China Offers Lessons in Sustainable Living

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Tompkins Weekly 3-2-15

By George Frantz

Perception is a dangerous thing. It’s dangerous because too often perception is misperception, and misperception can distort reality, stifle the imagination, and close doors to solutions. Take for example our misperception of the radical changes taking place in China, and their huge environmental implications. The common American misperception is that China is an out of control ecological and social disaster. But the reality is different, quite intriguing, and with a few lessons on sustainability for us here in Ithaca.

It’s December and staff at the front desk of my hotel in Jianchang northeast of Beijing wear down jackets as part of their uniform. That’s because the hotel lobby, in fact a lot of public interior space in China, isn’t heated. Even in upscale restaurants eating dinner in full winter outerwear is perfectly acceptable. I’ve learned to eat with chopsticks AND keep my jacket sleeve out of the sauces.

The lobby and other public spaces in the modern office building where I work are not heated. Inside the office, the thermostat is set only to 17C/63F, not the 70-72F typical here in Ithaca. Heavy sweaters and fleeces are the norm as people work away. My LL Bean down vest stands out only for its bright yellow color.

These vignettes came to mind a few weeks ago, watching fellow customers walking around in open jackets or shirts in the warmth of Wegmans. Little wonder the carbon footprint of the average American is four times that of the average Chinese citizen.   It’s so integral to our standard of living that the quadrillions of BTUs we burn to heat interior spaces in Ithaca and across the USA to T-shirt temperatures isn’t even on the radar screen as a sustainability issue.

Back in Shanghai the staff at the local markets, green grocers and variety stores in my neighborhood all scurry around in quilted vests and jackets as they tend to their fruits, vegetables, meats and dry goods. Not only are their shops not heated, there’s no giant coolers humming away like in American supermarkets. It’s not the cold weather, but the food system that supplies the 23 million residents of Shanghai, that makes artificial refrigeration unnecessary.

While our perception of Shanghai is one of gleaming office towers, massive traffic jams, mega development and smog, over 60% of the land within that city consists of a protected greenbelt of agricultural lands. Shanghai produces over 50% of the fresh fruits and produce its residents consume on a daily basis, year-round. Over 30% of all foodstuffs consumed daily in the city are produced within 3 hours of downtown. It’s due to urban planning and food system policies to ensure that even as the city has explodes in population and area, it doesn’t pave over its food production capacity.

This local food system policy is also driven by a recognition of the huge energy implications of a food refrigeration infrastructure that permits Ithaca to acquire its produce from Mexico and beyond. Those refrigerated trains, airplanes and trucks, and those supermarket freezers and coolers that we take for granted here are minor factors in Shanghai’s food system.

In Shanghai or any other city I’ve been to I can look out my window and see more rooftop solar hot water heaters than I’ve seen in a lifetime here in this country. In fact today an estimated 88 million households throughout China, from major cities to remote farmhouses, rely on solar for hot water. But China does not have the frack gas infrastructure we enjoy, nor do policymakers want to burn coal to supply the electricity needed to support 88 million electric hot water heaters.

In January 2014 I was in Tongji Xincun, one of the residential neighborhoods I have been studying in Shanghai, inventorying parking facilities. Tongji Xincun covers about one-half the area of Fall Creek, Ithaca. One of the early post-Liberation “new villages,” it still serves as a template for the new suburbs surrounding Shanghai. I count less than 340 automobile parking spaces, or roughly one space for every 11 homes.

Imagine the 9 blocks of Fall Creek bounded by Farm, Tompkins, Cayuga and Aurora as one big ugly parking lot. That’s the amount of land in Tongji Xincun NOT paved over for parking, because its residents can rely on their feet, their bicycles, and a state of the art mass transit system. In Tongji Xincun land not consumed by parking lots is dedicated to community greenspace within the neighborhood.

China indeed faces enormous environmental issues. But although the environmental problems in China may be great ego boost for us Americans, they are still light years ahead of us in movement toward a sustainable future. Thermal energy, food systems and neighborhood design are a few areas where we can learn a lot from their experience.

George Frantz is an adjunct professor in the Urban Planning Department at Cornell University.


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