Written by Wu Deng.

China is undergoing the largest scale urbanization in history and at an unprecedented pace. Between 1991 and 2012, China’s urban population increased from 26.4% to 52.6%. Urban built areas have expanded from 12,856 to 45,566 square kilometres over the same period, an increase of 3.5 times in about two decades. Enormous new buildings in cities have been constructed to accommodate the increased population, adding about 1.7 billion square meters of new floor space annually.

This rapid urbanization has inevitably brought severe pressure on resource conservation and environmental protection in Chinese cities. Traffic congestion, energy consumption, and pollution levels in urban areas are becoming matters of public concern. Only eight out of 74 major Chinese cities satisfied the national air quality standards in 2014. High exposure to unhealthy air brings serious health problems like asthma, lung cancer, cardiovascular disease, respiratory diseases, birth defects and premature death.

Recognizing that these resource, environmental and health challenges are intrinsically linked to the construction and operation of cities, a plethora of new city development concepts have entered policy and planning discourses since the 1990s. Notably, the concept of the ‘eco-city’ has been gradually translated into practical initiatives, particularly since the early 2000s. Conventional efforts at urban environmental sensitivity have focused on individual issues such as energy, transportation, land use, waste management and water. In contrast, the eco-city (also known as the sustainable city, low carbon city and green city) employs a holistic urban development model. Fundamentally, the eco-city seeks to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation by promoting innovative urban policy strategies, practices and technologies.

In China, along with a more broad concept of developing a ‘resource-conserving and environmentally friendly society’, the country has initiated policies, strategies and pilot projects at both national and local levels to address these challenges, focusing on three distinct aspects of environmental protection: (a) new urban areas; (b) low-carbon/green buildings; and (c) retrofit of existing buildings and infrastructure.

Incentivized by these policy mechanisms, there has been a growing interest in promoting eco-city projects in Chinese cities. According to a  global survey conducted by the University of Westminster in 2011, China has the largest concentration of 25 eco-city projects, followed by the USA with 17, and the UK and Japan with 16 each. China appears in the frontline of reshaping and redeveloping the urban environment. Around 280 Chinese cities have declared an ambition to become an ‘eco-city’ or ‘low carbon city’ in 2012.

China’s 12th Five-Year Plan for Green Building and Green Eco-city Development has selected 100 new urban areas (e.g. new urban districts, industrial parks, hi-tech zones), with a minimum size of 1.5 square kilometres, to demonstrate this eco-city concept. Financial support has been provided for these projects from the Chinese central government. Table 1 gives some basic information about the first batch of national level eco-city pilot projects:

               Table 1: The first batch of national level eco-city pilot projects

Eco-City projects Area


Projected population (k) Current status
Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City 30 350 Being constructed and operated
Tangshan Eco-City 150 1000 Being constructed and operated
Wuxi Eco-City 150 1000 Being constructed and operated
Changsha Eco-City 7.6 178 Being constructed and operated
Shenzhen Brightness New District 156 800 Being constructed and operated
Chongqing Eco-City 10 300 Being constructed
Guiyang Eco-City 9.6 170 Being constructed
Kunming Eco-City 160 950 Being constructed and operated


Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City (SSTEC) is an interesting example of an eco-city model in China. The project is the result of a bilateral agreement between the Chinese and Singaporean governments intended to accommodate a population of 350,000 once fully developed. The construction of SSTEC was initiated in September 2008 and the start-up area of 4 square km was completed in 2012. SSTEC is envisioned as an ‘economically sustainable, socially harmonious, environmentally friendly and resource-conserving’ city which will become a ‘model eco and low carbon city replicable by other cities in China‘. The project reinforces the impression that the Chinese people are prepared to actively pursue urban transformation. Key features of the project include: connectivity between industrial and business parks and with residential areas to provide easy access to home and work; green transport, promoting walking and cycling; networks of vegetation and water to improve ecological functions and create a livable environment as well as conserve water; effective waste management and recycling; and the use of renewable energy resources such as solar PV, solar water heating, ground source heat pumps and wind energy.

In SSTEC, the eco-city concept has shaped the local construction industry and green building development, from design, material manufacturing and construction through to operational management. It has become a valuable contributor to the local economy. And while it is too early to judge the success of the eco-city concept in new urban areas as many are still under construction, these projects are likely to have a significant influence on the planning, design and operation of Chinese cities in the future.

Dr Wu Deng obtained his PhD from the Faculty of Built Environment (FBE) at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) Australia. Prior to joining the University of Nottingham Ningbo Campus, Dr Deng was a Technical Manager/Lead Consultant at Siemens Corporate Technology China. His PhD research focused on sustainability assessment of China’s urban built environment. Image Credit: CC by Shubert Ciencia/Flickr.