Donghao Chung, Guangzhou’s Daylighted Refuge

China's mastery of public space design and water architecture is evident in Donghao Chung, once an ancient moat, then a sewer, and now an urban oasis. Photo: Keith Schneider
China’s mastery of public space design and water architecture is evident in Donghao Chung, once an ancient moat, then a sewer, and now an urban oasis. Photo: Keith Schneider

GUANGZHOU, China — Can a polluted stormwater drain newly constructed as an urban park speak for a city? Can a place of refuge, where clear water slips past slick rocks and families gather near the sound and mist of fountains, be an extension of a nation?

There’s always risk in heaping such rhapsody on a single example. Still, in the characteristically handsome Chinese design, and in the cooling embrace of its flowing water, the Donghao Chung greenway here defines something very new about this city and this nation: Ecological principles are steadily rising nearer to the top of China’s economic priorities.

Last year China’s President, Xi Jinping, visited Donghao Chung and said as much. “China wants to be known as a beautiful country. We want sustainable development. Donghao Chung is a small detail, a small part. By doing well with small parts China can paint a brilliant picture.”

Six years ago I made my first visit to China, which was still caught up in the storm of infrastructure construction, energy production, and urban development that made it the world’s second largest economy, and among the most polluted places on Earth. Though China was simultaneously building dozens of energy-efficient underground metro systems, a 10,000-kilometer high-speed rail network, and the globe’s largest wind, solar, and hydropower production sectors, top government officials did not express genuine interest in the ecological condition of their country.

A Nation Evolving
Perhaps in a triumph of rational recognition over economic ideology, or maybe it is economic rationale recognizing the painful consequences of rampant pollution, China is a changed nation in 2015. A year ago China reached a pact with the United States to reduce its climate changing emissions. A month ago, China announced it would establish a national carbon emissions trading market by 2017, a move to achieve the emissions reductions. Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Harbin, and other big cities regularly announce new policies and practices to clear the air of dreadfully high levels of particulates, and build new treatment plants to make the nation’s rivers and lakes safe.

The 4.5-kilometer park along Donghao Chung runs for a time beneath an elevated freeway, and at other moments pools in a plaza open to the light and the sound of fountains. Photo: Keith Schneider
The 4.5-kilometer park along Donghao Chung, runs for a time beneath an elevated freeway, and at other moments pools in a plaza open to the light and the sound of fountains. Photo: Keith Schneider

A good deal of the justification for taking these actions, and for spending the $US billions that it costs every year, resides in this provincial capital of 16 million to 18 million residents (nobody is quite sure), China’s third largest city. For several years, as the rest of the world now knows, Guangzhou’s economy has been slowing and shifting, from heavy reliance on manufacturing to new layers of professional, finance, travel, real estate, banking, and service enterprises. Continue reading “Donghao Chung, Guangzhou’s Daylighted Refuge”

This Is Panama — Ambitious, Gorgeous, And Independent At Last

Panamanians are warm, honest, friendly, engaging and interested in Americans. What a great country. Photo/Keith Schneider
Panamanians are warm, honest, friendly, engaging and interested in Americans. What a great country. Photo/Keith Schneider

PANAMA CITY, Panama — The Spanish explorer, Vasco Núñez de Balboa, was so inspired by Christopher Columbus’s four voyages to the new world, including Columbus’s last trip in 1502 to Central America, that Balboa undertook his own expedition.

In 1510 Balboa and his men set ashore in the Caribbean rainforest near present day Colombia and established Santa María la Antigua del Darién, the first permanent European settlement in the Americas.
Three years later Balboa, setting out on a search for stores of gold, marched through the rain forest to the summit of Cerro Pechito Parao in what is today Panama’s magnificent Darién Province and became the first European to see the Pacific Ocean.

For 91 years a heroic statue of Balboa that recreates his claim to the Pacific for the Spanish crown, a scepter outstretched like a cross in one hand, the other clutching his nation’s flag, has occupied an iconic spot along Balboa Avenue, Panama City’s impressive Pacific shoreline drive. The statue emphasizes a central idea about Panama: A Spaniard is the nation’s principal hero.

Indeed, until December 31, 1999, when Panama gained full control of the Panama Canal from the United States, all of the region’s previous 490 years were largely influenced by governments beyond the isthmus. Spain relinquished its hold after 200 years and the isthmus became part of Colombia. Colombia, in turn, ended its oversight in 1903, when with the help of the United States, which was about to start construction of the canal, Panama established itself as a republic.

Panama’s relationship with the United States is, shall we say, complicated. Unlike the allegiance to Spain and Balboa, there are no iconic statues of Americans in prominent public spaces. No statues of Teddy Roosevelt, the American president at the start of canal construction in 1904; or Woodrow Wilson, president at the opening of the canal in 1914; or Jimmy Carter, the president who initiated the process of turning over the canal to Panama in 1977; or George H.W.Bush, the president who launched the 1989 invasion that pushed Manuel Noriega and the generation-old military dictatorship from power.

It’s not that Panama shows America the back of its hand. It doesn’t. Americans retire here in droves now. Panamanians are warm and very much interested in American visitors. Hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops were stationed in Panama to protect the Panama Canal during World War Two. Hundreds of thousands more transited the canal in troop carriers and other Navy vessels to take on the Japanese in the Asian theater.

Panama City's 10-month-old subway already used by 150,000 riders daily. Photo/Keith Schneider
Panama City’s 10-month-old subway, already used by 150,000 riders daily. Photo/Keith Schneider

By and large Panama also recognizes the contemporary value of the United States — responsible for two thirds of the record levels of cargo that transit the canal — to the logistics infrastructure investments that are the foundation of the remarkable 10 percent annual GDP growth that has unfolded here over the last decade.

Still, there’s chatter in the relationship between Panama and the United States. Psychologists and anthropologists, no doubt, would suggest that America’s by-the-book and often stern military management of the canal for 86 years stretched Panama’s patience with colonialism. A clash over flying the Panamanian flag in the canal zone early in 1964 prompted three days of clashes that left 21 Panamanians and four Americans dead. There’s lingering resentment about the number of civilian deaths and the damage sustained by Panama City during the 1989 U.S invasion.

It’s these influences, no doubt, and something more that underlies what Panamanians now think about the U.S. There’s an unmistakable, and understandable chip on Panama’s shoulder today. Freed for the first time from diplomatic and military influences of a foreign government, Panama is proving to itself that it is capable of managing a modern government. It is building a magnificent global city. And Panama is capably operating a vital revenue-producing maritime trade route.

Panama, in short, is a country unleashed with a fervor and approach matched by few other developing nations. Its waters are clean. Half of Panama’s natural forests are still standing. The air is clear. Incomes, home values, and business starts are rising. The rate of unemployment is among the lowest in the world. Panama also succeeded in keeping out of its borders the heavy drug production and export culture that made its neighbors Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador so dangerous.

The result is that this small nation of 3.9 million people has an opportunity to do something rare — developing an operating system that fits the conditions of this time and this place. Panama has a real chance to build the commercial eco-paradise that people here talk about, a nation that respects the land, the water, the law, and its people. TIP — this is Panama.

A vendor along the Avenida Balboa shaves ice for snow cones in Panama City. Photo/Keith Schneider
A vendor along the Avenida Balboa shaves ice for snow cones in Panama City. Photo/Keith Schneider

During a month of travel and reporting in Panama, a number of other characteristic TIP traits emerged:
Warmth and Honesty
— Panamanians that I encountered were universally engaging, candid, and trustworthy in every way. Waiters, shopkeepers, drivers, bystanders, hotel personnel, strangers — all were so helpful in translating, finding directions, making change, assisting with SIM cards, you name it. One evening, while exercising in the seaside park along Avenida Balboa in Panama City, my cellphone dropped from the side pocket of my shorts. I discovered it missing an hour later as I approached my hotel, rushed back to the park, couldn’t find it, and beat myself up silently for doing such a dumb thing. I was upset enough not to want to talk to anybody, even Gabrielle, who was with a friend out of town. The next morning the hotel phone in my room rang. It was Gabrielle. “Did you lose your phone?” she asked. “You didn’t call me.” She paused. “Well somebody found it.” A woman named Ilma picked up the phone, dialed Gabrielle’s number, and made arrangements for me to retrieve the phone at a restaurant near the airport, after her morning at church. Ilma and her husband showed up at the appointed hour, handed me the phone, and refused to accept anything from me other than a smile and a hug in gratitude. TIP — this is Panama.
Continue reading “This Is Panama — Ambitious, Gorgeous, And Independent At Last”

9/11 Twelve Years Later – Cities Transformed

New York was a beautiful city on 9/11/01. It’s a better city now. The Freedom Tower under construction in the fall of 2012. Photo/Keith Schneider

The day of the 9/11 attack I was in Manistee, Michigan, a 45-year-old journalist and non-profit executive focused on the usefulness of a new and greener development strategy called “Smart Growth.” My brother watched the attack from his office window in lower Manhattan. My cousin was inside the South Tower and escaped unharmed before it was hit. At the end of the month I toured the still-smouldering piles of rubble at Ground Zero with my father, a lifelong New Yorker. I never before or since witnessed such anguish in his eyes.

A lot has changed in 12 years, a good deal of it for the better in my view. One of those good changes is how the energy-efficient, resource-aware, city-building, transit-constructing, locally-focused principles of Smart Growth have become the standards by which cities and suburbs are developing all over the world. In large part because of Smart Growth the U.S. consumes less energy, produces lower levels of air pollution, invests in transit, draws young people to its compact urban centers, provides more space for parks and clean shorelines, and now boasts some of the most beautiful cities in the world.

In the weeks after 9/11, critics of Smart Growth — many of them from the mostly white outer suburban and rural communities that produced the Tea Party treachery of the last half-decade — used the 9/11 attack to lay seige to America’s cities. As I wrote in an article for the Michigan Land Use Institute in 2001, “One of the odd and troubling ideas that crossed the nation in the weeks after September 11 was the notion that as a safeguard against terror, urban sprawl might be a good thing after all.”

On this anniversary of 9/11, I dug out the article from the Institute’s archive. It continued:

On the right, for example, the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal called for cities to spread out further. The op-ed page of the Detroit News noted that “in the wake of Sept. 11, the constituency for density has probably thinned out.”

On the left, editors of Newcolonist.com, a Web site that pays attention to urban and suburban design, interviewed national experts to “get an early feel for how the attacks may affect perceptions of density, transportation, and city life.”

With the murderous collapse of New York City’s tallest buildings, both proponents and critics of the useful work to contain sprawl can be excused for wondering whether skyscrapers have outlived their usefulness and spreadout suburbs are a safer bet. But viewing dense city neighborhoods as somehow an easy target and the suburbs as a haven from terrorism overlooks some of the underlying causes of the Sept. 11 attack. Continuing to spread out across the landscape will only aggravate the situation.

It takes only the first raw scent of the smoldering piles of debris at Ground Zero in New York, and a quick glance at the guts of blasted, black-charred buildings fluttering in a smoky wind, to immediately agree with President George W. Bush that the attacks were a direct strike at what he called “the American way of life.” That way of life is not only tied to our freedom and mobility. It’s also expressed in the wasteful design of our sprawling communities and the need to sustain them by reaching ever deeper into the far corners of the globe to satisfy American demand for oil, minerals, timber, labor and capital.

To the extent the horrendous attacks laid bare America’s oil dependence, or our unwelcome presence in the Middle East, the Smart Growth vision of more energy-efficient, environmentally sensitive, livable communities is certainly one of the most cogent long-term responses yet put forward about how to truly strengthen national security.

To see the entire article click here.

— Keith Schneider

Chicago is one of the greenest cities in the world now because of Smart Growth. Photo/Keith Schneider
Cincinnati is considering a streetcar line and is building homes and businesses along the cleaner Ohio River, where it once dumped its chemicals and sewage. Photo/Keith Schneider

Shanghai’s Planned Community, Better For Ducks So Far

yong-yi

LINGANG PORT CITY: Shanghai, China — Dishui Lake, constructed where the Yangtze River meets the East China Sea, is a perfectly circular manmade lake that was meant to put people in close proximity to fresh water.

The Nanhui Dongtan Wildlife Sanctuary, which lies on Dishui Lake’s eastern bank, is a 122.5-square-kilometer (47-square-mile) expanse of tall grasses and shallow, rain-fed ponds that also tests the lure of fresh water; in this case, to recruit great flocks of migratory birds. (That’s Yong Yi, a 33-year-old environmental scientist with WWF in Shanghai, who helped establish the reserve, in the pix above.)

From 2003 to 2005, both the lake and the sanctuary were constructed from silt and mud, carried downstream by the Yangtze and captured with long rock and concrete groins that engineers extended into the river’s mouth. Shanghai’s planning officials envisioned using the new ground to build a seaside district — Lingang Port City — that was intended to attract thousands of businesses and 400,000 residents by 2020; 800,000 residents by 2050.

The idea for this new borough was to reduce crowding, build contemporary commerce centers, and encourage lower population densities in Shanghai, a city of 23 million that is tallying 1 million additional residents every two years. If Shanghai were an American state, only California and Texas have more people.

The enterprise hasn’t quite worked out the way planners in Shanghai’s city government envisioned, however. For the time being, the wildlife sanctuary has been much more successful in attracting winged residents than neighboring Lingang Port City and its lake has been in recruiting businesses and human residents — yet. (See pix at bottom.)

Shanghai city managers know how to build a 21st-century city, and they are doing so with a clear focus on environmental values and energy efficiency, in addition to improving the quality of the water supply and expanding the size and number of parks and open spaces.

Better City, Better Life
Last year, Shanghai hosted a World Expo with the green-oriented theme: “Better city, better life.” Among the innovations promoted was Shanghai’s ongoing program to establish new and planned residential and business districts outside the core central city.

Lingang Port City was one such example, featuring big runs of green space, lots of clean water on display in canals and ponds, and countless new energy-efficient homes and offices. All of these new districts will be tied to the central city and to each other via Shanghai’s clean, fast, and steadily expanding subway system, which now consists of 11 lines, 267 stations, and 410 kilometers (255 miles) of track.

In 2002, Shanghai opened a Maglev train line from the downtown area to Pudong Airport. The train, which operates on powerful magnets that lift the cars onto a thin cushion of air, travels 431 kilometers an hour (267 miles per hour) and makes the trip in less than 7 minutes — 40 minutes less than in a taxi.

The Urban Land Institute, based in Washington, D.C. and one of the premier U.S. urban planning and development research organizations, reviewed Shanghai’s master plan in 2006 and declared: “No other city in history has attempted to tackle its urban issues with such a comprehensive program of public improvements and new-town development at its periphery.”

Dishui Lake, the centerpiece of the Lingang Port City district, was intended as a showcase of the city’s master plan. With a diameter spanning 2.5 kilometers (1.5 miles) and a surface area of 5 square kilometers (2 square miles), Dishui has three sizable, grass-covered peninsulas that serve as green open space. From a birds-eye view, the peninsulas resemble continents and the lake — round as a dime and about 60 kilometers (37 miles) to the south of Shanghai’s high-rise central core — looks very much like a replica of Planet Earth. On its northern and western banks, the lake is surrounded by a constellation of new residential and office towers, the mostly uninhabited dark stars of Lingang Port City.

On the lake’s southern and eastern flank, though, lies the great expanse of freshwater ponds and grass reclaimed from the Yangtze estuary that is, for the time being, much more successful in attracting wild residents.

Big Water Cleanup
Though people have yet to show up in droves, filthy water is not one of the district’s impediments. Since 1995, Shanghai has spent $US 8.1 billion (RMB 50.3 billion) to construct a network of 52 sewage plants that now treat nearly 80 percent of the city’s wastewater, according to the Shanghai Municipal Oceanic Bureau, a city agency. In contrast, Shanghai had only five treatment plants during the late 1980s — one of which was constructed in 1921 — and 80 percent of the city’s sewage poured, untreated, into rivers and lakes.

Read more at Circle of Blue here.

— Keith Schneider

empty-dishui-street

China’s First (And Still Only) Sustainable Business Magazine

editor-of-magazine

SHANGHAI — The second edition summer issue of Eco-nomy, the new compendium of news and ideas about sustainable business, includes a piece from Circle of Blue’s Choke Point: China project earlier this year on the confrontation between water and energy in China. The page-long article is in Chinese, which is appropriate given that Eco-nomy is a fresh voice in Asia for describing the profitable alliances that develop when companies apply ecological principles to their business models.

The current issue includes pieces on London’s plan to turn the 2012 Olympics into the greenest games ever, Michigan-based Haworth furniture company’s two environmentally-sensitive and worker-safety oriented factories in Shanghai, and a smart piece on green marketing in China by Olgilvy and Mather’s Hannah Lane that asks whether Chinese consumers are willing to value sustainability in their purchasing habits. She is convinced they are.

I also like the solid piece on China’s challenge to ensure safe food. The latter was reported and written by Haiyan Sun, the magazine’s chief editor and co-founder, who gave birth on Saturday to a baby boy, her second child.

This week I arrived in Shanghai, my fourth trip in the last year to China, and my second to this modern supercity of 23 million people. On Tuesday I sat down with the magazine’s other co-founder and editorial director, 29-year-old Yang Sun, a business journalist from Jilin City in China’s northeast (and pictured above). The magazine’s goal, in a polluted nation where environmental principles do not yet figure prominently in mainstream values, is to show Chinese business leaders and government officials just how much more money can be made by embracing cleaner and greener practices.

That’s an essential thought in a country that is pushing its natural resources to the limits of productivity, running low on water, adding to an already astonishingly large number of people, and climbing a steep upward curve on energy production. Frankly, China’s economic and environmental security rests on its capacity to be much more inventive and efficient than the West has been in tapping its natural wealth for economic development.

“We believe that in the future sustainable practices will be most important in doing business,” Yang told me. “We are reporting best practices from around the world. We want to show there is a wave of sustainable businesses. It’s a systematic way of thinking. We have emerging companies and technologies in China. But we find that the best practices are outside China.”

Yang said the magazine developed from “The Age of Green Gold,” a book on sustainable business that she and Haiyan published last year. A Chinese executive who read the book approached the two young writers with the idea of producing a magazine, and has provided the financing for the first year of operation. The two editors developed a string of correspondents to file dispatches from around the globe. Each of the two editions have articles in Chinese and English and have been distributed at no charge to readers. Expenses run about $16,000 a month, and the magazine has established a non-profit business model.

Unfortunately Eco-nomy has not developed a Web site, which is in the design stage, Yang said. To secure a copy write the editors at tanshang2011@gmail.com.

— Keith Schneider