Green red China


A year after World Expo 2010, China continues wrestling with how to reinvent itself as a sustainable place to live, work and play. Can Shanghai, the Asian megacity, go green?

I’m sipping a welcome cocktail in the 87th-floor lobby of the swank Park Hyatt Shanghai, perhaps the city’s best loved hotel among business travellers. And, yet up here, as I peer out over the city from the Hyatt’s (; +86 21 6888 1234) panoramic skyscraper windows, I see something that looks decidedly less beloved: smog hanging above the city, effectively obviating all visibility.

Over the past decade, China’s largest metropolis has industrialised like no other, overtaking Singapore as the world’s busiest container port to become the new Asian boomtown. But such superlatives have also led to an excess of the post-nuclear era: pollution.

Over-the-top Expo

Shanghai’s poor track record with pollution made it an apropos host for 2010’s World Expo. The Chinese government invested some 30 billion euros in the Expo project, razing two square miles of downtown riverside property and moving 270 factories.

And it worked – by the time Expo closed in October 2010, more than 73 million people had walked through its gates. But Expo wasn’t just a colossal PR stunt; it had a message. With the tag line “Better City, Better Life”, Expo sought to re-examine the relationship between person, city and planet, tackling urban development challenges such as traffic congestion, environmental pollution and resource shortages.

The message was that urban citizens need to become proponents of renewable energy sources and strive to build low-carbon eco-cities that encourage and support sustainable lifestyles. But did the message translate?

At the moment, obstacles to such an enlightened future are daunting. A recent United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report expressed concerns over Shanghai’s high level of dependency on coal for electricity, safe disposal of waste and lack of safe drinking water. And for pollution to drop, Chinese municipalities need to seriously invest in boosting support for environmental protection and encourage use of public transport.

Sustainable Challenges

But while there are some serious challenges to building sustainability in China, some groups are taking some real initiative. The hotel chain URBN (; +86 21 5153 4600), for example, is building properties with innovative strategies for reducing power consumption that include installing on-site grey water purification systems, allowing for natural building cooling with ivy and bamboo and dimming interior lights throughout. And the Shanghai municipality is in the process of introducing a congestion- and pollution-reducing car rental scheme to cut down on the city’s 850,000 private vehicles.

There are also many things that Shanghai’s residents themselves can do to foster a culture of eco-consciousness such as organising school gardens, painting roofs white, installing automatic flush toilets and using separate bins for trash and recyclables.

If any city can manage reinventing itself as a sustainable eco-city, it is Shanghai – a place that completely reinvented itself as the hottest destination in Asia – twice. With a 20-year-plan for the future, this Asian destination is looking at its future with jade-coloured glasses on.

Text by Roger Norum
Photo by Tuomas Harjumaaskola

A version of this article was previously published in Finnair´s Blue Wings magazine (September 2011).


Published October 28, 2011

Category: Environment, Local features