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Ecobuild China

Rab Bennetts reports from Shanghai

Flying to Shanghai for Ecobuild is not everyone’s idea of sustainability, but China seems ready to embrace the ‘green’ agenda  and the opportunity to influence its direction outweighs the guilt. The new Chinese Premier stressed the importance of sustainability when he took ofice, and this week the Government announced a $16 billion scheme to combat pollution in Beijing, where another conference focusing on eco-cities provided a political platform and official rival to private-sector Ecobuild. The scale and speed of urbanisation in China is awesome but, as a former mayor of Shanghai, the Premier should certainly understand the built environment.

So Shanghai it was, despite many delegates scuttling off to Beijing to appear in the right place at the right time. The show reminded me of the first UK Ecobuild only a few years ago, when around 900 visitors turned up; compare that to the 55,000 this time round! Can Ecobuild pull off the same trick in China? Quite possibly, although the drive for development presently drowns out the most searching questions about its environmental impact. For the moment, ‘green thinking’ is dominated by ‘greenwash’ of the kind we saw too much of a decade ago in the UK, with over-reliance on technical fixes and aspirational visual references rather than practical design strategies that reduce the demand for energy and its consequential emissions. It was therefore refreshing to see so many speakers, many of whom were from locally-based consultancies, emphasise the need for real objectivity and the measurement of building performance - something we’re still struggling with in the UK thanks to government vacillation, to be polite.

Despite evidence that the green agenda has yet to surface, there was much talk about re-using existing buildings

Despite the evidence all around Shanghai that the green agenda has yet to surface in earnest, there was much talk at Ecobuild China conference sessions about re-using existing buildings, retaining fragments of history that are otherwise being swept away and creating a sense of place that is noticeably absent among the skyscrapers of Pudong district. Putting aside for a moment the emerging elegance of the world’s second tallest building, the Shanghai Tower, the great triumph of the city’s recent history is the revitalisation of The Bund - that great sweeping range of colonial palaces that were once the consulates and banks of imperial Europe. The public realm has been transformed with beauty and flair at great speed; most of the eight-lane highway has been relocated underground, the ugly flyovers have gone, and the waterfront has been extended to reconnect with the piers and jetties that thrust towards the new Manhattan on the other side of the river - at least it would be a new Manhattan if it had streets rather than desolate gaps between the towers.

There are few planning restrictions to protect China’s heritage

Time and again, speakers made the point that Shanghai’s economic value would suffer if it didn’t have the identity to make it worth visiting. As yet, there are few planning restrictions to protect China’s heritage beyond the key sites but, such is the power of the state to translate policy into action, it wouldn’t surprise me if construction to support economic growth adopted a distinctly ‘greener’ hue during the next five year plan. 

With nationwide change in the air, the challenge for Ecobuild, currently nestling in the corner of Shanghai’s vast Expo halls, is to recognise its potential as an ambitious forum for sustainability rather than allow it to morph into just another massive trade show with a conference attached.

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