For images of the proposed eco-city Dongtan, launch the gallery.
Zhao QingHao, the first resident of China's first eco-village, is a 58-year-old polio victim whose left leg is twisted at a 60-degree angle below the knee. He walks with a cane fashioned out of PVC tubing and smokes a pipe and the occasional enormous, self-rolled cigarette. His wife, Yi Shiqin, who is 50, is mentally disabled and has a speech impediment. Their family is one of the poorest in a poor community, and their new eco-home has not helped. They have no heat and no water. They have a gas meter but no gas. They have no neighbors on their deserted street, no room to grow corn in their tiny garden, no place in their yard for the cashmere goats that once provided a third of their income. As temperatures dropped last winter, the bio-gasification plant intended to power the village still wasn't working. When snow piled up waist-deep outside their door, they locked themselves in their bedroom because the rest of the house was too cold. Zhao took a pickax and hacked a hole into the wall to create a makeshift fireplace, where they burned wood from the local forest.
China's eco-revolution wasn't meant to go this way, and Zhao and Yi hadn't meant to be eco-pioneers. But their old house, a stone structure Zhao had lived in since the 1960s, was gutted by an electrical fire in May 2006. The local government gave their $2,600 in restitution money to the developer of the eco-village. The couple had little choice. Along with their former neighbors, whose house had also burned, they became the sole residents of Huangbaiyu New Village-model inhabitants of a model community that was supposed to prove that China could grow up green. Five days after Zhao and Yi moved in, a convoy of black sedans pulled into Huangbaiyu: a delegation of officials and journalists from Beijing, here to witness the village's progress.
The plans for Huangbaiyu-one of the half-dozen eco-cities, megalopolises and capitals of pollution I visited this spring to gauge whether China can engineer itself out of environmental catastrophe-were drawn by none other than William McDonough, the celebrated former "Green Dean" of the University of Virginia's architecture school and godfather of America's sustainable-design movement. In 1996 McDonough was the first, and so far only, individual to win the White House award for green design; the title of his 2002 book, Cradle to Cradle, which refers to an environmentally harmless cycle of manufacture and reuse, has become a sustainability buzz term. Huangbaiyu, in far northeastern China, was the first development project by the China-U.S. Center for Sustainable Development, a nonprofit McDonough started with Deng Nan, the daughter of former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. McDonough's drawings depicted a beautiful teardrop of a village filling a forested valley. Its homes were to feature solar panels, eco-bricks made of hay and clay, and southern exposure to maximize sunlight. The project would pay for itself as families from old Huangbaiyu, a village of 1,370, decided to trade in their former homes. The old dwellings would revert to fields, and Huangbaiyu's farmable area would grow (how this would ever make sense economically was never made clear). Like Dongtan, the much larger eco-city now taking form on the margins of Shanghai and another stop on my tour, Huangbaiyu was the subject of glowing press coverage. The local entrepreneur selected to build the new homes, Dai Xiaolong, who is also the village chief, took out nearly $1 million in loans to pay for construction. Convinced that Huangbaiyu would be famous around the world, the first of a wave of green cities across China, he also took out thousands of trademarks-Huangbaiyu Windows, Huangbaiyu Motors, Huangbaiyu Refrigerators-and waited to cash in.