Postdoctoral researcher Linjun Xi revealed that an eco-island on the outskirts of Shanghai taught him about sustainable development in China
What is your research area
I study urban sustainability and environmental governance at Durham University, UK, although I have been at home all over China.
In recent decades, rural areas close to megacities such as Shanghai, Beijing and Shenzhen have been incorporated into the city’s development plans. Chongming is a rural area made up of three islands at the mouth of the Yangtze River, northeast of Shanghai.
The Chongming Eco-Island Project is a municipal government plan that is a model for more environmentally sustainable urban development in China.
These urban infections can alter local landscapes and ecology, leading to the loss of wildlife and natural habitats as well as environmental pollution.
Therefore in 2010, Shanghai announced its ambition to transform the Chongming District into a modern eco-island that would balance ecological sustainability with economic development.
How did you research the impact of sustainable development in China from the United Kingdom?
After completing my degree in Urban Planning at Huaciao University in Xiamen, China, I was searching for places to do research on sustainable development.
Cardiff University in the United Kingdom offers a one-year master’s course as part of its eco-cities research program and I joined in 2015. During my course, I heard many references about how Chongming was different from other eco-projects and so when I applied to do my PhD at Nottingham Ningbo University in China, I asked if I would pay attention to it for my research I can focus.
What is Chongming different from other sustainable development projects
Chongming is unlike other state-led eco-projects in China, such as the Tianjin Eco-City, a collaborative effort between Singapore and China, or Shenzhen International Low Carbon City. These highly compact and modern cities are constructed on vacant land or previous industrial sites. In these cities, everyone is a newcomer: there are no indigenous people.
The Chongming District, by contrast, has diverse landscapes ranging from high-quality rural land, wetlands and crop fields to forests, and is already home to around 700,000 people.
Their houses are spread over a large area, so it feels very sparsely populated. Many have spent their entire lives on the islands. This means that you cannot start from scratch. Policies need to be integrated into the local community and ecology.
You may wonder why a plan to convert a rural community into an eco-project is necessary. The answer is that without security, the area will not remain this way for long. The land is close to central Shanghai and therefore has a development value. A part of the area is not part of this eco-project and you can see how high buildings have grown rapidly.
In 2010, a list of targets was set by the Chongming District Government, including limits on construction, protection of arable land and enhancement of forest.
It has also set social and economic goals, such as the implementation of clean-energy transportation, consolidation of populations in compact settlements, and the development of the island’s green industries, such as organic farming and low-carbon manufacturing.
How successful is this project
Statistics show that the ongoing unbridled urbanization, common in China, has reversed in Chongming. For example, as of 2016 the forest coverage on Chongming was 23%, twice the Shanghai average.
A series of eco-tourism projects, such as Dongton Wetland Park, and tourism revenue quadrupled from 2008 to 2016, increasing from 270 million yuan (US $ 41.7 million) to 1.09 billion yuan.
In which areas can the project be improved
Our research revealed some concerns. For example, the goals set out in the Eco-Island Plan also serve as critical evaluation criteria for officers’ work performance. They therefore encourage the adoption of short-term measures that are not necessarily long-term solutions.
For example, to increase the amount of forest cover, extensive land has been transformed into forest, but plantations of a fast-growing tree species have been introduced that do not encourage or support local biodiversity.
In addition, the aesthetics of the landscape are sometimes preferred over local ecology and biodiversity needs: cement is often used, and equally landslide riverbeds are common for riverine regulation. These are an attempt to improve water quality in rivers, but do not support local wetland plants and aquatic species.
There is also the question of transport. Chongming is an attractive rural retreat for Shanghai residents and on weekends and during national holidays, the Shanghai Yangtze River Tunnel-Bridge, which connects the east of Chongming Island directly to central Shanghai, is often very congested.