Dongtan: the “east beach” eco-town that never was

Dongtan is a highly planned eco-town in China, to deal with the challenges of significant population growth and rapid urbanisation. It is situated on the island of Chongming in the Yangtze Delta.  It features as a case study on the Homes & Communities Agency’s website.  The focus is on low consumption, low-energy connectivity (car-free, emphasis on pedestrian paths, cycling, public transport, and vehicles powered by renewable energy sources), renewable energy, reduced waste to landfill, biodiversity, and ecological management (to protect wetlands, natural landscapes, and existing ecologies. The aim was to create a thriving, sustainable city providing local employment opportunities (thereby avoiding the creation of a “dormitory city”) and local agriculture within the city boundaries.

The Chinese government appointed engineering consultancy ARUP to design and manage the project.

However, nothing has happened with respect to the project. Significant concern had been raised over destruction of the wetlands and threats to endangered species. The site was cleared, farmers and local residents were moved off the land. The bridge between the island and Shanghai is nearing completion. A podcast on Ethical Corporation’s website notes that subsequent presentations of the project stated that cars would be allowed on the land. It has the sense of being a property play – the sustainability credentials having been touted to encourage investment and support from local communities in order to push existing residents of the land and freeing it for unfettered commercial development. This is a case study not for sustainable communities best practice, but rather the opposite.


In five years, practically nothing constructive has happened. The site has been cleared, the farmers and peasants moved off the land, and large areas prepared – but, as one observer puts it, ‘no construction has occurred there – indeed it’s gone backwards, as a visitor centre previously built is now shut’. All references to it have been removed from both the Shanghai Expo’s website as well as Arup’s.

Admittedly, a multi-million dollar bridge from the island to Shanghai is nearing completion, which ought to open up the Dongtan region for development, but fingers are being pointed at a range of suspects for the collapse of the overall project: the corruption of local politicians, the use of challenging technologies, lapsed planning permissions, or the greed of major international consultancies that were riding in on the Chinese urban goldrush with little regard for practical niceties.


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