Staggering levels of urban air pollution. Rising amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reshaping the planet’s climate. Strains on global energy supplies fueled by growing demand. Today China faces all of these environmental and developmental challenges as it transforms itself from an economy dominated by rural peasants into the world’s largest factory floor.

Supporting Chinese efforts to develop innovative solutions to these problems-from mass transit systems to green designs for buildings -is the work of the China Sustainable Cities Initiative, a project run by the San Francisco-based Energy Foundation with a $7 million per year, five-year commitment from the Hewlett Foundation.

For the Foundation, this commitment is part of the larger effort of its Environment Program, which works worldwide to reduce the environmental impacts of fossil-fuel energy systems by promoting energy efficiency and renewable energy sources. The threat of global warming, combined with China’s rapid growth, make the Sustainable Cities Initiative a crucial element of this work.

China’s environmental challenges already are manifest. Some sixteen of the world’s twenty dirtiest cities can be found in China today, and it is fast emerging as one of the world’s largest manufacturers and consumers of automobiles: 4.6 million were purchased last year alone. Rush hour in cities like Beijing and Shanghai is a landscape of gridlocked streets covered with pollution that can block the sun. And most environmental experts believe that the global movement to cap and reduce carbon emissions cannot succeed unless China, the world’s most populous nation, as well as its fastest-growing economy, becomes more energy efficient as it continues to mature.
The goal of the Sustainable Cities Initiative is to support Chinese experts in their efforts to help their largest cities develop efficient urban transit systems, says Eric Heitz, president of the Energy Foundation. It would be great for everyone in China to own a car, if that symbolizes prosperity to them, Heitz says. “But that car should be in the garage and not out on the street. We are looking for low-cost ways to get them out of cars.”

The Energy Foundation has had an office in Beijing since 1999, but has significantly expanded its presence in the country with the inauguration of the Sustainable Cities Initiative. It now operates in partnerships with two dozen cities around the country. Nearly all of its seventeen staff members are Chinese nationals, usually with master’s or other advanced degrees in mechanical or electrical engineering or in urban planning.

Working to Trade a Car Ride for a Bus Ride

The Energy Foundation already has a successful track record of diverting commuters from private autos. Working with central and municipal government authorities, it has helped cities like Beijing and Kunming develop Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems that permit station-to-station, high-speed mass transit on exclusive bus-only lanes that can be built for a tenth of the cost of an underground subway line. Beijing’s South Axis route BRT, in full operation since December 2005, carries an estimated 150,000 passengers each day along a 16.5 km (10.25 mile) route at speeds averaging thirteen to sixteen miles per hour.

 After evaluating how such systems are operating, the U.S. Department of Transportation concluded that putting such BRT systems into place all across China “has the potential to revolutionize urban public transportation in a decade’s time” because they offer a convenient and economical alternative to the private automobile.

The success of this first line has encouraged Beijing city planners to build two additional dedicated bus corridors, which will go into service before the Beijing Olympics open on August 8, and to plan another six.

Now other cities are taking lessons from Beijing’s initial accomplishments. With the support of the capital city’s mayor, Beijing has already dramatically reduced bus fares and introduced a new fleet of buses to encourage more ridership. The Energy Foundation is also working in cities like Jinan, in the coastal Shandong Province, which integrated an extensive BRT system and bus system into the existing transportation network, and in cities like Kunming, in Yunnan Province, where a central, dedicated bus lane system now extends some 34 km.

While it is important to help the Chinese build more fuel-efficient autos and to encourage greater use of mass transit, Heitz also notes, “If you don’t concentrate on the built environment, you’re still going to have too much carbon” emitted into the global atmosphere.

Beyond Mass Transit: Building Green Cities

The Sustainable Cities Initiative also hopes to help Chinese city planners, development agencies, and builders to integrate green design into the zoning and planning processes and to encourage the construction of model projects that incorporate green ideas. By providing technical support and training in the early stages of planning and building-and by helping cities think through urban plans that minimize congestion and encourage construction of buildings that use less energy and water-the Energy Foundation hopes to help the Chinese develop green plans tailored to the needs of individual cities.

The Initiative also is making grants to Chinese researchers to study the impact of greater urbanization on energy demand, land use, water resources, and environmental quality in urban areas. One study will develop guidelines and principles for creating “eco-city” development projects that use less energy and water and reduce the need for automobile transit around the urban core. The Initiative also hopes to work with Chinese planners to develop standards, design criteria, and certification for indigenously designed green buildings, similar to the Leadership in Energy and Environment Design (LEED) standards created by U.S. environmental groups that certify construction deemed environmentally friendly.

Heitz says the Initiative incorporates both “top-down” and “bottom-up” approaches toward introducing sustainable design and urban planning into China’s booming urban economies. So in addition to working with urban planners, it is working with Chinese universities, which have long taught traditional mechanical and construction engineering courses, to introduce “green engineering” concepts.

As Initiative experts work with Beijing’s Ministry of Construction on guidelines and standards for sustainable urban development nationwide, they also teach city mayors and planning staffs about concepts of mixed-use development and how to design projects around transit grids. Eventually, the Initiative hopes to expand the use of these concepts to new suburbs that are appearing around the cities and minimize the use of cars.

Jiang Lin, director of the China Sustainable Energy program, explains why this marks such a large step forward. Until recently, urban planners did not routinely consider the environmental footprint of a new development in their planning process. That problem was compounded by the fact that urban planning and transit design typically were administered by different agencies.

“So integrating green standards into large development projects is a new concept,” Jiang says.

Energy Foundation officials acknowledge that getting urban planners in China to understand green development is not difficult, but finding real estate developers interested in such projects, which can be more costly to construct, is more challenging.

“To change people’s minds about how you develop new cities is going to be something of a tough sell,” Jiang admits. “The point is to figure out a new and innovative path” toward sustainable planning and building “for a society that is still developing rapidly.”