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The New Sustainable Cities

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© Courtesy of Eriksson Architects LTD.

Are made-from-scratch metropolises the answer to Asia's urban overpopulation? Departures investigates.

Two years ago, 35 miles southwest of Seoul, developer Stan Gale cut the ribbon on the world’s newest city—a man-made isthmus in the Yellow Sea named Songdo International Business District. In 2001, the chairman of New York–based Gale International had pledged to borrow $35 billion to build a city the size of downtown Boston, modeled on Paris, Venice and Manhattan, complete with a hundred-acre “Central Park.” Songdo won’t be finished until at least 2016, but Gale isn’t waiting around. These days, he’s pitching China’s mayors on his city-in-a-box—a kit to build their own smart, green city of the future in as little as three years.

Is it even possible to build a city from scratch, at least one we would want to live in? This may be the defining challenge of our era. The earth’s urban population will nearly double by 2050, requiring the construction of hundreds of new cities. China is already building the equivalent of a Rome every few weeks to absorb the 400 million migrants streaming in from the countryside. The question facing us as an urban species isn’t whether to build cities tabula rasa, but how. And nowhere is this dilemma more pressing than in Asia.

The archetypal Asian city isn’t Art Deco Shanghai or postwar Tokyo, but the “overnight city” of Shenzhen, which was just a fishing village when it was tapped to be China’s capitalist enclave more than 30 years ago. Today, it’s a sprawling metropolis of nearly 14 million, with clusters of skyscrapers sprouting from an impenetrable canopy of factories and elevated highways. Unplanned and uncontrollable, Shenzhen and its neighboring cities represent 20th-century urbanism at its worst—ugly, inequitable and unsustainable. Surely we can do better in the 21st?

Plans for utopian cities date back to the Renaissance, although a modern example is Brasília, the Oscar Niemeyer–designed, made-to-order capital built over 41 frenzied months in the 1950s. Following Brazil’s lead, Malaysia started construction on its own new administrative center in the mid-’90s. Rubber and palm-oil plantations were chopped down to make room for the domes and spires of Putrajaya and its sister city, Cyberjaya, which are linked to Kuala Lumpur, 15 miles to the north, via a fiber-optic “multimedia super corridor.”

Cyberjaya, which was supposed to be Southeast Asia’s answer to Silicon Valley, never attracted the country’s entrepreneurs. And Putrajaya ended up being a quiet, manicured campus for technocrats. Korea’s Sejong, a “multifunctional administrative city” a two-hour drive south of Seoul, will likely face the same fate when the first residential zone is completed in December. Originally envisioned as the new capital, it is now slated to become the home of certain government ministries. (Last year a power struggle over Sejong’s fate threatened to split the ruling Grand National Party in two, and critics doubt that many officials will actually move there from Seoul.)

More than politics, sustainability is the driving force behind these instant cities. The half of humanity that now lives in urban areas is responsible for 75 percent of all energy consumption, so building cleaner cities is key to combating climate change. This goes double for China, the world’s biggest polluter. What’s missing is a prototype for the cities environmentalists have in mind. Lying west of Beijing—the home of weeklong traffic jams—Mentougou Eco Valley aims to be the first.

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