When I was in China recently, we visited the World Expo in Shanghai. It's a huge spectacle. Already 52.1 million people have attended, most of them from China, and there are more than 180 pavilions for individual nations and regions.
The pavilion architecture was wild and visionary. The central lane has soaring structures that looked to me like the drawings of how space time is warped by a planet's gravity in Einstein's space-time. Clearly, this was not your average expo.
The overall theme of the expo is "Better City; Better Life." Many pavilions have an urban theme, but what stood out to me was the fact that China acknowledged climate change and emphasized sustainability. While much of China’s exhibit remains aspirational—the Chinese cities I visited remain shrouded in pollution after all—the focus on these themes was inspiring nonetheless.
The American pavilion was also impressive. An American student, Peter, showed us around and was justly proud of the clear focus on American diversity and the spirit of innovation. The opening film shows dozens of Americans of all backgrounds struggling to say ni hao or "hello" in Chinese.
The exhibit highlighted American spirit of determination in the midst of urban life. One film showed a young girl trying to create a garden in a vacant run-down city lot. It reminded me of the battle in New York City to save the over 700 community gardens from the effort by Mayor Giuliani to sell them all off—a real-world version of the movie that sadly not one of the U.S. guides knew about.
What was most interesting to me, though, was the China Pavilion and what China chose to showcase. In a huge building that was larger at the top than at the bottom, the China exhibit started with the past—what was called “The Footprint”—with displays from history both, especially the recent urbanization. China has gone from a largely rural society to a nation that is almost 50 percent urban.
The next floor down was the present—"The Dialogue." It demonstrated some of the current themes in architecture (such as green buildings), urban transport (we drove around the Expo in a fuel cell van), urban landscaping (almost every new road I saw in China is lined by at least 50 feet of trees on both sides), and urban planning.
The truly remarkable floor was the one on the future: "The Vision." While other countries highlight food, dance, finance, culture or the like, China focused on "sustainable urban models." When you walk in, the first exhibit says that "as a result of surging carbon emissions, degradation of the natural environment is threatening the well-being of human society."
The exhibit makes the point that per capita emissions of CO2 are much higher in the developed world, but it still acknowledges China’s role—a far cry from anything we are seeing from the U.S. Congress or in the U.S. Pavilion.
The next display describes the "return to simplicity" where "China is making great efforts to turn its land greener and to build more carbon sinks"—such as planting plant millions upon millions of trees, as I witnessed throughout my brief travels.
Then, in an exhibit referring to personal behavior, China shows that "measured consumption on a personal level can make a great difference when multiplied by the large population of China." Since NRDC had recently explored this very issue, it was great to see it presented here.
In our "billion ton challenge" we showed that if every American would take a few reasonable measures such as eating a bit less meat, flying once less a year, car pooling a bit more, and altering the thermostat, we could save over a billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year - the equivalent of all the carbon pollution from Germany.
How extraordinary to think that millions of Chinese are seeing this very thought in a compelling exhibit backed by the support of their government. In the U.S., meanwhile, we remember when Vice-President Cheney mocked personal conservation efforts.
The exhibit then continues to "the artistically presented technologies of solar, wind and bio energy and smart energy control and distribution network reveal the Dao of energy exploration of tomorrow." (Dao can be translated to mean way, path, or principle, and reflects a central element of the Taoist tradition.) All of these are the building blocks for the future - a "circular waterfall and the lotus in full blossom jointly imply the wish for a better future for Chinese cities."
Back in the United States, we have the first urban presidents in a long time. President Obama has brought a renewed attention to improving cities in sustainable ways, including fostering smart growth, promoting green jobs, creating more affordable housing, and bettering the environmental and health conditions for low-income communities and communities of color.
Still, both China and the United States have a long way to go in transforming cities into sustainable communities. But it is reassuring to know that both nations are trying to articulate a vision for a brighter urban future.
This post is part of a series on my recent travels in China. Stay tuned for more posts on China’s efforts to become greener.