At last month’s 53rd World Congress of the International Federation of Landscape Architects (IFLA), in Turin, Italy, I had the privilege of discussing landscape architecture as a tool for urban/rural renewal in China. Together with two Chinese practitioners, I co-presented a talk designed to augment the conference theme of Tasting the Landscape: “Restore the Recipe: Old Core and Rural Renewal in China” focused on three significant issues, namely that the human scale of a place, its historical context, and the celebration of open space are pivotal to its success.
China has a rich history of creating a highly complex and functional urban fabric, and as the Chinese lifestyles continue to shift, there is an opportunity to evolve planning policies that create cities that are both reinvented from their past while also projecting toward something new. Municipalities and developers are gradually paying more attention to urban heritages and their transformations, especially in old cores. When the large-scale construction comes to an end, the effort of improving the finer grain may just be beginning.
While China continues its drastic urbanization process, rural China has been largely overlooked in the international/national media. It’s an issue of rural regions too often suffering from poor socio-economic capital and mismanagement of their tremendously valuable heritages. In recent years, the government has been attempting to improve the urban-rural relationship through measures such as reforming of property rights, reorganizing land use, securing food production, and re-establishing social infrastructure.
The nostalgia of an idyllic slow lifestyle has become more and more appealing to the wealthy urban middle class. Enabled by a more interconnected high-speed railway network, domestic tourism also flourishes in several countryside destinations. Add to this the reality that with fewer opportunities and more competitions in urban areas, developers and municipalities have started to look at the rural areas for alternative investment. From resorts to experimental farms, it appears that there are more creative, systematic design challenges to be had in combining rural life with rural preservation.
In addition to market-driven trends, there is another bottom-up force in play. Early immigrants and volunteers are reinvesting in their hometowns, or simply returning for greater opportunities away from the city. With their education, skillsets, and awareness, these people’s homecoming strengthens their connections to their roots, allowing them to grow even deeper. This condition has impacted the richness of not only the physical environment, but the people themselves. The recently founded NGO Rural Culture Renewal Volunteers Association (RCRA) is a good example of a platform that integrates such energy. It coordinates communication, volunteering, local participation, business incubation, and even crowdsourcing for various local infrastructure construction events.
In fact, the current economic slowdown offers practitioners a moment to recalibrate the existing “growth model” and redefine the role of landscape architects in such developing contexts. Most of the landscape professionals in China were trained during a market characterized by a sheer demand in construction; but the profession can contribute far more than manufacturing drawings in its capability to define meaningful connections. At the very least, it’s a vast kitchen with enough chefs working on restoring lost recipes. People and their land are simply inseparable: While China offers opportunities in landscape planning and design, it also calls for responsibility from landscape professionals who witness such unprecedented changes to advocate for, and enrich, the built environment on a human scale.
Check out the 2016 IFLA conference content.
Rendering of the proposed growth model by SWA for the Sanyanjing District, an historic neighborhood in Nanchang.
Chih-Wei G.V. Chang is a designer in the Sausalito studio.