I will agree that this project, from many perspectives, was a failure to create the new "green community." But before we throw the baby out with the bath water, letīs realize that an effort was made and a lot was (or could be) learned - and for a relatively small amount of money in a short amount of time. Failure happens. Just fail fast and learn.
I actually was pulled in briefly to consult on the project (after it was evident that things had gone awry) and the primary recommendation was to study how things went so awry, without trying to assign blame. Many of these are touched in the video, and were highlighted in my report: more on-site support, competitive bidding, having an independent project manager who is also not the general contractor.
I do know that such a "post-mortem" review was conducted, but did not see the final results. The other recommendation is where to go from here, although I know many people have disassociated themselves from the project by now. My thought was the houses could be sold to wealthier city dwellers who wanted a place in the countryside, which in a way would enable the creation of jobs via a service economy around the buildings (restaurants, house-keeping, ancillary services, car-washing), with someone taking the lead to ensure that this service economy is done/encouraged on cradle to cradle principles. (I also worked with a task force looking at creating jobs via C2C principles there.)
Where to begin? I could write pages here about the realities of China. Having been in China for 4 years, I don't blame the US designers at all. Trying to get the simplest of things accomplished only to watch them chiseled away and compromised into something else or nothing at all. If you haven't spent time in China, then you haven't a clue, nor an opinion. The normal rules and expectations just don't apply here.
San Francisco, CA
A nice piece of work, Tim. Great images; compelling, balanced presentation, and a reminder of the struggle China (and we) will face as we try to find ways to mitigate global warming issues while intelligently, and sustainably developing.
Los Angeles, CA
Sadly, this is a classic example of good intentions without good management. Activists and visionaries make this mistake over and over again: a good idea can not replace good execution. Real professional managers are the difference between the dream and the reality.
Thank you for your investigative report. I am sure a copy of this tape is already delivered to the concerning government departments in the region. Why was the planning from the beginning not done effectively? Or is it just another ploy to attract more foreign assistance by the Chinese Government? Development projects like this HBY could be a waste of time and resources of all the countries that participated.
Mountain View, CA
I believe that William McDonough has a powerful and important message that is being entirely missed by this report. I would ask yourself what you do on a daily basis that betters the world. Should we criticize those making the effort for not doing everything? We don't need saints when the everyman can make the difference.
As a person interested in cross-cultural work, specifically in the enterprise of empowering local people to make a difference in their own communities, this story is very interesting to me. In the repeated refrain "it's not our village," I hear a lot of confusion about what it looks like to partner with people in a developing country. That is the attitude that we want to have - that as westerners who might have more education and more money, that it's really not our project. At best we're catalysts for change, but the project has to be owned by the people. But how do you partner in a way that allows for their ownership and doesn't leave them hanging when things don't work out? So that "it's not our village" isn't really saying, "sorry, it's not our problem"?
Why would William Mcdonough agree to uproot what is already a self-sustaining village and install tabula rasa style what is essentially an American-style suburban development complete with garages? That isn't what I would call sustainable development. There isn't even an local industrial economy to support such a wasteful living arrangement. This whole project was a big mistake and it seems that the lessons to remember are, seek first to understand then to be understood. How can you do cross-cultural work without the objective input of an anthropologist and local stake holders? That village could have used William McDonough's expertise to re-build existing structures and design better infrastructure for existing economic activities. Otherwise, a better solution would have been to install a factory and pay the people enough to live in the new development.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions, as the saying goes. Over promising and under delivering for the sake of being green while ignoring the basic realities of economics is the lesson learned by the village, the Communist government and the foreign developers. Trade and economics should've been the drivers to build any community, not the other way around. It doesn't work that way anywhere in the civilized world, why would anyone expect it to be different in the rural third world?
This is such a tragedy! I hope they can find a way to salvage it but it would obviously require a redesign. The unfortunate message is the best laid plans often go awry without local support and proper accountability.
I hated hearing how often the American business investor said, "It's not our village." If you're putting money into any venture, the result is yours and you are responsible for it. It IS your village!
I think this is a great example of the cross-cultural fluency necessary if we are going to work together on a global basis. The American architect, used to dealing with relatively urban sites, seems to have overlooked the idea that farmers are not trying to join suburbia. And the Chinese farmers, seeing the immense financial opportunities an American investor might offer, also made their own assumption that a factory might be included to help them increase their own wealth. Too many assumptions, too little communication. In cases such as these, it is paramount to ensure that each party knows exactly what to expect. I think there should have been far more community meetings to enlighten everyone.
los angeles, ca
What McDonoungh built was basically an American suburb, in rural China. Of course it was not going to work! Perfect example of having no local knoledge.
I echo the sentiments of previous posters. In the particular case of China, it seems that firms also need to understand their relationship to their customers, the expectations of the government and the customers, and the level of expertise available. One US landscape architecture firm I interviewed for my thesis project told me they had to adjust the way they made their drawings and their communications to their client to ensure that things were done properly.
The attraction of the opportunity to experiment in China must be tempered by ethical considerations. Some of the failures of the projects show a lack of interest in context and impact.
Of course, outside firms are not the only ones to blame.
As for implementing this idea in a more affluent part of China, I know that property developer, Shui On, is framing their venture in environmentally sustainable development as a top-down approach.
China at the Crossroads
Very interesting series, and I am not surprised that this project failed.
This is typical of showcase projects in China, and I have a hard time thinking that the planners thought this would be a good idea.
Recent projects are fortunately better planned and in areas where the "showcase" can be seen, studied, and scaled.
for China, developing sustainable solutions is going to be critical to its ongoing concern, and the central party is investing heavily.
As one of the early projects, this project will hopefully teach others that while sustainable projects like this should be promoted, they need to take into account the realities of the area. You cannot expect farmers to move into suburbs without a guarantee of income any more than you can expect bankers to move out to the field and be happy about it.
"Dream Villages" in China must be based on a suitable economic structure. First of all,we must find the means to increase the income of the peasantry. If this problem can't be solved, any struggle will amount to nothing.
This is a typical example of many joint project between China and Western countries. Any person wanting to have a successful project in China should have a close understanding of the customers, not through government officers.
This is an excellent report and a good example of inappropriate development. The US firm has abdicated responsibility in the case; if their intentions were good, they would have taken more ownership and ensured it met goals.I'd like to know how much they made from this venture.
As a sustainable planner and architect who is dealing with projects and their potential greeness, stories like this are not only heartbreaking but they also empower the "disbelievers" in sustainable design to forgo, citing architects "forest for the trees" lack of vision on the whole. We as designers need to be mindful of all things sustainable (not just the buildings) but the economics and sociological impacts of such developments.
I wonder if HBY development could have been implemented in a more affluent part of China outside Shanghia or Beijing where the residence actually aren't interested in raising crops or livestock in the yards. A good idea, in a bad location?