Eco-cities or just new ghost cities? B.A.R.C. proposes an alternative design for China's green cities

So, since two decades China has been questing for sustainability. And this new decade is considered as the decade for a green China. At least, this is what China's sustainability plan is targeting. Green and energy-efficient buildings, green cities, are slogans you can read and hear in China. Since 2000, China counts an increasing number of "eco-cities": Tianjin, Dongtuan, are the most famous among a long list which will keep on growing so fast that this ambition generates competition between these cities.
Caofeidian — The Genetic City © B.A.R.C.

Yet, some architects are very critical towards this Eco-Cities boom. Not because of the boom itself, since transitioning to sustainable city is the key to face changing contexts, global warming included. The problem is the way these cities are built and, particularly, their "build-by date". That's the problem. Precisely, criticism is mainly focused on the fact that these eco-cities are outdated the day of completion. These cities, be they beautiful or not, be they sustainable or not, seem not to attract the expected population who seem to prefer to migrate to existing cities like Beijing and Shanghai — where guarantee jobs —, resulting in ghost green cities — apparently these ghost cities might be built to remain empty, a kind of "nouveau riche folly".
Caofeidian — The Genetic City © B.A.R.C.

Among these architects, B.A.R.C. namely Beyond Architectural Regulations in Caofeidian, a project led by China-based Dutch architect Neville Mars, founder of Dynamic City Foundation and MARS Architects, in collaboration with 10 architects. In March, Neville Mars uploaded a long-term research on the Caofeidian eco-city collecting renderings, texts, videos. 5 Dutch and 5 Chinese design companies were invited to develop a long-term growth strategy for Caofeidian. The principle is simple: it is not design all at once, but in relay. Each team was invited to add to the previous proposal. These collaborators are Urbanus, MAD, Rocksteady, Powerhouse, MVRDV, BAU, Tsinghua School of Architecture, Urban China, ZUS, and MARS Architects. The principle is simple: the first dream draws a master plan for the 2010 to 2013 period; the second planned on top of that for 2013 to 2016; the third for 2016 to 2019; and so on through to the final master plan for 2040 (stage 10).
But before going deeply into this project, a rapid close-up of Caofeidian Eco-City is required.
Caofeidian — The Genetic City © B.A.R.C.

In 2005, Caofeidian, an economic development zone in Bohai Bay, Hebei Province, China, has been listed as pilot area for the development of a Recyclable and Circular Economy, namely industrial ecology. Caofeidian is expected to attract a population of more than 300,000 by 2010.
The aim of the creation of this eco-city, like the other eco-cities, is to develop a sustainable city for new residents on 30 square kilometers.
Caofeidian — The Genetic City © B.A.R.C.

Key issues are: (1) to combine dynamic development with environmental adaptation; (2) to propose a city that mixes best urban living standards with per capita consumption of water and energy; (3) how to manage population growth while population growth is intrinsically linked with energy consumption.
Caofeidian — The Genetic City © B.A.R.C.

I mentioned above a first part of the criticism regarding these eco-cities. Another criticism is as important as the first one: that is to say the way these eco-cities are built. Chinese green-cities appear to be far from being flexible: they seem to be static as well as incapable of adapting to changing contexts.
Caofeidian — The Genetic City © B.A.R.C.

In addition, these eco-cities are the result of aggressively competitiveness that has been emerging since two or three decades. While sustainability is one of Chinese government's target, it however leads to an aggressive competition between real-estates which organise international competitions to attract not only investments but also media, local as well as international. Precisely, China battles to build new green cities at hyperspeed. China is not the only country that is developing large programme of sustainable urban development; Middle-Eastern Region (United Arab Emirates), with its increasing programmes of eco-cities, like Masdar City, is another example.
Caofeidian — The Genetic City © B.A.R.C.

However, according to Neville Mars, these cities, usually built overnight, meet difficulties to integrate emerging green technologies and responding to new desires and regulations. Hence no sooner are these green cities completed than they are outdated. China must implement not only long-term visions in terms of sustainability, but also flexible and adaptable cities to the long term.
This is the key issue that articulates Dynamic City Foundation's project B.A.R.C. This think tank set out to develop a planning model viable within these harsh conditions, Neville Mars says. Mars calls this planning model the "Evolutionary Planning". "Evolutionary Planning" in that it must adapt to "market needs without having to abandon its fundamental principles along the way." B.A.R.C.'s concept of Evolutionary City corresponds to what a city must be: a city must continually innovate and be flexible to adapt to changing contexts. Hence the concept of "Genetic City".
Caofeidian — The Genetic City © B.A.R.C.

What is a "Genetic City"? As Adrian Hornsby, part of MARS Architects and Dynamic City Foundation, points out, a "Genetic City" is inspired by the human genome. As we know, genetics deals with the molecular structure and functions of genes. Genetics, basically, studies how our physical and behavioural traits are inherited. What interests B.A.R.C. is, to quote Adrian Hornsby, "as evolution, in the case of the human genome, does not favour the "designed" solution", a city must be considered an evolutionary city that supposes no designed solution. B.A.R.C.'s Genetic City, finally, is an simulation of thirty years of sustainable expansion, a product of an accumulation of evolving ideas.
Caofeidian — The Genetic City © B.A.R.C.

If you visit B.A.R.C. website, what will you find? Videos and renderings of B.A.R.C.'s research:
Tsinghua School of Architecture: Caofeidian Genetic City 2010-2012
Rocksteady Design: Caofeidian Genetic City 2013-2015
ZUS: Caofeidian Genetic City 2016-2018
Urban China/Jiang Jun: Caofeidian Genetic City 2019-2021
BAU: Caofeidian Genetic City 2022-2024
URBANUS: Caofeidian Genetic City 2025-2027
MARS-1 space design: Caofeidian Genetic City 2028-2030
Powerhouse Company: Caofeidian Genetic City 2031-2033
MAD/Ma Yansong: Caofeidian Genetic City 2034-2036
MVRDV: Caofeidian Genetic City 2037-2040

See also: Adrian Hornsby's article "Embracing urban evolution" published on 10 November 2010 in China Dialogue.
Neville Mars, Adrian Hornsby, The Chinese Dream. A Society Under Construction.


Craig Purcell said...

How are these eco-cities and sustainable ? Seems to me to be artistic expression by architects interested in getting in on the China boomtown.

Annick Labeca said...

Craig, are these eco-city more branding than eco-city? Is this what you mean? Basically Mars' workshop appears to be more a research-based proposition than a marketing or presentation, or whatever. Yet, I am globally prone to say that many eco-cites under construction tend to be more what we call "marketability" than sustainable cities. Precisely speaking, it seems to be a way to use sustainability as a contribution to economy rather than to the residents. This is why I prefer to say wait and judge… I am curious to see, when completed, how these eco-smart-cities will talk back…

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