Global Programs Are Growing the Next Generation of Eco-Cities

Carbon-neutral cities from China to the U.S. are rising from the ground up

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The last installment in a series examining progress in creating carbon-neutral communities. This installment looks at new cities around the world that are striving to achieve carbon-neutral status.

For the first time in history, half of the world’s population — some 3.2 billion people — lives in cities, which occupy just two percent of the Earth’s land mass but generate a massive 80 percent of the planet’s global warming emissions. By 2050 the world’s cities will be home to 70 percent of the population, or more than six billion people.

To mitigate the impact of urban growth on climate change, visionary cities worldwide are implementing programs aimed at reducing their carbon footprints and moving toward carbon-neutral status. At the same time, a new generation of sustainable cities  —  from China to the Americas —  is rising from the ground up.


‘Climate Positive’ Cities

Last fall, the Clinton Climate Initiative (CCI), a project of the William J. Clinton Foundation, launched a program in collaboration with the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) to support urban projects that demonstrate cities can grow in ways that are "climate positive."

The Climate Positive Development Program identified 16 large-scale urban projects worldwide that are planned to reduce the amount of on-site greenhouse gas emissions to below zero. These initial projects, located on six continents, will demonstrate strategies for attaining a carbon-neutral footprint and provide prototypes for sustainable communities, both environmentally and economically.

"As the Earth’s population increases and our cities grow, we need to ensure we have the models in place to sustain our way of life in an increasingly urbanized world," said President Clinton, in announcing the program. "The Climate Positive Development Program will set a new global standard for developments that minimize environmental impacts and benefit economies, as we build and rebuild homes, schools and businesses."

Nearly one million people will live and work in the 16 Climate Positive communities, which are located in 11 nations. The projects include Zonk’izizwe Town Center in Johannesburg, South Africa, the Stockholm Royal Seaport in Sweden, the Mahindra World City in Rajasthan, India, the Toronto Waterfront – Lower Don Lands in Canada, the Treasure Island Redevelopment Project in San Francisco, Ca. and Destiny Florida, a so-called ‘eco-sustainable city’ in that state. 

USGBC is providing technical support, while CCI is offering the business and financial expertise. Specifically, USGBC will help develop and establish the standards and metrics by which participating sites can measure their outcomes.

"A program that aims to set a new global benchmark has to be set on solid metrics," said Rick Fedrizzi, president, CEO and founding chair of USGBC. "We know this from our experience with LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] and believe it’s fundamental to delivering immediate and measurable results."

To qualify for inclusion in the program, property developers and local governments had to agree to work together to reduce net CO2 emissions by focusing on specific areas. They include: implementing economically viable building innovations, generation of clean energy, waste and water management, transportation and outdoor lighting systems.

The 16 communities will incorporate a variety of sustainable practices to achieve similar goals that may include:

  • A self-contained economy
  • 100 percent carbon-neutral energy production
  • Interconnected transport system and land-use pattern that shifts from auto to walking, biking and public transit
  • A zero-waste management system
  • Resource conservation, including maximizing water and energy efficiency and preserving open land, wildlife and plant life habitats
  • Optimize environmental performance of materials and use of local materials
  • Sequestration to facilitate integrated environmental and ecosystem management to contribute to closing the emissions cycle on site


New City Advantages

New development provides advantages over upgrading existing communities to a sustainable standard, experts say.

"The good thing with starting from scratch is that you don’t have to contend with old infrastructure," said developer Anthony Pugliese, who is planning Destiny, a 41,300-acre, climate-positive community in central Florida, with an eventual population of 300,000.

Roy Higgs, CEO and senior partner at Baltimore-based Development Design Group (DDG), the architecture firm that designed the South African Zonk’izizwe Town Center, says that ground-up projects like this offer opportunities unavailable for redevelopment projects.

Designing a LEED project this large is "time-consuming," he said, but planning a 1.7-million-square-foot project green from the start allowed configuration of structures in a way that encourages residents to get around by walking, bicycling and mass transportation.

It also enabled Higgs to integrate the site’s natural features with the design to provide amenities, preserve resources and have a positive impact on the nation’s energy shortage. For example, the plan maximizes the advantages of the site’s PeEgoli grass, which grows on granite that has weathered over centuries, to provide trails and habitats for animals and plants. The grass is found on a hillside and promotes natural water drainage, so it also provides an opportunity to create a lake that maintains a level of water even in dry months.

The Zonk’izizwe project evolved after the City of Johannesburg agreed to build a new high-speed rail line to connect Johannesburg and Pretoria, South Africa’s capital. The rail line runs through the town center site, which is in the Gauteng region. Gauteng is the economic hub for all of Africa, generating about 35 percent of country’s GDP and 12 percent of the continent’s economic output.

The energy plan, which combines alternative, on-site energy production with conservation, provides a roadmap for meeting the energy needs of a new society born out of the socio-economic transition that redistributed the nation’s wealth among the black population.

The rise in the standard of living for such a large segment of the population increased demand for electricity far beyond the government’s energy production capacity, Higgs explained, noting that the old regime relied solely on Eskom, South Africa’s state-owned utility that generates electricity from nuclear, hydroelectric sources and coal.

"There [are] no oil reserves, so petrol is made from coal," Higgs said, "and with the high demand for electricity, there is a major energy problem, with rolling brownouts and blackouts."

The government is now looking to wind energy for relief. Zonk’izizwe Town Center is too close to a major airport to build a wind farm, but the site has plenty of wind. Therefore, wind turbines that work horizontally, or at a 45-degree angle, may be installed on rooftops. Higgs notes that these turbines, which were invented by a Chicago-based company, are not aesthetically offensive and have a limited impact on birds.

Starting from scratch enabled designers of Masdar, the world’s first carbon-neutral, self-contained city designed for 50,000 residents to generate all its power from renewable resources and create a city completely dependent of automobiles. Located in the Abu Dhabi desert, Masdar, funded by the United Arab Emirates, is expected to attract about 1,500 companies in part because it combines innovative ecological design with a free-trade zone.


The Climate Neutral Network

Meanwhile, the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) has launched the Climate Neutral Network to empower action and catalyze the wave of interest and enthusiasm in activities aimed at reversing climate change. The objective is to facilitate information exchange and networking to achieve transition to a low-emissions and eventually climate-neutral society.

UNEP’s sustainable efforts are focused on energy efficiency and clean energy production, transportation, building systems, agri-food production, forestry, textiles, tourism and hospitality, information and communication technologies and waste management.

Increased awareness about climate change, along with the economic opportunities that green initiatives offer, are inspiring both developed and developing nations to launch activities aimed at neutralizing the negative impact of economic growth on the environment, while cashing in on green opportunity.

"Climate neutrality is an idea whose time has come," said UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner, during the launch of the the Climate Neutral Network. He noted that efforts to achieve this ambitious goal are "driven by the urgent need to address climate change, but also the abundant economic opportunities emerging for those willing to embrace a transition to a green economy."

Since UNEP launched the Climate Neutral Network in 2008, four existing cities have announced plans to go carbon neutral: Rizhao, China; Arendal, Norway; Vancouver, Canada; and Växjö, Sweden.


China’s Transition

There’s no doubt that economics is a motivating factor in Rizhao’s transition, as a plethora of high-rise condominiums and resort hotels are sprouting up in this tourist hot spot on the Yellow River. Nearly all of the new skyscrapers are taking advantage of the area’s 260 days of sunshine annually to heat water for bathing.

Solar hot water heaters are popular all over China, since a new solar hot water system invented by Tsinghua University in Beijing became available for about $190, the same price as electric versions. Wang Shugang, chief of Rizhao’s Environmental Provincial Bureau, said popularizing solar hot water heaters was just the first step in the city’s carbon neutral strategy.

The second important step was to get rid of dirty, coal-based industries and replace them with clean enterprises. As a result of the go-green policy, cement, paper and steel plants moved out of the city, the local coal-fired power plant now employs Siemens technology that prevents acid rain and some former industrial boilers are being used for residential heating.

Additionally, local industries are employing processes that comprise a "circular economy" concept. For example, the local Luxin Jinhe Biochemical Company’s citric acid plant uses waste products of citric acid, an ingredient used in carbonated beverages and medicines, to produce other products, including animal feed and fertilizer. Methane, or swamp gas, created from fermenting sugar in cassava, corn and sweet potatoes to make citric acid is used to produce energy to dry the animal meal and generate power.

As a result of these efforts, Rizhao has increased its economic output, while decreasing energy use by one-third and cutting CO2 emissions in half. The city is now looking at compressing industrial methane into liquid fuel and pumping it into homes for cooking and heating.

Although China’s much-touted eco-city, Dongtan, on Chongming Island, has been put on hold, the design and technology innovations created for Dongtan by British architectural and engineering giant Arup will be salvaged for use in four other Chinese eco-cities planned on the mainland, as well as other eco-projects worldwide.

China, in fact, is serving as a laboratory for hatching new technologies and trying out visionary concepts created by foreign architects and engineers. William McDonough, a U.S. architect associated with the green movement in America and author of Cradle to Cradle is working on conceptual designs for 12 Chinese cities, which the government plans to build to accommodate movement of people from farms to urban areas to find jobs as the economy grows.

The first new eco-city is in Tianjin, which broke ground last fall on an 18-square-mile site consisting of salty flatland unsuitable for agriculture. The Chinese partnered with Singapore 50-50 on this $10-billion project, which will serve as a prototype for new cities China plans to build to accommodate people moving off farms to find jobs as the economy grows.

China had sought Singapore’s expertise in building wind and solar, waste treatment and seawater desalination facilities. Singapore required that the development be on reclaimed wasteland and that the quality of the Jiyun River, which will run through this new city of 350,000, be restored.

While the government has not promised zero carbon emissions at Tianjin, it has pledged that 90 percent of the city’s traffic will involve public transportation, and 20 percent of residential development be public housing.


The ‘Stretch’ to Innovation

What’s important about all sustainable initiatives around the world is the technological and design innovations these projects are generating.

"These sites — even the more experimental projects — matter because they set ‘stretch’ goals," noted Ann Rappaport, of the Urban and Environmental Policy Department at Tufts University, in a report published by Yale University’s Environment 360.

She said the most ambitious plans are likely to quicken the pace of technological and architectural development, similar to how corporations that set stringent green goals for themselves in the 1980s and 1990s learned the most from the experience, even if initial goals were not always met.

Alex Steffen, the co-founder and executive editor of, also commented: "Frankly, we need an avalanche of innovation. Such projects serve to push the boundaries of green practice and expand our sense of what’s possible."


See also:

Going Carbon Neutral: California Pours a Foundation for Cities to Build On

Going Carbon Neutral: Austin Rocks

Reaching for Sustainability in the Next Real Estate Cycle