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China's "Super-Eco" Megacity

The Ecotopia 2121 Project details the futures of 100 cities across the globe as though they've somehow overcome all the grave environmental challenges our own age and grown to become super-Green and super-sustainable. Today, we highlight the future of Shanghai.

For many decades, China’s central government attempted to control the population of its cities through a one-child policy. The city authorities believed that urban overpopulation presented them with large-scale problems associated with:

• land and water scarcity

• overcrowding

• air and water pollution

• waste management issues

• food supply problems

• health and education deficits

• transportation and energy supply problems

Many Chinese planners consider it sustainable if the population growth rate of an overcrowded city is kept at zero via stringent family planning. Over time, though, a host of social problems have emerged:

Human rights abuses: Some believe it is unfair that any government should stipulate how many children a couple can have, and they bemoan the overbearing and invasive nature of provincial “baby police,” who knock on doors with monotonous regularity to count family members, track menstrual cycles, set fines, and impose sterilizations and abortions.

Gender bias: The chauvinism and sexism in Chinese culture have promoted a preference for male children. This means both abortion and infanticide have often been rampant in Chinese cities, as couples act to make sure their firstborn is a boy. This gender bias has also led to an ongoing skewing of the sex ratio, so that over the whole of China, men outnumber women by some twenty million.

Sociopsychological issues: If the one-child family is the overwhelming standard unit that fills up and makes the social fabric of a city, perhaps then, it will be full of selfish, spoiled “little emperors” unable to adjust to communal settings with their peers.

Dwindling worker numbers: There is the prospect that in the future the dwindling number of people of working age will negatively affect the economic status of China. This problem has prompted a change in government policy, and now China is introducing a two-child limit. This two-child policy may alleviate some problems of the one-child policy, but it will nevertheless keep family planning as the province of the authorities rather than the individuals concerned, and anyone wishing to have children will need a permit for each of them.

Despite the issues listed here, some environmental scholars outside of China also advocate some form of population control. The future scenario painted here as Shanghai 2121 takes into account this population pressure but proposes three other measures — a mixture of the social, the technological, and town planning — to push Shanghai toward ecotopia:

1. The outlawing of heterosexuality

2. The compact city design ideal

3. The construction of a network of piezoelectric pedestrian tubeways

China's super-eco Megacity


(1) Shanghai's Outlawing of Heterosexuality.

Throughout the time of communist rule, China has had a troubled relationship with homosexuality, which was decriminalized only in the late 1990s and de-listed from a national compendium of psychological diseases only in the early 2000s. In ancient China, attitudes toward homosexuality were much more accommodating and perhaps quite tolerant, and many emperors were held to have practiced it at some time or other. Such tolerance might well be worth resurrecting for the benefit of Shanghai 2121. In order to lower the birthrate in Shanghai to a point where environmental pollution and resource supply become manageable, homosexual marriage will be encouraged and heterosexual marriages (as well as heterosexual physical relations) are to be prohibited. Given that the men outnumber the women, this might be a blessing for the “leftover” men. And given the sometimes strained and unfair relations between Chinese men and women, this may be a blessing for the women as well. Many scholars sympathetic to the advancement of gay rights have tried to put forward the idea of the natural or unchangeable nature of a person’s sexuality in order for their sexual status, be it homosexual or heterosexual or some mix of the two, to be acknowledged, respected, and accepted in modern society. But many scholars provide evidence that sexuality is mutable and that, with the appropriate encouragement—social, erotic, and legal—Shanghai citizens can be encouraged to accept and embrace homosexuality as right and proper, both for themselves and for the social and physical environment of their city

(2) Shanghai's Compact City Design:

This urban design concept promotes high-density working and living arrangements within a layout that encourages both easy and efficient public transportation and the promotion of pedestrianism and urban cycling. In a compact city, every resident lives close enough to public and private amenities (schools, shops, clinics, entertainment centers, government offices, and so forth) so they need never think of using a private vehicle. This means also that the city of Shanghai in 2121 will be a low-cost, low-energy-consumption, and low-pollution type of city. And it will mean a very high degree of social interaction (resulting in more business opportunities for its citizens and also, probably, more security against crime, as there are always people around to observe and maintain safety). There will also be less urban sprawl, so that the surrounding countryside will remain intact and green spaces in the city will be preserved.

(3) Shanghai's Piezoelectric Tubeways:

The piezoelectric pedestrian tubeways depicted for Shanghai 2121 will provide all-weather pedestrian transportation citywide. The surface of each tubeway will harness the pressure of step energy, converting it into productive electricity. Some of this electricity will be used to service the tubeways’ energy needs (for lighting, water pumping, waste disposal, etc.), but any surfeit will be credited to the energy account of the person doing the walking. Thus, you can pay for your own electricity bills just by walking around Shanghai, and the more you walk, the greater the credit you can earn. Indeed, professional walkers might earn a livable wage if they are allowed to swap their credits on a free market. A beneficial side effect will be to improve the health of the Shanghai populace, saving the government lots of money while improving the quality of life.

For a closer look at Shanghai 2121, see the Ecotopia 2121 book. For a list of other case study cities from the Ecotopia 2121 project, check out the Ecotopia 2121 Atlas.


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De Roo, G., and D. Miller, eds. Compact Cities and Sustainable Urban Development: A Critical Assessment of Policies and Plans from an International Perspective. Farnham, UK: Ashgate Publishing, 2001.

Erturk, A., and D. J. Inman. Piezoelectric Energy Harvesting. New York: Wiley, 2011.

Grennalgh, S., and E. Winckler. Governing China’s Population: From Leninist to Neoliberal Biopolitics. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005.

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Pohlman, E. Killing China’s “One Child”: Policy vs. Politics, Pollution vs. Population. Planet Ethics Press, 2013.

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