TIANJIN — A stone's throw from the highly polluted Bohai Gulf, the Tianjin eco-city is like a mirage. Its buildings, surrounded by trees, offer a rare green and airy setting in the surrounding industrial development zone, which is choked, for much of the year, in a blanket of smog. Public lighting is charged through solar panels. Nearby wind turbines offer further evidence of Tianjin's solidly sustainable character

The land for the experimental city, which was launched in 2007 and developed in partnership with the wealthy Singapore real estate and shipyard conglomerate Keppel, was recovered from polluted zones by the region's chemists. The air conditioning relies on geothermal energy. Approximately 20% of the energy consumed by the area, in fact, comes from renewable sources — the goal set on the national level by 2030. The design of the main buildings, furthermore, is supposed to reduce the consumption of electricity during the day. And if they separate waste, the residents can, in exchange, accumulate points and buy new products at the supermarket.

"From planning to being operational, we have a sustainable city-management system," says Peng Zhengyang, the eco-city research director.

And yet, it's not because of its eco-friendly virtues that Tianjin recently caught the world's attention, but rather a series blasts that ocurred Aug. 12, a dozen kilometers away from the eco-city, killing 173 people, including 104 fire fighters.

There have been other problems too. When the eco-city project was introduced by then Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, the goal was to attract 200,000 residents in this single area. Eight years later, it is home to just 30,000, though more and more newcomers are arriving, Tianjin's managers insist.

Interest from the business community has also been less than hoped for. The city's economic business park, which was supposed to house animation studios, is still empty. The cost of the project, on the other hand, has greatly exceeded expectations. Between 80 and 100 billion yuan (11 to 14 billion euros) have already been spent, for a final bill that should climb to 230 billion yuan (32 billion euros), according to the managers.

Making a megalopolis

Things, nevertheless, may be looking up for Tianjin thanks to a colossal project that is backed by Chinese President Xi Jinping himself and would connect the city to both the capital (“jing" in Chinese) and neighboring Hebei province (traditionally represented by the “ji” character). The plan, launched in 2014, is to create a 100 million-person megalopolis called Jing-Jin-Ji.

Tianjin was also pleased to learn that President Xi entrusted Zhang Gaoli, the vice-premier who is also one of the seven members of the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee, was entrusted with the task of coordinating this new mega-project. Mr. Zhang perviously served as Tianjin's Communist Party of China (CPC) secretary. "He's our asset," one of the eco-city's executives notes.

The Tianjing eco-city — Photo: Mao Zhenhua/Xinhua/ZUMA

The eco-city's biggest challenge, in the meantime, is attracting residents and companies. It helps that a good health clinic and some quality schools have finally opened.

Zhang Meijie, along with her husband and two children, are among those who opted for Tianjin. "The day nurseries seemed high-quality and the setting more wooded," the stay-at-home mother explains. But the real decider, for Zhang Meijie, is that housing was subsidized. As such they were able to get their apartment below market cost. Too bad for her husband, who has to commute an hour to work each way.

Pining for promotions

Thanks to the price cuts, the Tianjin eco-city is, little-by-little, filling up. The same cannot said for Caofeidian's economic development zone, which is less than 80 kilometers away and is a bitter failure.

The building site — on land reclaimed from the Bohai Gulf — was supposed to combine industrial growth in the metalworking industry and an eco-city capable of receiving 1 million residents. The project was launched in 2003 and received a visit (that amounted to a blessing) by then President Hu Jintao. It now stands abandoned. Residents were simply never drawn to this area, so far from shops and schools. The debts of the developers, in the meantime, piled up.

For Li Xiangning, the vice-dean of the faculty of architecture and planning of the University of Tongji, in Shanghai, Caofeidian illustrates a model of urbanization that "above all else, is oriented around GDP figures." The project had some outspoken detractors, the professor recalls. "But seeing as the government had already given its approval, those voices weren't heard."

Much renowned throughout the country, the urbanism studios of the University of Tongji are among the most requested by cities eager to construct new neighborhoods. Li Xiangning says that many local political supervisors call on his services to seek endorsement by associating their project to a major urban planning name. When professor Li or his colleagues conclude at the end of a feasibility study that the submitted plans are unrealistic, the city authorities in question will often seek the approval of other institutes.

"They think that to be promoted, they must show that they've built something and that it generated growth," professor Li says. The urbanist goes on to say, however, that state officials have become more cautious with public funds as a result of the anti-corruption campaign President Xi Jinping launched two years ago.

"Development and showcasing"

Peng Zhengyang, the research director of the Tianjin eco-city, says that some 600 areas in China have labelled themselves as "eco," though most do not respect rigorous criteria.

At the first, the trend was both exciting and promising. China, after all, was putting into practice what for much of the rest of the world remained theoretical, urbanist Jérémie Descamps, in Beijing, points out. Over time, however, it became clear that many of the ventures weren't viable because of "the excessiveness of the projects, the gigantic economic costs, the stamping of environmental labels for form and with no convincing results, and the absence of any social approach," he explains.

The Beijing-Tianjin Intercity Railway — Photo: Wuyouyuan/GFDL

Ironicially, he goes on to say, many projects that do not claim to be “eco” turn out to be more sustainable because they take into account the local context, the climate, the geography or the history. As an example, Descamps points to developments designed for the city of Hangzhou by the architect Wang Shu, holder of the Pritzker prize.

In China, the urbanization process is a race that follows rules dictated by Beijing, whose message is now turning towards the fight against pollution. “On a local level, we're interested both in the logisitics of development and showcasing," says geographer Thierry Sanjuan of the Pantheon-Sorbonne University. "We build, because we think this will bring a future for the location."

Building bonanza

This competition for ever more ambitious projects is also driven by the state's promotion policies. "Having something [concrete] to demonstrate is a career boost,” says Sanjuan.

China's galloping urbanization plays a role too, convincing local officials that whatever they build will eventually get filled up by new city-dwellers. The proportion of the Chinese population living in urban areas — 54% in 2014 — will rise by 1% every year to reach 60% in 2020, at which point the country will have a total urban population of 800 million, according to plans established by the central authority.

Local governments do more than just react to the phenomenon. They also contribute to it by expelling — and rehousing at low costs — farmers occupying state-owned land that is then turned over to developers in the form of long-term leases. For local governments, these land transfers are a vital source of revenue.

Even so, the rampant building that goes on in Chinese cities outpaces the immediate needs. It's excessive, in other words. Urban populations are growing fast. But city structures are sprouting up faster still.

The website The Paper, citing information presented in recent conference organized by the ministry of housing, notes that on average, each provincial capital has 4.6 "new districts," artificial extensions of cities where low-rise blocks are sprouting up everywhere and spread out over dozens (or even hundreds in some cases) of square kilometers. The situation, as one Shenzhen urban planning committee member described it, "is out of control."

The next Manhattan?

Only 20 kilometers south of the Tianjin eco-city, the towers of Yujiapu, a business zone, are an extreme example of these top-down urbanization decisions. The huge buildings face each other on opposite sides of the River Hai, where developers added a sandy beach to somewhat humanize the place.

Tianjin's Yujiapu financial district — Photo: Amazingloong

One side of the river is intended for finance experts; the other for international business trades. On the bridge that connects the two, a luminous sign displays a long list of values of a glorified China: "Prosperity, democracy, civilization, harmony, freedom, equality, justice, rule of law, patriotism, respect, friendship."

With one or two exceptions, the Yujiapu skyscrapers are still completely empty, and most construction sites have been abandoned. In 2007, when calls for applications were sent to architects, Yujiapu was presented as the new Manhattan or the East. Initially, local GDP numbers soared, rising 16.5% per year on average thanks to a powered-up cocktail of real estate investments and infrastructure (road and rail) development.

Amid the frenzy, no one seeemd to notice that in order to become a new Manhattan, it would have to be a major center of capital exchange. Nearby Tianjin may be the most important port in northeast China. But, it's no financial hub in the way Shanghai or Hong Kong are. That didn't stop the China Daily from predicting, in 2011, that it "should become one of the 10 most important financial zones in the world in the next 10 years."

At the foot of the 219-meter Zovie tower, real estate agent Zhoua Hua is on the lookout for clients that are not coming. "Of the 45 projects launched by 35 promoters, most are on stand by," he admits.

Unclogging the capital

Perhaps the ghost neighborhood of Yujiapu will have a second chance. On Sept. 20, trains started connecting the south of Beijing to this district in less than one hour. A brand new station just needs passengers now. A Chinese Internet giant, Tencent, may soon open an office in one of the towers.

The time has come to develop the Jing-Hin-Ji region, as the central government decreed. In August, in the village of Houbeiying —an hour east of Beijing — excavators are already digging into the job of unclogging the capital. Residents in this 192-family town discuss the changes afoot and what it will all mean for the future.

Du Huifeng is trying to stay positive, imagining that the mega-project wil benefit Tongzhou, the Beijing satellite city to which the village is attached. "If the government has enough to eat, so will we," the Houbeiying resident says.

Another resident, 59-year-old Pei Zhexian, has seen these kinds of rapid transformation before. He recalls that in the 1980s, the tallest building in the area was no more than three stories high. “In five years, everything will have changed again,” he predicts. For Houbeiying, the change came sooner still. By mid-September, the village was already a pile of rubble.