polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

Sino Superfund

by Ivan Valin

Urbanization in China — explosive and seemingly boundless in potential — has in some cities reached a “natural” obstacle. A vast ring of post-industrial sites surrounds cities like Tianjin, Guangzhou and Shanghai. Although the factories have moved further afield, the remaining land and groundwater are often seriously contaminated. As cities push outward these sites are a threat to human health and an impediment to urban growth. A comprehensive legal and technical framework for cleaning up these sites has yet to be developed, as it has in other post-industrial nations. Redevelopment practices are ad-hoc and dominated by international firms that undertake remediation as a matter of corporate, not social, responsibility.

Post-industrial landscape in China. Source: Landscape.IS.Hankin

But this may change by the end of the year, as the Ministry of Environmental Protection is expected to release a set of remediation guidelines. Modeled on practices in the North America (the Superfund Act) and the U.K. (Part IIa of the Environmental Protection Act), it will be a step in the right direction for mature and sustainable urban growth.

The real challenge, however, will be to develop a Chinese model for post-industrial site remediation and reintegration. After all, the political, legal and social context in China is unique. The potential for large-scale remediation projects is greater here than in the Superfund model, which is based on a slow and litigious process. China still has the capacity to think big and act fast. The Shanghai Expo site was perhaps a successful model for a quick and technically successful process. The Tianjin Eco-City project makes a point of remediating and building on contaminated land rather than the easily developed but crucial agricultural areas nearby.

In the North America and Europe, the post-industrial landscape inspired artists and designers in new directions and scales. Robert Smithson worked with the language of contamination (as did to some extent Agnes Denes and Christo and Jean-Claude). More recently, designers like Julie Bargmann (D.I.R.T. Studio) combined this language with technology to create beautiful and remediative landscapes. Today’s “green” designs are bland and generic in comparison. A window is opening in China for another renaissance in land art in association with land remediation. Designers — both local and international — who have cashed in on China’s development boom will hopefully take note.

+ share