At Yale Environment 360, Christina Larson explores the fate of China’s Dongtan project and the ramifications/lessons of its apparent failure for the ‘eco-city’. The most important points she makes are probably (a) that such projects tend to “leave the population they were supposed to serve behind” while garnering “fame and money for the foreign firms and promotions for the local government officials”, (b) “big-name foreign architectural and engineering firms” “plunged into the projects with little understanding of [local] politics, culture, and economics”, and (c) as David Wolf notes in the comments on the piece, such integrated macro-designs tend to fail to come to terms with the dynamic forces (social, economic, etc.) that produce cities, preferring rationalization and simplification. If the anecdotes Larson relates are accurate, then it is probably impossible to overestimate how true and problematic (a) and (b) are (the Chinese government thought Arup was going to pay to build Dongtan?!), while (c) is probably the most fundamental criticism, though Larson devotes less space to it.
The apparent lack of geographic/ecological thinking that goes into the siting of these projects at a larger scale is also worrisome. Though in some cases (say, Masdar), perhaps that lack is integral to the existence of the project — one can hardly expect to the sheik of Abu Dhabi to weigh whether expanding a city into the desert without adequate ecosystem resources is wise or not, as he has few other options. Which is where the ethical responsibility to make such judgments perhaps lies with the designer who accepts such a project. Which, in turn, leads one to wonder about the judgment of a firm that accepts a commission to build a model ‘eco-city’ on the “the last extant wetlands outside Shanghai”.
[via things magazine]