By Karen S. Zhang

When I first encountered the name “forest city,” I thought of a sci-fi story set in a forest of cement—a Chinese analogy of high-density cities composed of high-rise buildings sitting close together. Instead of a color scheme of gray and brown, the buildings were wrapped with plants and vegetation in myriad shades of green.

The concept of “smart forest city” is a brainchild of the Italian architecture firm Stefano Boeri Architetti (SBA) whose latest bid reportedly places 7.5 million trees and plants in Cancun, Mexico. SBA’s green footprint is significant, especially in China, where rapid urbanization draws international builders, architects, and investors to try out their Chinese dreams. On its website, SBA claimed Liuzhou Forest City was “the first Forest City in the world,” in which all buildings and infrastructure were “almost entirely covered by plants and trees of a wide range of varieties and sizes.” Surrounded by wild forests and mountains, Liuzhou, a city in China’s southwestern Guangxi province, makes a perfect location for SBA’s green dream to soar.

Ambitious goals with global impact
After a visit from China’s top leader, President Xi, in 2018, the idea of “Park City” was hatched, prompting a spree of urban “greening” competition. As the name suggests, Chinese cities are modeling their urban development after New York City, London, and the like, building large parks in busy urban centers and allowing cities to live in harmony with nature. In other words, urban sustainable development is the theme for many Chinese cities. In August of 2020, Liuzhou became one of the first experiment cities in the province selected for a three-year “Park City Development” scheme. Chinese netizens rave about the decision to transform the city into a livable park.

China’s development impresses me, and it offers a case study from which to draw lessons and experience. Although China has become a hotspot for “vertical forest,” the concept does not always fit in. One reason is the fact that the biggest cost is the seasonal trimming of trees. SBA’s first “vertical forest” in Milan shows a resident will have to pay about US $72 per square meter for maintenance every year, which is around 20 percent more than the normal maintenance price. However, a single adult tree can absorb 48 pounds of CO2 and release about 260 pounds of oxygen per year. The abundance of plants will improve air quality and decrease pollution—exactly what a city needs.

New focus on sustainability on a national scale
After China’s President Xi pledged to the United Nations last fall that his country will go carbon-neutral by 2060 in order to meet the Paris Climate Agreement goal, we should not be surprised to see such futuristic ideas as the Vertical Forest City and alike emerge in China. China is switching gears toward sustainable development with strong leadership and determination. By comparison, the largest polluting countries, such as the United States, India, Brazil, and Australia, have not signed on to a cutback on carbon emissions. In order to meet the target of reducing carbon emissions, China will need tons of trees and plants in cities and towns. Reforestation is an important strategy to capture a huge amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. In view of the rapid loss of tropical forests worldwide, from Brazil’s Amazon rainforest to Indonesia, where deforestation dropped 60 percent in 2017, humankind needs to slow down exploitation of forest resources for economic gain and look for alternatives to substitute for such declining natural resources.

Environmentally-minded leadership
I’d like to reiterate an opinion that many scientists and nature lovers share—we do not lack solutions to sustainability challenges, we only lack leadership. China may not be a perfect world leader recognized by democratic states, but China has leadership who understands the importance of sustainable development. Like in the U.S., businesses that have strong environmental, social, and governance (ESG) criteria tend to maintain good rapport with consumers.

Governments also need ESG criteria in order to maintain sustainability and promote prosperity. If only global leaders will emulate one another for best practices of sustainable development, perhaps the concept of “vertical forest city” will be seeded much more widely. Urban rewilding—why not?

Karen S Zhang

Karen (Songyi) Zhang grew up in the southeastern Chinese city of Guangzhou, formerly known as Canton. Her essays and op-ed articles have appeared in various publications in China and the U.S., and she authored the memoir "Golden Orchid: The True Story of an Only Child in Contemporary China." She received her M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Chatham University in Pittsburgh. Karen has worked for the Washington-based Radio Free Asia as an administrator, broadcaster, and translator. With deep passions for language and the environment, Karen plans to join global efforts to promote sustainable development with her newly acquired knowledge in the field. She graduated from Virginia Tech’s Executive Master of Natural Resources (XMNR) program in 2020.