FIELD TRIP! A tour of the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City


photo: Katie Walsh

The above is the artist’s rendition of what the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City will look like. It is easy to be critical: non-native water intensive plantings, towers in the park to make Le Corbusier happy, wide boulevards that cater solely to the automobilist… At first blush this place seems anything but “eco-friendly.” Yet, this development is one of the largest greenfield eco-city developments in the world, representing a response to changing residential needs in China. Today, 100 people live in the eco-city, by 2020 some 350,000 residents may call it home. In this post I will briefly introduce the project, my observations, and offer a few pieces of comment about the future of the eco-city…


photo: Katie Walsh

A few weeks ago I accompanied the Beijing Energy Network on a field trip to the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City (SSTEC). This field trip was hosted by Cecilia Springer, a Fulbright scholar studying China’s eco-cities and Gavin Lohry, a graduate student at Tsinghua University in Beijing. Ms. Springer and Mr. Lohry host Eco-City Notes, an excellent resource for those interested in eco-city development around the world. Check out their information on the SSTEC here and general resources here. My basic background information is largely informed by an introduction written by Cecilia that was distributed before the trip.

The basics:

As noted above, the SSTEC is a planned development laid out to receive 350,000 people. The planned developments will feature renewable energy, water recycling, desalination, district energy, public transportation, and a host of sustainability measures never approached on such a large scale. While the immediate success of the SSTEC is debatable, it displays a willingness to try a new approach to development. Perhaps someday it will look like these artist renditions.

It is built upon an immense space of about 30 sq km that was formerly saltpan, riverfront, beach area, and water. The saltpan strata leaves the area with poor soil quality and low-quality drainage. A small fishing village was located on the riverfront and the displaced residents have been provided housing within the “affordable housing” units of the development.

The development will feature high-rises, villas, business and industrial areas, parks, man made hills, and an “eco-friendly” suburban fringe.


The land use plan illustrates the eco-cells and eco-valley

Located about 40km from Tianjin, the SSTEC is close to the Tianjin Binhai New Area (TBNA), one of the fastest growing urban places in the world. TBNA is one of the busiest container ports in the world and is home to China’s next generation of factories that specialize in high-tech, aerospace, and other highly skilled work. The area is on track for growth of a strong middle-class population in the years to come, will they choose to live at the SSTEC?

The design of the eco-city relies upon concepts developed by Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment Authority, utilizing “eco-cells” and an “eco-valley.” The cells are set as 400m x 400m squares where amenities such as schools, banks, supermarkets, and transportation would be near each cell. The concept is to promote walkability and livability. Unfortunately, the cell concept sets each block face at .4 km, roughly 1/4 mile. This means that each block is a super-block. The roads used throughout are major arterials without mid-block crossings. The design encourages high-speed driving and all buildings are oriented away from the street.


Typical road in the SSTEC
photo: Katie Walsh

Intersections generally look like this:


photo: Katie Walsh

Pedestrian permeability will be blocked within most of the eco-cells and the streetscapes offer limited crossings, similar to most Chinese cities. Being a pedestrian here is tough!


Scurrying across the street, mid-block crossing over vegetated barrier.
photo: me

While the geometric design of the streets lacks character or walkability, many efforts are being made to create a more environmentally sustainable city. In addition to new residents, the SSTEC will be home to an eco-business park, eco-industrial park, and it is currently home to China’s principle animation studio, Animation City business park, because, why not? These businesses and factories will be close to the residential areas and should be cleaner producers than previous generations of factories…

The “eco-valley” refers to a spine that runs throughout the eco-city. It forms a 12km linear park packed with non-native trains trying desperately to draw water through the saltpan. This park area will feature recreational paths that may be used for non-motorized transportation. The greenspace should also provide natural habitat for wild animals. The eco-city will also be served by a lightrail line connecting it to Tianjin and the Binhai New Area, stop locations and distances to those stops will be foiled by the lack of block permeability.


“eco-valley” from atop the “eco-spine”
photo: me


Completed buildings, selling now!
photo: Katie Walsh

The buildings themselves serve as the most “eco” component of the development. Key Performance Indicators (KPI) have been adopted in order to assess the eco-city’s progress. Some of them are laudable: the city intends to take at least “20% of its energy needs from renewable sources,” “50% of water is to come from non-traditional sources such as desalination… and recycled water.” While others are laughable: 90% of trips within the eco-city are to be made by “green transport” meaning active transportation. An unlikely target considering the roads that only support driving, the long distances, and that each apartment will include one parking space.


Future eco-city realtor
photo: Katie Walsh

As the SSTEC is committed to being a “functional and balanced city,” 20% of housing is to be affordable. As Ms. Springer notes, the requirements for the low-income housing are aimed at a relatively affluent “low-income” resident. She states,

“…it is clear that the public housing… caters to a very specific demographic. It courts young, recently married couples with at least one partner working in the Eco-City. Currently, these workers are usually recent graduates of graduate degree programs who have entry-level positions in the two main employers in the Eco-City…”

In total there are 26 KPI guiding the development of the eco-city. The management, the Administrative Committee is preparing to embark on the first analysis of the KPI, essentially baselining the development. Few components have been completed, but this is an important step in understanding what course to take toward achieving the KPI.

A bit of reflection…

…With so little built and with so few people residing in the eco-city the massive road infrastructure and lack of life can overwhelm one’s thoughts. My first reactions were extremely negative. I lamented that the design standards were extremely auto-oriented, I chuckled at the idea that 90% of trips would be by active transportation, I wondered where people would meet to hang out, and I noted that currently 100% of residential energy relies on the grid.


ah, towers in a bucolic park…

But upon reflection I realized that this is a concept in development. New Areas and New Towns are being built with alarming speed throughout China. Linked by soon to be congested expressways and featuring seas of monolithic apartment complexes, the SSTEC represents a first draft (albeit a massive first draft) at ways the new towns may be more sustainable. Current developers must build for current clients. What that means is that many buyers would not be willing to pay a price premium for substantial eco-features, or would not be willing to forego car ownership if they are already able to afford the vehicle. This article in the China Dialogue notes that while middle-class individuals are unlikely to chose a car-free lifestyle, the infrastructure of neighborhoods may have a greater influence on energy use in the years to come. Habits are hard to change. Old habits are coupled with new habits of consumerism, in modern Chinese society auto ownership is one way of noting your success in the world.


District energy building
photo: me

While the SSTEC may remain connected to the grid for a long time, but it was built with infrastructure that will allow transition in years to come. This infrastructure and continued development of these features may serve to influence resident’s energy use more than changing habits and consumption.


best of both worlds: parking garage and photovoltaics.
photo: me

Another positive aspect is that there is so much more to be built in the SSTEC. While the basic road infrastructure is built, most of the project has yet to be completed, meaning additional roads could be built throughout the existing blocks. Road diets can narrow the existing roads and busways could be built to expedite public transportation links to the light rail. New designs can be adopted for housing, public space, and amenities.

As more residents move into the SSTEC there is opportunity to empower the current residents in the continued planning of the city. Using frustrations and needs encountered by current residents it may be possible to re-engineer and reconsider land uses. The result may be a better place for all of the residents and greater stewardship of the community by the people that live there.

A final thought, it is unclear if the buildings are truly energy efficient. Only one building is built to LEED Standards and I believe that no buildings are built to the Ministry of Construction’s Three Star green building standards. Instead the Administrative Committee has adopted its own green building standards that have not been openly distributed. If these are similar to LEED or Three Star standards they should be supported, if they build to a lower standard perhaps the national green building standard should be adopted.

It has been widely noted that Chinese cities are becoming less and less livable by the year (minute?). Will the the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City be livable? Overall, the SSTEC represents a huge opportunity and a massive challenge to livability and sustainability. The site should serve as a laboratory for innovative designs and solutions while encouraging greater stewardship and participation by the residents. While changes need to be made it is unclear who would lead and implement these changes.

It was great to visit the site in the very early stages. As the plaster dries it will be interesting to see how the development progresses, if designers and builders can adapt to consumer needs, and if the city can be truly “eco-friendly.” While it is not pure greenwashing, the development is still far from “eco-friendly” and farther still from livable.


*Sadly, my camera stopped functioning at the beginning of the excursion, it is working again thanks to this lil’ video! Many thanks to Katie Walsh for sharing her pictures!

**Also, as a note, Tianjin is served by a great high-speed rail connection from Beijing, taking but a half hour to travel the 140 km at a cruising speed on 300 kph.


beep beep.
photo: me


One thought on “FIELD TRIP! A tour of the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City

  1. Katie Walsh says:

    great article Colin!! And what stunning photos!


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