DEZHOU, China - At Utopia Garden, retiree Li Yuling likes the green space around his new apartment block and the solar panels that resemble a dragon in flight.
Energy-saving design: Solar panels evoking a dragon in flight greet visitors to Utopia Garden, an eco-friendly apartment complex in Dezhou, China, that uses coal-fired electricity for more than 90% of its power needs.
At the Mangrove Garden apartments, Du Feng says the property managers handle all "green" issues, but he pledges to start a car-pool to work.
Living in fast-expanding cities 180 miles apart, Li and Du are among the first residents to move into a wave of "eco-friendly" communities being built or planned across China, one of the world's most polluted countries and the leading source of carbon emissions.
Designed to be low-carbon and energy-saving, China is building more eco-cities, as they are known, than any other country, according to a survey by the University of Westminster in London. The United States ranked second.
One of the biggest will be Tianjin Eco-City, a joint development between the Chinese and Singaporean governments that will cover almost 11 square miles of wasteland and salt pans near Tianjin, a major port city east of Beijing. More than 1,000 people will move in this year, joining 100 residents. The target is 350,000 residents by 2025, says Liu Wenchuang, a senior construction official.
China's buyers don't appear motivated by environmentalism, real estate professionals say. Saving money and preserving their health look to be the big selling points.
Buyers "care more about price and whether it will reduce their living costs," says Li Lixia, 26, a saleswoman at Wetland Century, a development under construction.
Li's sales pitch stresses Wetland Century's energy savings, its non-toxic building and decorative materials, safe tap water and water-saving toilets.
Price and location along with environmental concerns prompted their decision to buy at Mangrove Garden, says Wei Fang, Du Feng's wife, as she held their infant son.
"Now I have a child, I am more aware of the need for sustainability, to harmonize the environment and people. I sometimes wonder if China's environment will ever improve," she says.
Just how many eco-cities are in the works and their effectiveness are in question.
In recent years, more than 200 Chinese cities have announced they will build large housing developments that seek to reduce energy use and motor vehicle use and thus the amount of carbon put out by power plants and tailpipes. Some projects have stalled, while others appear to be promotional gimmicks by commercial developers.
Some innovations fizzled, such as the roof gardens suggested by Singapore. They died in the district's polluted soil and windy, dry climate, Liu says. Renewable energy powers just 20% of the eco-city's needs, but Liu says Tianjin is working hard to reduce its coal-dependency. (Unlike the USA, China relies largely on "soft coal," which is higher in carbon emissions.)
"There are many other cities that plan to copy our example," Liu says. "I'm confident it's not a 'face project' like in some Chinese cities."
Some partnerships are going nowhere. The Shanghai government and British design firm Arup have failed to complete a promised eco-city in Dongtan. The project near Shanghai appears long-stalled as does Wanzhuang, another Arup eco-city near Beijing.
Housing Vice Minister Qiu Baoxing said the eco-city concept has been overused in China, and some projects actually damaged the environment, reported the state-run Xinhua news agency. Others failed by their blind adoption of foreign models, Qiu said.
Unlike the government-led Tianjin initiative, Utopia Garden is a private endeavor by the Himin Solar Energy Group.
"We want other developers to see this energy-efficient project is also profitable and then copy it themselves," said Li Guangsen, president of Himin Clean Energy Architecture Planning Institute and Design Institute.
Yet Utopia Garden uses coal-fired electricity for more than 90% of its power needs, Li says, and the city overall remains decades away from a serious shift to renewables.
"Most ordinary people couldn't afford it," says resident Li Yuling, 63. About 100 families live in a complex that will eventually offer 2,000 high-end apartments. Li's daughter, an Internet entrepreneur, bought here because she "wanted a place to relax," more than somewhere super-green, he says.