The Special Project ‘Eco cities in China’ examines what is behind sustainable urbanization in China, how the hundreds of eco cities in the country are being implemented in practice and how their results compare with those in a number of European regions.
China is undergoing rapid urbanisation while its existing urban regions are undergoing a process of rapid industrial transformation. The former refers to the rising percentage of people living in cities, the latter to the tendency of wealthier cities in eastern China to gradually phase out highly polluting manufacturing industries and replace them with light manufacturing and services industries. This requires urban transformation in both the industrial structure (clean and green technologies) and the demographic composition (a more highly educated workforce).
This much-desired change has led to fierce competition among cities in China, especially those situated along the East Coast. In order to enhance their attractiveness to investors, leading companies and young urban professionals, these cities are actively engaged in city branding. A variety of terminologies has entered the scene, some of which are internationally well-known while others resonate more nationally within China: eco cities, low carbon cities, green cities, sustainable cities, liveable cities, garden cities, resilient cities, smart cities, intelligent cities, information cities, knowledge cities, ubiquitous cities, compact cities, sponge cities etc. Sometimes these terms are also used in combination, such as in ‘low carbon eco city’ or ‘garden eco city’. They are all related to ‘ecological modernisation’: the desire to produce higher economic added value while using fewer natural resources, thus increasing eco-efficiency. In China’s current phase of economic development, ecological modernisation is a more socially and politically acceptable goal than environmental conservation made at the expense of economic growth.

A number of important findings result from this project:
Although in many cases the belief among urban policy-makers in sustainable urbanization is sincere, their choice of terminology (‘eco city’, ‘sponge city’ etc.) reflects the wish to be accepted on the list of national or provincial promotion programmes to obtain higher visibility and more resources. In other words, there is an important aspect of multi-level governance involved.
In a social and physical environment where soil, water and especially air pollution are rife, having a green image is a crucial asset for cities in attracting investors, clean-tech industry and visitors. The various sustainable city terms mentioned above tend to be reasonably effective city brand position in getting this message across to the outside world. In other words, there is an important aspect of image building involved.
Implementation of eco, low carbon and other sustainable city projects in China is often done through science and technology parks, new towns or combinations of the two. However, much of this urban expansion development occurs through local governments leasing out land to developers at high prices. Since revenues from sales of land use rights is a major portion of local government income, there is a clear premium on wasting agricultural and open land away. This practice does not match the goal of sustainable urban development, neither in spirit nor in environmental effects.
Nonetheless, whoever had thought that similar practices are non-existent in Europe is also ready for a hard awakening. Research on urban planning and development in the Dutch Randstad and the German Rhine-Ruhr areas has demonstrated that much of the carbon reduction effort and greening of urban space also serves city branding purposes there. The main difference with the Chinese situation is, however, that there is no massive urbanization occurring. There are few expansion projects and carbon emission reduction through retrofitting and de-industrialisation is easier to realise. One can go down slightly from high levels rather than go up from still comparatively low levels.