures stunning images of wild salmon runs in Alaska.
Watch the video.

e360 VIDEO

Colorado wildfires
An e360 video goes onto the front lines with Colorado firefighters confronting deadly blazes fueled by a hotter, drier climate.
Watch the video.


A three-part series Tainted Harvest looks at the soil pollution crisis in China, the threat it poses to the food supply, and the complexity of any cleanup.
Read the series.

header image
Top Image: aerial view of Iceland. © Google & TerraMetrics.