Starchitect Jeanne Gang Talks Green Cities with China’s Mayors

By Dorinda Elliott


Sitting in a classroom at Chicago’s Booth School of Business, it’s clear that China’s new emphasis on more sustainable development has gotten through to the country’s mayors. More than 20 vice mayors and local officials from Zhejiang province are listening attentively to superstar architect Jeanne Gang present on environmentally sustainability and urban planning. The mayors are in the United States on a three-week program focusing on sustainability best practices—part of the Paulson Institute’s Mayors Training Initiative. “Infrastructure is not just roads and bridges,” says Gang. “You need community and green vertical infrastructure to make a great city.”

China has declared urbanization one of its most important economic and social policies over the coming decade—as a way to simultaneously raise the standard of living and help propel the economy toward a more sustainable, service-focused model, away from investment-driven growth and cheap exports. The mayors are at the front lines of that drive: they will have to deliver on new policy guidelines that focus on quality growth and environmental protection.

Gang, who is known for sustainable design, echoes a theme that is central to the Paulson Institute’s work: that environmental responsibility and economic growth can go hand in hand. She points to ways in which a clean environment can stimulate economic vibrancy, in part by attracting the best people. She walks the city officials through her Lincoln Park Zoo project, which helped reintroduce wildlife and wild flora to an urban area. She notes that the new Wanda Vista building in Chicago, a $1 billion dollar Chinese project that she is designing, will reduce energy use (thereby saving money) by using various colors of glass.

In addition to environmental issues, a large part of Gang’s talk focuses on community and quality of life—huge challenges in China, as former rural villagers move to the more impersonal environment of cities. Infrastructure can help build community, she says. “We have worked to make tall buildings more interesting to encourage people to move back to the cities,” she adds, pointing out that it’s seven times more carbon efficient to live in a tall building in a city than a low-rise house in the suburbs. Gang explains that the undulating balconies on her iconic Aqua Tower in Chicago allow neighbors to relate to each other from floor to floor.

As the mayors’ questions come flying, you can feel their sense of urgency. These officials are highly motivated, focused on the concrete question of how to get the job done. A sampling:

  • How do you get developers to build greener buildings? (“It’s important to have rules.”)
  • What are the 3 most important steps for the promotion of sustainability? (1. Strong leadership. 2. Financial incentives. 3. Engagement with the people: “as they start to learn about the environment and health concerns…they will support the changes you want to do.”)
  • How do you deal with “contradictions” and political struggles—over water pollution, for example? (“It’s a continuous battle between environmental people and polluters. We have not solved that: it’s ongoing.”)
  • How do you get people to move to the cities? (“The younger generation wants to live in a place with social exchange, interaction, etc.”)
  • How do you deal with conflict over tall buildings and the need for sunlight on the streets? (Zoning and rules.)

The mayors are also meeting this week with several former US mayors before heading to Portland and San Francisco, cities that have placed sustainability at the center of their economic development plans. In Chicago, the mayors spent several days in classrooms, listening to presentations by Chicago officials, including Chief Sustainability Officer Karen Weigert, and University of Chicago professors. “This is very, very interesting,” says head of the delegation Yiwu Party Secretary Li Yifei. “We are learning a lot.”