Will China’s eco-city of the future be built around cars?

Will China's eco-city of the future be built around cars?

In Tianjin, China, a city about 100 miles south of Beijing, urban planners are building an entirely new mini-city from scratch. It is to be China’s green city on the hill, an eco-friendly model to the world and a way forward into the future.

Yet with such a forward-looking project, cars aplenty still feature in the design. It leads to an unavoidable question while authorities are thinking big and spending lots of money: Is it really so hard to draw up a future without cars? Many think communities less centered on the personal automobile are an attainable goal.

«Why let cars — 30 times as heavy as a person, ten times as fast and 60 times the volume — set the design parameters?» asks Richard Register, an expert on urban design and the author of Ecocities: Building cities in balance with nature. «You can replace cars with the design of the city so you don’t need them.»

Most cities don’t have the luxury of «building right in the first place» because the «first place» happened long before we had cars. In Tianjin, planners have the opportunity to design a solution rather than just updating what’s already there. The ecocity is still under development, but the parts that have been built provide clues about how it will work. As it is laid out, much of the infrastructure will likely initiate a new generation into the cult of the car.

First off, there are huge roads running through the development. Lampposts are rigged with solar panels and windmills for power, a nice touch that deserves credit. But they go on forever in long, straight, uninterrupted lines.

«On a big wide street that runs for three blocks, the tendency is to drive very rapidly and it’s designed to make it easy for people in cars to zip along,» says Register, who made a trip to Tianjin as a paid consultant. «It;s sort of a psychological invitation to go at high speeds.” And because there are no side streets cutting in, these wide boulevards discourage bicyclists and pedestrians.

Other clues are less noticeable. Behind a bank of solar panels, there’s a huge parking lot. More solar panels have been installed on high-rise condos. But on the ground floor, these buildings show their petticoats. Rows of personal garages make for a bizarrely updated scene from mid-century suburbia.

There is hope that these garages will be filled with electric vehicles. Last year, city planners got in touch with General Motors about the self-driving, fully electric vehicle the company unveiled at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo. According to GM, Tianjin officials are interested in letting the company test a fleet in the city. But nothing has been finalized. “We’re still working with the city to determine what would be the best way to integrate the technology that we debuted,” says GM spokesman Dan Flores.

None of the important details have been worked out yet, such as how officials will distribute the vehicles and what kind of infrastructure will be set up to charge them. But one exciting possibility is that the vehicles will be introduced as a community resource. GM has «a blank sheet of paper» to look at the whole customer experience. It may not be that you have to own this. It could be a vehicle share,” Flores says.

But Ecocity Builders’ Register believes it’s time to think even bigger. It’s a «bad idea to just think in terms of shifting to a different propulsion system. The total context — the present basic arrangements of the car-based city — is totally screwed,” he says. «My own personal feeling is that whether the cars are electric—coal-powered in that part of the world—or oil, doesn’t make nearly as much difference as building to coordinate with shifting in general to foot, bicycle and transit.»

Planners can’t really optimize the city for every use at once. If they make roads easier to drive on, bicyclists stay away, pedestrians have a hard time crossing to get to businesses on the other side and the city grows ever outward. Register would prefer if people began building little model communities, developments he calls «fractals» that spread up instead of out, where the layout of businesses, homes and social areas is so convenient that inhabitants don’t need to drive a car.

«Clustering buildings closely and in an intimate relationship with open spaces, all linked for more three-dimensional connectivity would make it possible to have few cars,» he says.

But as long as the roads are already in Tianjin, they can at least be improved, broken up into smaller segments, narrowed, and curved—all of which can happen now, while the script is still being written.

Source / Fuente: Greenbiz.com

Author / Autor:  Morgen Peck

Date / Fecha: 25/06/12

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