When I think of “China,” so many different and often conflicting images and thoughts spring to mind. Rich history. Tradition. Amazing diversity of land and people. Pandas. Discipline. Crowds. Exploitation of resources. Pollution. Counterfeiting. Corruption. Having travelled there and met many beautiful, gentle people, I struggle with the opposition the country paints in my mind. So when I first learned about their manufactured eco-cities, I was again faced with more opposition.

The concept of an enormous city built to the highest ecological standards seems to be an ideal. But they’re entirely manufactured, built out of nothing, and today sit mostly empty, leading them to be commonly referred to as “ghost cities.” Can China’s eco-cities really lead to a sustainable reality? Let’s take a closer look at these eco-cities.

While there are hundreds of eco-cities popping up in China (and around the globe, for that matter), the flagship is a project that combines the forces of China and Singapore, called Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City. Scheduled to be completed by 2020, this city, about half the size of Manhattan, will be home to 350,000 people and serve as a shining example of an ecological and resource-friendly city.

China is in the midst of a huge urbanization movement, with the goal of moving a hundred million people out of the countryside and into cities within about six years. Tianjin Eco-City is going to serve as one of those new homes, but in a low-carbon, ecologically friendly environment, free of the oppressive smog and pollution overtaking many of the big cities in China (remember the Beijing Olympics?).

Built according to the highest green standards in everything from layout and design to buildings and renewable energy sources, Tianjin Eco-City will serve as a model for future cities. Tianjin is being built on polluted, unusable, inhospitable land. That in itself posed a problem, so officials spent three years cleaning up the land and environment, even removing toxic heavy metals from what will become a boating lake.

Tianjin will incorporate eco-friendly features in every aspect of the city. Flowering trees, solar panels, state-of-the-art lighting and temperature control systems. Strategic placement of trees, reed beds, waterways. Wind turbines. Low-carbon transportation options. Residents will be encouraged to walk, bike or take one of the eco-friendly transportation options rather than driving a car, although the city is criss-crossed with wide, multi-lane motorways.

For now, the city is home to only about 10,000 of the projected 350,000, so much of it does stand empty, waiting for the population swell. Only about 5 of the 30 sq. km. is complete. Housing will include subsidized housing for low wage workers. Officials don’t want Tianjin to become a place where only the rich can afford to live. They’re encouraging a sense of community and livability in a practical, scalable setting.

While the concept of eco-cities is a good one on paper, there’s a lot of skepticism that they will actually work. Many already sit vacant, leading to be called ghost cities. Tianjin is commonly believed to succeed due to its location—it sits just 40 km from Tianjin’s city centre and 150 km from central Beijing. Others will suffer a different fate. Caofeidian, located in Hebei province, is a ghost city, with development at a standstill.

Shanghai-based architect Neville Mars, an expert on eco-cities, cites the struggle to build an entire city from scratch rather than letting it develop organically. Others cite the fact that, “Certified green buildings and pedestrian-friendly roads are a worthless patch for China’s environmental woes, not a solution. Chinese people use a lot of coal because it’s very cheap,” says Tao Ran, acting director of the Brookings-Tsinghua Centre for Public Policy. “If coal doesn’t become much more expensive, then enterprises won’t use more green energy.”

Tianjin is home to about 600 companies already, with one prominent one being a Chinese animation studio. What it’s not yet home to is a population that can make Tianjin Eco-City thrive. The government is doing the right thing on the surface, but the population is still not free to organize and put pressure on the government to live up to their promises, preventing the growth of a true environmental movement, according to The Economist.

Will eco-cities like Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City serve as an environmental model for decades to come? Or will it suffer the fate of Caofeidian and slowly morph into a ghost town? Will the ideals of an environmental-friendly society be driven away by millions of cars, bringing along the ever-present polluted haze? Only time will tell, but fingers crossed that it will be one of many that can leave a lasting, positive impact on the country.

What are your thoughts? Share them in the Comments.

image: the best city scenery via Shutterstock