It takes less than an hour on the new high-speed train line to travel the 150 kilometres (93 miles) southeast from Beijing to Tanggu, the dirty coastal port town of nearby Tianjin – the world's fifth biggest port. Here, you can see signs of the past and present: fine colonial architecture built by European settlers a century ago nestle among the gleaming modern high-rises. But for a glimpse of the future, I am driving a few minutes up the coast from Tanggu to see a city so new that most of it is still being built.
Few things can be certain about the future, as philosophers wiser than I have pointed out, but one trend that is likely to continue is urbanisation. The Anthropocene will be populated by city dwellers, in contrast to the rural demography of the past millennia, and this has profound implications for human society.
Nowhere will this be felt more keenly than in China, home to more than 1.3 billion people. Urbanisation has been one of the most important factors in China's phenomenal economic growth and rapid industrialisation over the past three decades, providing essential labour and new consumers. More than half the population now lives in cities, which at 690 million is double the entire US population. In 1980, less than 20% of the Chinese population lived in cities. By 2030, this number is predicted to rise to 75%.
This rapid rise in urbanisation brings with it tremendous challenges – people need housing, infrastructure, water, food and jobs, as well as rising pollution and social inequality issues. In a typically top-down style, the Chinese government is tackling all of these at once: the biggest polluters have been moved out of the biggest cities (inland into rural areas or other cities), slum populations (here, called “urban villages”) have dropped from 37% to 28% since 2000, and China is in the midst of a building frenzy.
Visit any city in the country – there are over 650 of them – and you will soon be negotiating a route around a noisy, dusty construction site, beneath towering cranes. Much of this construction is taking place in existing cities, converting low-rise to high-rise to pack more people into the unlimited vertical space. But in the place that I am visiting, planners have started from scratch.
Building a blueprint
China, like several other countries, is exploring the creation of sustainable urban areas, or “ecocities” as they are known. Around the world, ecocities are beginning to emerge from the drawing board, from Masdar City in Abu Dhabi to PlanIT Valley in Portugal. Aimed at being the world’s largest of its type, Tianjin Eco-city is a collaborative project between the Chinese and Singaporean government that will house 350,000 people in a low-carbon, green environment around half the size of Manhattan by 2020. All going well, the team hope its model for building a sustainable city will provide the blueprint for future urbanization efforts in China, and other countries.
As I approach the city under an ever-present pall of filthy air, across a wasteland of contaminated soil and water, I have my reservations about the Eco-city's success. The site chosen for the project was an industrial dumping ground for toxic waste, barren salt flats abutting one of the world's most polluted seas. This was deliberate, says Ho Tong Yen, head of Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-city Development and Investment, the firm charged with building the city. "In the past, so-called ecocities have been built in ecologically important areas or on useful arable land. We wanted to show that it's possible to clean up a polluted area and make it useful and liveable."
The clean-up took the best part of three years, and included the development of a newly patented technology that removes the heavy metals from a central reservoir – soon to be a boating lake. This hard graft looks like it has paid off. I enter the part-complete city down an avenue lined with fragrant trees and solar-energy panels. Among the newly planted saplings I spot five wind turbines and solar-powered street lighting. One-fifth of the energy used here will be emission-free – from solar, wind and, as I discover on a visit to the almost finished international school, from ground-source heat pumps, which use the temperature difference in the ground for energy.