Photos by Marcia Gottschall

This summer, just before we left upstate New York for six weeks at Zhejiang Wanli University (ZWU) in Ningbo, Zhejiang province, China, we landscaped our backyard. While in the past we would have seeded and nurtured our own lawn and laid our own walks, this time we paid to have the asphalt removed and the sod and rock trucked in and laid – our children and grandchildren were coming for a reunion, and we could afford it.

Once in Ningbo, we soon learned that the city is approaching development in much the same way we did in our backyard. It wants to impress others by its beauty, is in a hurry and has money. Over the last decade the city has trucked in thousands of nearly mature trees to replant along highways, boulevards and waterways, and in spacious parks and other newly created green spaces. In The Bund, the old river port area of this 2,000-year-old city, there is a newly planted forest, the trunks laced together with horizontal bamboo poles as support against a possible snowstorm or typhoon until it is securely rooted. In the countryside we saw many tree farms with large new houses, suggesting that urban reforestation projects are also a boon to local farmers who make more profit growing trees than rice.

The trunks of this newly planted forest are laced together for support until it is securely rooted.

Everywhere new high-rise apartment complexes, office buildings, banks, hotels, shopping centres and clinics are surrounded by green space. Several new apartment communities offer small garden plots, and Wal-Mart provides not just a good place to shop but a convenient air-conditioned spot for reading.

The same pattern was visible at ZWU itself. When we first arrived, our hosts – Jenny He, director of the International Office, and her assistant Betty Ren – asked us to comment on their campus, built and landscaped over the last ten years. Currently ZWU enrols more than 20,000 residential students and has more than 1,000 faculty. Many are housed in their own condos on campus amid elaborate gardens and architecturally dramatic buildings, including a library and a learning centre, which seem to float on a shared lake. Anyone would be impressed by a Sky Garden (what else could it be called?) – an open-air walkway spiralling up several storeys with shrubs and vines along the way, designed to afford a view of campus, surrounding city and distant mountains.

Wal-Mart provides and air-conditioned spot for reading

Jetlagged as we were, we told them that we were amazed that this campus, unlike our own back in New York state, seems to have money to spare. From the Sky Garden, we could see that the campus, which is surrounded by a several-kilometre-long brick and wrought iron wall with guarded gates on the east and west, is still being built – and at considerable expense.

The new construction in Ningbo has been preceded by deconstruction, particularly of unsafe older structures from earlier periods of rapid growth. The schools in Chengdu destroyed by the recent earthquake provide a sad example of such structures. Behind a high fence across from the west gate of ZWU, a few dilapidated houses remain in a 12-block-square parcel of recently razed buildings. A neighbour told us that some occupants are still negotiating with the city over compensation.

Through our interpreter QiQing Fan, who teaches English and is the debate coach at ZWU, we raised the issue in an interview with Ningbo’s director of pollution control, Jianfei Yu, and environmental engineer Li Li Fang. They insisted that the housing and businesses constructed for displaced workers and merchants are more environmentally efficient and structurally sound than those demolished, and that compensation was supplemented by welfare payments or increased pensions to ease the transition.

ZWU library

According to Yu, this city of 5.5 million now treats 80 per cent of its one million daily tons of raw sewage; processes 95 per cent of 3,000 daily tons of household garbage by recycling and fuelling two power plants; burns all medical wastes at select locations; requires insulating bricks and glass and 30 per cent green space on all new construction; bans disposable plastic bags at retail outlets; bans motor bikes and motorcycles to reduce noise pollution in the urban centre; and promotes conservation by charging higher rates for excessive use of water and electricity to encourage use of solar panels.

He also said that in rural areas Ningbo is experimenting with geothermal energy and biofuels like manure. It erected a 20-metre-high, several-kilometre-long filter to trap dust blown from barges unloading ore at their deep-water port in Beilun district, which replaced the 2,000-year-old river port in the centre city. In the book Ningbo China 2008,1 given to us on our arrival, and in Godfrey Firth’s “Critical Eye on Ningbo” in China Business Review,2 we read that this almost 30-year-old port, one of four deep-water ports in China and the fifth largest by container shipping volume in the world, operates 350 days a year, typhoon days excepted. The port is the heart of Ningbo’s expanding industrial base which includes petrochemicals, iron and steel making, papermaking, energy, shipbuilding and textiles. It is also the hub of a developing regional transportation network, which includes the new $1.5 billion highway to Shanghai crossing Hangzhou Bay over the world’s longest sea bridge. Clearly, the port is a major source both of the environmental problems Ningbo seeks to address and of the wealth needed to resolve them.

Ningbo wants to impress others by its beauty, is in a hurry and has money. Over the last decade the city has trucked in thousands of nearly mature trees to replant along highways, boulevards and waterways, and in spacious parks and other newly created green spaces.

With its per capita GDP of US$8,000, four times the national average, annual GDP of about US$50 billion and annual growth rates of 11 per cent or more, the city, we were told, devotes 2 per cent of GDP to environmental projects in an effort to incorporate environmental protection into its economic development. No wonder that Ningbo has been designated one of 71 model cities and thereby qualifies for additional national funding for environmentally sound development. No wonder that more than a million migrants from less prosperous areas have joined the labour force and the tax base.

Urban renewal hidden by a wall across from ZWU

We have no way to independently confirm the accuracy of these assertions. We can attest to the absence of plastic bags in stores, to the immense investment in green space, to the profusion of electric bikes and solar panels. The official’s claim that plant and animal life has returned to the shores of its waterways was easily confirmed, though the fish we saw were not always considered safe to eat. Air quality varies from day to day, but Yu said Ningbo’s emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide had been reduced. Average air quality for the year was superior to Beijing’s during the Olympics when traffic and factories were slowed, and hydrofluorocarbon emissions now meet standards established by the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. It is clear that these local officials are kept aware of the environmental situation and have personal incentives to improve conditions.

The problems are not hard to see. Traffic in urban areas is similar to most other large cities with the added complication that pedestrians, hand-drawn carts, bicycles, bicycle taxis and electric scooters share the streets with cars, trucks and buses – and there seem to be no enforced rules. Yet highway infrastructure and signal technology are state-of-the-art: pedestrians know to the second how long they have to cross a multilane urban boulevard before the light changes; drivers know how long they have to wait before proceeding. Vigilance is necessary since not everyone respects those lights but, overall, good road etiquette seems to be the norm. Horns are used to alert and warn, not to attack. Drivers of large vehicles, despite a size advantage, defer to others. In trying driving conditions, often compounded by rain and wind, we observed no obscene gestures and few accidents.

Ready to mount a bicycle with recycled papers

When we asked the director of pollution control if China might consider a one-car, one-family policy, he politely demurred. China is a big country and a tourist destination and private automobiles are a necessity. Although work on a subway has begun and public transportation is adequate at most times, future transportation and traffic congestion issues are being addressed by building a major highway loop around the city, connecting it and its international deep-water port to the rest of the country. Ningbo officials are confident that continued economic growth will fund continued environmental improvement.

Recently New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, after two weeks attending the Olympics and thinking of the sad state of American infrastructure, asked despairingly who exactly was living in a Third World country. We too wondered. In Ningbo, Shanghai and Hangzhou, China’s infrastructure projects combine technology and artistry with environmental sensitivity. We could see in the model cities program as mandated by the Chinese government a template for Chinese development and an example to the world of Chinese capability.

Nothing we had read prepared us for this modern China, for the kind of optimism that we take for granted in the United States and Canada, for the warm hospitality of our Chinese hosts at ZWU who justifiably state that they treat every visitor as a VIP, for practicality tempered with elegance and occasional extravagance. Like Marco Polo long ago, we were impressed and somewhat humbled by what we saw and experienced. We want to return, see more, learn more.

Drinking water is delivered to ZWU for 10 yuan (C$1.80) per bottle
We can attest to the absence of plastic bags in stores, to the immense investment in green space, to the profusion of electric bikes and solar panels.
Pedestrians, hand-drawn carts, bicycles, bicycle taxis and electric scooters share the streets with cars, trucks and buses.
Moving bulky items down a city street cheaply
Canal through the antique houses in Shaoxing, Zhejiang province


1 Ningbo Municipal People’s Government, Information Office, Ningbo China 2008.

2 China Business Review, July–August 2005. Retrieved October 19, 2008, from: