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failed green (?) project in rural China

 
Levente Andras
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A very interesting story that I came across today. As most stories, it teaches a lesson

http://www.re-nest.com/re-nest/news/a-wellintentioned-green-failure-huangbaiyu-044538

It's about a failed green project designed (?) by William McDonough, the green design guru co-author of the cradle-to-cradle concept

A couple of questions keep whirling in my head:

- how was the site chosen? How could McDonough and his associates be so presumptuous as to want to teach these self-reliant farmers to be "green", when it's so blatantly obvious that their traditional lifestyle is several times "greener" than the proposed project? Aren't there other places in China more in need of "greening" ? (That of course is a rhetorical question...)

- wouldn't McDonough and architects / designers like him benefit from heeding the permaculture teachings? I.e., a design that thinks in terms of systems, and does not dissociate the built living space from the cotext, the needs and lifestyle of the inhabitants? (That of course is another rhetorical question)

L_
 
              
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thank you for the link. i find it fascinating.

regarding your reth qs., the name of greening might be a poor label tagged by the journalist (and maybe not ever even used by McD). i think the real intention is to improve standards of living while being sustainable. if you trying using no water from the tap for a month, you will probably feel this desire a little better.

I'm sure the whole project was built as a system and a lot of thought went into design. but the problem is not that the system does not work, it is that the system is a mismatch for these people. so why didn't they try to make a matching system? well, i guess that's the point.

 
duane hennon
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hi Levente,
interesting story
i tried to find some recent follow-up info but can't find any

the main problem (as taught day 1 in pdc courses), ASK the people what they want, DON'T tell them
He arrived with a "plan" and it was the peoples fault it failed

as for why this happened, just look at McDonough's websites
http://www.mcdonough.com/
http://www.mcdonoughpartners.com/

the great green academic savior trying to save the world for western capitalism
 
Zenobia Quambush
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Looking at the plans I shuddered, it looked like an American suburban track housing plan. How could anyone possibly thinking that a rural farmer could make that his/her home? The garages cracked me up, particularly when it was pointed out that there were only 5 cars in the village. No, not much attention was paid to the possible inhabitants.
 
                        
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Well. I suspect that a lot went on somewhere as his publicized plans for this project are entirely different from what this turned out to be. I first heard of this from his talk on TED
http://www.ted.com/talks/william_mcdonough_on_cradle_to_cradle_design.html and this clearly isn't at all what he had in mind.

Sometimes people just want someone's name and reputation and they don't much care about what he actually has to say or intends to do and have no intention of changing their own agenda to fit; this very much seems as though that might be the case here. At this point what could he possibly say? The builder even admits that he cut corners, used inferior materials and actually even changed the way the buildings were facing "because they didn't fit with Chinese Fung Shui" ( I probably spelled that wrong but whatever). It just sounds as though there were lots of mistakes made starting with the builder who was chosen. Perhaps he was the best of a bad lot. Perhaps McDonough should have turned away at that point but we all have made errors in judgement when hope took us somewhere we shouldn't have gone.

The idea was clearly to try to build something which would house several hundreds more families than are presently in the village, not just to disrupt and dismantle the farmer's lives for the joy of it. But when you are working with a society which appears to approve of if not encourage the making of fake cheap knockoffs of western products from shoes to Apple products then it is saddening but not surprising that such an unhappy farce took place. It's even sadder that everyone seems to be rushing to condemn the architect although he may well have had very little control over what went on. Once a government gets hold of something anywhere it can be very difficult to move it; I suspect in China even more so than usual. If you saw your dream being shattered and were unable to do anything but watch in horror then I doubt you'd wish to stick around or have your name associated with it either.
 
Ken Peavey
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It seems to me the project had too many Chiefs and completely disregarded the Indians. The garages are a kicker. Someone somewhere thought it would be a good idea, but neglected the fact that there were almost no cars in the village. Plots big enough to grow food for a family? I doubt they are big enough to supplement the diet of 1 man. No way to earn a living off a postage stamp of a garden-again completely ignoring the fact that most of the people in the village draw their living from the land.

Did they expect the fish farming guy to move into one of those homes? Did they expect him to get a job at a factory that does not exist, and in doing so give up on the fish, which is probably all he knows?

How about a China-US venture to set up a sustainable community in, say, Lancaster PA? The flaw in the project began long before the first ideas were put to paper. This is complete foolishness. The villagers already had it going on. That the planners could not see this tells me they had no understanding of what sustainability is.
 
Levente Andras
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toan tr wrote:thank you for the link. i find it fascinating.

regarding your reth qs., the name of greening might be a poor label tagged by the journalist (and maybe not ever even used by McD). i think the real intention is to improve standards of living while being sustainable. if you trying using no water from the tap for a month, you will probably feel this desire a little better.

I'm sure the whole project was built as a system and a lot of thought went into design. but the problem is not that the system does not work, it is that the system is a mismatch for these people. so why didn't they try to make a matching system? well, i guess that's the point.



A "system" that works only in theory - or that works in places other than the intended one - is not worth much, is it? More precisely, a "system" that is isolated / detached from its environment is not really a system in the permaculture sense.

The green label is misused and abused in China on a regular basis, more than elsewhere. Not sure what William McD called this project, but I suspect that the journalist's use of words was not very far removed from the Chinese one

I don't think that you need to build new houses (as green field development, at that!!!) to fit running water etc - you can fit all modern comforts in existing houses, don't you think?

Besides... As a child I spent my summer holidays (3 months every year) in a village of (subsistence) farmers in Transylvania, Romania, which at that time (1970's - '80s) had no tap water or sewage system. No-one complained about the "situation" as all the villagers had lived under these circumstances all their lives. Even I as a city boy felt only marginally affected by the lack of modern comforts, and adapted very quickly every time I visited.
 
Levente Andras
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Pam Hatfield wrote:Well. I suspect that a lot went on somewhere as his publicized plans for this project are entirely different from what this turned out to be. I first heard of this from his talk on TED
http://www.ted.com/talks/william_mcdonough_on_cradle_to_cradle_design.html and this clearly isn't at all what he had in mind.

Sometimes people just want someone's name and reputation and they don't much care about what he actually has to say or intends to do and have no intention of changing their own agenda to fit; this very much seems as though that might be the case here. At this point what could he possibly say? The builder even admits that he cut corners, used inferior materials and actually even changed the way the buildings were facing "because they didn't fit with Chinese Fung Shui" ( I probably spelled that wrong but whatever). It just sounds as though there were lots of mistakes made starting with the builder who was chosen. Perhaps he was the best of a bad lot. Perhaps McDonough should have turned away at that point but we all have made errors in judgement when hope took us somewhere we shouldn't have gone.

The idea was clearly to try to build something which would house several hundreds more families than are presently in the village, not just to disrupt and dismantle the farmer's lives for the joy of it. But when you are working with a society which appears to approve of if not encourage the making of fake cheap knockoffs of western products from shoes to Apple products then it is saddening but not surprising that such an unhappy farce took place. It's even sadder that everyone seems to be rushing to condemn the architect although he may well have had very little control over what went on. Once a government gets hold of something anywhere it can be very difficult to move it; I suspect in China even more so than usual. If you saw your dream being shattered and were unable to do anything but watch in horror then I doubt you'd wish to stick around or have your name associated with it either.


Pam,

I'm not sure if I can agree with your interpretation.

The Chinese government - both central and local - definitely had their own agenda, as they always do. However, that agenda was explicit from the start, as W McD clearly states on his website.
http://www.mcdonoughpartners.com/sites/default/files/projects/files/Huangbaiyu%20Master%20Plan.pdf

So he knew what the Chinese officials wanted - a pretext for farmland consolidation. Or to use W McD's own words: "The purpose of the project was to promote sustainable development (that which is economically, socially, and environmentally positive) that would address China’s goal of creating healthier and more comfortable housing for rural residents, in the context of the farmland reclamation policy."

Which does actually "disrupt and dismantle farmers' lives", to use your words. There is absolutely nothing sustainable in forcing farmers to abandon a self-reliant lifestyle on a large homestead, only to move into a smaller house and become wage labourers in some dodgy "cradle to cradle" industry, with promises of more cash that will allow them to perhaps buy cars and consume more.

Yet, W McD agreed to participate, or if you like, lent his name to the project. My personal interpretation of this is that the aims of the project match his idea of "sustainability". Which is terrible.

(By the way, he's amazingly vague for a sustainability guru, when he defines "sustainable" as "that which is economically, socially, and environmentally positive" - don't you think so ?)
 
                        
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Admittedly I am going by the design he put forward in the presentation on the TED talks, where there was absolutely no evidence anywhere whatsoever of the sort of thing that actually happened. He has, again according to the presentation, been extremely active in helping to get toxins out of products and make them recyclable, such as carpets, which seems to me to be a rather specific example of his efforts to make the world a better and more sustainable place.

In his TED talk he clearly was trying, not to move farmers off their land, but to minimize the amount of disruption and farmland loss which IS going to occur with the population growth China is facing. Look at what has happened in North America, subdivisions have sprawled over thousands of acres, often of the best land. What actually happened in China was precisely what he was trying to avoid, by planning a sustainable CITY, for hundreds if not thousands of families, who are going to be looking for places to live and raise their family. When you have as many people as China has, even limiting the family to one child still leaves a huge population boom, and China is becoming increasingly westernised, not all of them are content to live several generations in one home. An example of that is the growth of rock and roll of all things. There is also a monstrous disparity in the haves and have nots in urban China, and civil rights are most certainly not embedded in their legal system. The Chinese government has already simply booted farmers off their land when they wanted it, no reason to think this area will be immune. He was trying to minimize the effect of population growth, by planning a sustainable CITY which will likely end up there one way or the other. The focus on the farmers presently there and the suggestion he was making a comment about how sustainable THEIR life style is totally beside the point; they won't have much choice when the government decides they are going to lose the land because they need it for housing or commercial development or whatever. This has already happened in other parts of China, and there isn't any reason to think it won't happen there.

The other day, someone said that the population of the world is now growing at the rate that EVERY DAY the number of children born equals the number of people living in Austin Texas. How many of them are in China I don't know but a lot simply because China has so many people. Why do you think that they restrict the number of children a family may have? They don't have the room or resources for them. It's frightening to think that most wars have been fought over land. I for one applaud McDonough for trying to plan a CITY which would be sustainable; it's a huge and complex vision and very sad that it got so violated in the translation. There is absolutely no hint of anything remotely like what actually happened in the plans that he presented in the TED talks, it actually goes against everything his company has worked for in the past and I don't blame him a bit for trying to disassociate himself from what happened. It seems to me that his vision was more than they could grasp or were willing to do so they just used his name as window dressing, much like they use Apple logos to sell fake Macs.
 
Levente Andras
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Pam,

I won't comment on McDonough's work outside this particular project. (I've seen some very critical / negative coverage of his work but I don't think this is the right place to discuss that.)

... So you "applaud" him for playing into the hands of a government policy whose aim is to destroy a traditional way of life and displace farmers and make them more dependent and less self-reliant ?

We are talking about a specific project so let's not bring up the general issues of farmland loss that China is facing as I don't think is relevant to this case.

Loss of farmland by the way is not so much due to population growth (birth control has been quite successful in China, and in rural areas young people are migrating towards cities, hence rural population is dwindling) but because of residential and industrial development and the building of highways.

I lived in China for 10 years and for the last 6 years I've been visiting the country on a regular basis. Environmental and demographic issues are very top-of-mind nowadays everywhere in China but modernisation and even "greening" of rural or urban spaces are so often just a pretext for grabbing land and allowing some developer to make a heap of money.

I've seen plans of a golf course that was supposed to replace centuries old rice fields near Lijiang in Western China... I could list more things like that ...

The farmers typically get a very shabby deal, and often are left worse off in the end than where they started.

From what I've seen the intention in Huangbaiyu was not a lot different - and it was at least naive of W McD that he didn't recognise this

He did dissociate himself from the project but by then it was too late. He shouldn't have associated himself with it in the first place !!!
 
                        
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I applaud him for trying to find a way to build a CITY that was designed to be as self supporting and non polluting as possible. China happens to be the place where it might have been possible; especially since as you say the farmers are often left much worse off than before once a developer moves in. I doubt very much he chose that site himself, btw, it seems likely he was likely given a choice of a few sites and settled on that one just as he was given a choice of builders. Who knows what options he had? Anyway. China also has the cash to build such a project; few other economies have that these days. As you said, Green is a buzzword over there (though it seems likely it means as much as civil rights, i.e nothing at all) So it would be relatively easy to fall into the trap of thinking they were serious.

He may have been naive; it seems quite probably that was the case. OTOH if nobody ever tries, if nobody ever trusts, then no progress would ever be made. Also, the bolder the effort the more of a target it makes. People love to target shoot.

If you watch as many of the TED talks (and related articles) as I do, then you would see that what he planned was infinitely more sustainable and human friendly than is generally the case. I have seen stats on just what the future appears to hold and it is not a happy prospect; already millions of people are living in substandard slums (there are slums and then there are these, as well as the thousands living in refugee camps) throughout the world. Something like 2 million people don't get enough to eat on a daily basis. And, as you noted, there are people daily leaving the country to find their fortunes in the city. So cities are growing like crazy, all over the world, and almost all of them have areas for those who haven't been able to find work at least that allows for a decent place to live or standard of living. So.

One of the things that has shown up is that as the standard of living goes down, generally speaking, people have more kids. It's a biological thing; if people live precarious lives, (not of their own choosing, that is, not talking about people who like to climb skyscrapers on the outside without safety gear or who try to jump the Grand Canyon on a motorcycle) they tend to have kids so they leave someone to replace them. Lots of kids supposedly increases the chances that at least one will live to adulthood. Possibly also so few other options for entertainment are available that at least there's always sex. Maybe they just can't afford birth control or it's contrary to their culture, religion or whatever.. (Not talking about China here). Lots of people are planning cities to hold these people and their following generations and many of the plans seem to be ignoring anything even as basic as green roofs or solar orientation presumably because the scale is so big they can't deal with it.

Many will have one or two special showcase buildings which are solar oriented and which would be relied upon as food producers as most of them assume they will feed people with food hydroponically grown under artificial lights, so there is little or no concern about farmers or green space at all. I haven't seen any which planned for the sewage to be used to produce natural gas and compost to supply the city's energy needs, as his did. I haven't seen any plans which involved replacing the appropriated farmland by moving it onto the roofs of the buildings, as his did. Etc. Maybe they're out there, but I haven't run across them.

So yes, although I concede he may have been naive to think that such a plan would actually be followed through on, I do applaud him for trying to meet the challenges of the future by trying to plan a sustainable city. The fact that it was to built in China was immaterial to the prospect of having it built at all, China could have led the way.
 
Victor Johanson
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How is it prudent to build a CITY anywhere if there is no feasible employment for its residents? Seems like that should have been thought through first. This is just another example of failed top-down planning.
 
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