Around a wastewater reservoir on the outskirts of China’s fourth largest city, Tianjin, tower blocks built to one of the most stringent green building codes in the world rise in “eco-cells” bound by broad roads while, in strips of green space around the Yincheng Reservoir, wind farms have been planted.
This is Tianjin Eco-city , a joint venture of China and Singapore, and designed to be “A thriving city which socially harmonious, environmentally-friendly and resource efficient—a model of sustainable development.” According to MIT Technology Review, $6.5 billion  has been invested by the two governments as of 2012.
Unfortunately, as both a city and as a model of sustainable development, Tianjin Eco-city has all the hallmarks of failure. One doesn’t even need to read the articles about how difficult it’s been to convince  people to move  there, or the inconveniences they face when they do, to see why. A glance through the image gallery  reveals everything: grandiose buildings on huge setbacks, wide roads clearly designed for speed, green space—not parks—forming buffers on sidewalks and highway medians and all overseen by the aforementioned apartment towers.
It’s Le Corbusier  with solar panels. That sort of city, built from scratch and at such a scale to crush the human life out of a city, designed around the car at highway speeds and the misguided belief that mere open space (inevitably converted into parking sooner or later) was better than any place could be, comprises the heart of decades of urban failure in the West. It was the guiding ideology behind the planning of the infamous “projects”—St. Louis’ Pruitt-Igoe , Chicago’s Cabrini-Green and the depressing march of cheerless gray building after cheerless gray building through the Bronx—and the basic design’s hostility to human life is one of the reasons they’re remembered for poverty, drugs, violence and social collapse and not the visionary and progressive examples of architecture, housing policy and urban planning they were hailed as.
For Le Corbusier and his followers, the goal was not to work within a living tradition or build upon what had come before, but to completely obliterate the past. In a city or neighborhood he designed, there would be nothing left to remind anyone of what had gone before. The street itself would be abolished and everyone would live and work in gigantic, identical, concrete towers. It’s unclear if there was room in his utopia for churches or even farms and factories.
Not for nothing has Theodore Dalrymple compared Le Corbusier to Pol Pot, “he wanted to start from Year Zero: Before me, nothing; After me, everything.”
Being built around a polluted reservoir, Tianjin Eco-city is less disruptive than American projects that “renewed” whole neighborhoods at a time. Nevertheless, in being built from scratch it will suffer from many similar problems. It’s unclear how many people have moved in yet. While planned for 350,000 residents, MIT Technology Review reports a population of 20,000; The Guardian reports 6,000 and the BBC 12,000. Renting in new construction is more expensive than existing and while the government has been offering subsidized rent and kindergarten, apartments are still empty. For those who have moved in, the eco-city lacks both conveniences and amenities, so residents must drive to work, shop or do anything else.
The master-plan talks about promoting walking, cycling and public transit, but there does not appear to be a transit connection to central Tianjin, about 20 miles away. The references to driving alternatives in the Master Plan all talk about trips within the city. In any event, the wide, multi-lane roads and lack of anywhere within the eco-city to walk to will just encourage driving.
There are other things about the design that sound good but appear to be little more than an old Corbusier plan greenwashed for this century. While the eco-city may have a green building code, that doesn’t account for much. Kaid Benfield of the National Resources Defense Council has written several times about the ways planners focus on LEED certification over things like walkability. This even affects the Environmental Protection Agency, as when they moved a regional headquarters  from a fairly transit- and walking friendly part of downtown Kansas City, KS to a car-dependent, sprawling suburb.
According to the Environmental Building News , “…for an average office building in the United States, calculations … show that commuting by office workers accounts for 30 percent more energy than the building itself uses.”
As Jeff Speck put it in Walkable City, “all these gadgets cumulatively contribute only a fraction of what we save by living in a walkable neighborhood.” Moreover, a study by the National Trust for Historic Preservation found that “building reuse almost always has fewer environmental impacts than new construction,” according to Time .
All these findings are consistent with the features of a traditional city, built over time, as opposed to Le Corbusier’s Year Zero.
China certainly needs sustainable cities. Even apart from the impacts on climate change—and China is the source of one-third of greenhouse gas emissions—the air and water pollution are already at levels usually deemed unsafe by Western governments. In the north, the average life expectancy has declined by 5.5 years, according to the Council on Foreign Relations . Environmental damage has cost the People’s Republic about 3.5 percent of the GDP, according to Bloomberg , which has averaged 10 percent a year for a decade. Green issues may also affect the country’s stability: there were 50,000 protests on environmental issues in 2012, according to Grist .
Tianjin’s environment would be better served by the insertion of the eco-city’s technologies and techniques into the existing urban fabric, combined with the renovation of existing buildings. The Chinese have at least 4,000 years of urban history to draw on, as well as very good regional examples, such as Tokyo and Hong Kong.
China can do better. It must do better.
Matthew M. Robare is a freelance journalist based in Boston and also writes about urbanism and history.