The next morning, on a smoggy, dreary day, I joined 100 or so of the green architects and engineers-participants in the biennial Holcim Forum on Sustainable Construction-on a tour of Dongtan and Chongming, all of which, the government says, will be responsibly developed as an "eco-island." We took buses to a Yangtze ferry to more buses, shuttling past a few incongruous, smoke-spitting factories to reach the Chongming exhibition center. Inside were local dignitaries and a scale model of the island and its master plan. For 10 minutes, a robotic voice droned on in perfect English about the green future of Chongming. Outside the Dongtan site, which takes up just the island's southern tip, there would be forest parks and lakes and a new "oriental Geneva" conference center. Everything seemed master-planned down to the placement of the sailboats, and as the Chinese officials dodged every specific question asked, I found myself increasingly
skeptical that the island's development would be anywhere near as green as promised. The crowd seemed to feel
the same way. "Is it realistic?" asked a German architect standing near me of his Brazilian friend. "It's total crap-
propaganda," the other replied.
The buses next took us to a patch of supposedly sustainable McMansions, and the multinational crowd of architects scoffed at the American-size, single-family homes. Clearly built for
the elite, they had giant living rooms, garages, balconies, and sculpted yards with rock gardens and bamboo-shaded walkways. "This one will be perfect for 30 or 40 migrant workers," whispered a Swiss planner. "There are no stores in the bottom floors, no places to eat," griped a Spaniard. "They'll have to
We caravanned to an organic farm with no organic farmers and then to the Dongtan wetland, where not a single bird was in sight. With the bridge soon to connect mostly undeveloped Chongming to downtown Shanghai (travel time will be shortened to 40 minutes from the current three hours on boat and bus), construction was everywhere-villas, apartment blocks, bridges, roads-and very little of it seemed particularly green. The perspective was sobering. The first phase of Dongtan, which will be completed over the next decade, will take up one eighth of a 33-square-mile site that is itself only1/14of the 470-square-mile island, which is itself only one fifth the area of the Shanghai municipality, which is itself only a tiny piece of massive China: 18.7 million people and 2,448 square miles in a country of 1.3 billion people and 3.7 million square miles. As sustainable and hopeful and unassailably brilliant as Dongtan may aspire to be, a showcase eco-city can do little on its own to save China from itself.
Will Dongtan be completed on time? Bet on its future at