06/16/2009 01:44 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

EcoBlocks In China But Not US

By Stephen C. Rose


I had always assumed that we (the US) would take the lead in green technology and in getting rid of the dominance of the private car, and then export our superior technology to the rest of the world. I assumed the rest of the world would be slavishly imitating our plunge toward metro sprawl hell. Now, as I explore what's going on, it appears that an idea hatched in Berkeley is taking root in China without having taken root here. Which is to say, we are behind. We are ill-equipped to create a native green technology. We are lost in the mists of our phony affluence. We are cooked.

Is the Obama Administration aware that the locus of the most exciting green technology is not Illinois or Arkansas or New Mexico or Florida, but Quingdao in China? Take a look.


What is an EcoBlock?

Here's a guide with smippets and source links:

"China has been able to succeed in this incredible development process by developing what we call 'superblocks'. These are roughly 1km2 residential developments where the city provides the arterial streets and then the developer buys the rights to build everything inside the blocks. Superblocks can have anything from 2,000 to 10,000 units of housing in them, and because the Chinese are so efficient, they're building something like 10-15 of these per day. For 3 years my students and I at UC Berkeley have been trying to develop an alternative to the superblock which is completely off the grid, generates its own electricity, processes its own water and own its waste. Mass replication of a model such as ours is the key to China really becoming sustainable - I'm talking about ecoblocks as far as the eye can see - not superblocks."

Harrison Fraker, Dean of the College of Environmental Design, UC Berkeley, CA


Enter the EcoBlock.

What happens when you add to this scenario a couple of industry heavyweights on the level of Arup, the global consulting concern, the talent from a school like Fraker's, the international scrutiny coming from the fast-approaching 2008 Beijing Olympics, and a heavy dose of the best cleantech science can offer, including wind machines, PV technology and anaerobic digesters? Very quickly, a new model of development takes the place of the SuperBlock. Call it the EcoBlock.

Designed to be replicable to the masses, a concept that in reality puts minimal pressure on off-site infrastructure and the natural environment, this is the vision of the future taking shape today. Largely self sufficient in terms of energy and water use, EcoBlocks are carbon-neutral developments. Their layouts encourage walking, cycling and use of public transport.

All wastewater is recycled on-site; energy generation is on-site and any energy generated on-site from waste, sun, and wind is used to treat rainwater and gray water and provide residents with high quality potable drinking water. Even food waste and landscaping waste will be converted into energy to power residents' homes.

Constructed wetlands and swales collect and treat water for reuse, serving the dual purpose of enhancing the aesthetic value of each neighborhood and creating green waste that can be transformed into energy within an on-site anaerobic digester. And EcoBlocks are designed to use 40 percent less energy than a standard development of its size.

Under a program called the Urban Sustainability Initiative, U.C. Berkeley has been working in China, researching technologies and design of sustainable communities to make the EcoBlock a reality, first as a prototype, but soon to spread across China.

A hugely collaborative effort, involving an interdisciplinary team put together by the College of Environmental Design at Berkeley, the Tianjin Urban Planning and Design Institute and the Gordon Moore Foundation, the team has been working to integrate the best of clean technologies into the decision-making processes of urban areas throughout the developing world. In 2006, U.C. representatives met with officials from central and local governments in China to identify a site suitable for development of an EcoBlock prototype and settled on Qingdao, a 600-unit building that will be replicated eight and a half times across a 23 hectare (56 acre) plot of land.


Here is the letter to the New York Times Magazine that alerted me to EcoBlocks:

"The New, New City" is an interesting reflection on international architecture and emerging global urbanism of the 21st century but does not speak enough to the development of sustainable or humane communities. As Gus Speth's new book, "The Bridge at the End of the World," details, we are reaching the point of no return as a planet. There are some promising new directions based on a radical revision of the process and product of building, including the concept of Living Buildings promoted by the Cascadia Region Green Building Council and Harrison Fraker's EcoBlocks. Without radical rethinking, we are building new and shiny dinosaur cities that have zero chance of being sustainable into the future. We need a complete break with the past to build biologically based cities that restore nature.

ROBERT N. WISE, Portland, Ore.


The above is everything I can find on EcoBlocks. To me, this is a holographic warning to everyone in the US who cares about moving toward something sustainable. We are infants. Babes in the woods. And when, out of the same university that gave us Christopher Alexander's Pattern Language, an effort is launched it finds a home ... in China.

Arnold Toynbee rated the success of nations and empires by their capacity to respond to challenges. I would say that we are at about 50/50 and teetering backwards.

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Much more on Alexander, Pattern Language and the need for new human settlements on my blog at