Come to Tangshan

A bucolic wetland where the fish taste of diesel

Come to Tangshan

Dongtan: it looked nice on paper

Isn’t prevention supposed to be better than cure? A case can be argued as far as hangovers are concerned, even if abstinence makes for rather a dull existence.

But what about ‘the morning after’ in ecological terms – and how is China now choosing to respond to some of the many environmental challenges that it now faces?

Christina Larson, writing for Yale Environment 360, recounts the limits of the more idealistic approach. Eco cities – with their windmills, carefully designed greenery, energy-efficient buildings and waste-recycling plants – seem to offer a beguiling solution.

But the issue, Larson says, is that few of these cities ever get built. Yes, press conferences announce bold new plans but, like a New Year resolution celebrated in early January but forgotten by the middle of the month, the follow-up is often poor.

One major problem is that the planners (usually foreign companies) fail to engage with the realities of local communities.

In 2005, for example, plans to build a sustainable city – Dongtan – on a grassy island off Shanghai, envisioned a green settlement of half a million people. But despite wide international publicity as of today, almost none of it has been built.

The Shanghai island project got mired in political infighting and financial disputes. But other initiatives, like the one in Huangbaiyu in Liaoning province, have also failed.

Huangbaiyu was supposed to champion energy efficiency. Its houses were to be built from bricks of hay and compressed earth. But this took much of the new accommodation out of the price range of local villagers. Others just refused to move in, complaining that the yards were not large enough to raise animals.

At another site planned for Liuzhou, an international design firm recommended that farmers consider the use of rooftop fields, connected by tiny bridges. One can only imagine the incredulous response of the locals.

According to Wen Bo – a Beijing-based environmentalist – eco-friendly building codes offer a more plausible green future than standalone eco-cities. But larger projects can sometimes still pay off, reports the Economic Daily.

It cites Tangshan City in Hebei province, which is clearing up some of the worst ecological damage in the country.

Tangshan has a proud coal mining history. But the by-product is 200 square kilometres of subsidence, fly ash and dust, septic groundwater and the rusting flotsam and jetsam of industrial decay.

The local authorities decided the best thing for the problem was to submerge it – the environmental equivalent of reaching for a Bloody Mary, perhaps.

Work began in 1996, with a section flooded to create an urban wetland park. Planners hoped it would act as a natural sponge for the uneven distribution of rainfall in the region, as well as attract wildlife and plant biodiversity.

Along with the deliberate flooding, tree-planting programmes have dealt with the clouds of fly ash. Industrial garbage has been pounded and crushed, buried underground and then covered with a rich layer of bison grass. Steel vents allow for the release of subterranean gas. The city now has 20 square kilometres of green lung at its heart.

The central government stumped up for Rmb6 billion ($876 million) of the initial costs but Tangshan is expected to pay its own way in future, with leisure, tourism and (presumably) property development around the fringes of the new wetland.

The major remaining challenge is to improve the park’s water quality. Local fishermen report catches that weigh a kilogram and a half, but taste of diesel. But contamination levels are falling as filtration and oxygenation efforts are stepped up.

Tangshan’s achievements all seem to become a bit too much for the Economic Daily, which drifts into a bucolic account of the paradise of ducks, crows, sand birds, magpies and cuckoos. It all sounds like the Shire, minus the Hobbits.

But perhaps we should forgive a little over-indulgence.

After all, the city is making an effort to deal with its environmental realities in a practical way rather than a utopian one.

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