2014 was an uneasy year for most landscape professionals practicing in China. Once fast and furious, the market’s sudden slowdown has left well-adapted practices, both local and international, stumbling to regain their balance. This January, the government announced the country’s 2014 GDP growth of 7.4 percent, which was the lowest in 24 years, and the first year to fall behind the target. Private developers suffered from the policies regulating an over-heated real estate market and stagnant sales. Local governments struggled with heavy debt burdens from previous wasteful decades and became fiscally conservative, especially under the current anti-corruption campaign. When the major drivers of the building industry started to lose their momentum, the looming climate makes everyone wonder which direction this world economic powerhouse will be heading.
Let’s not forget that China’s slowdown is partially due to an increasingly large economic base, and there is still endless potential waiting to be explored. From my own observations, further densification in built environments, integration of stormwater management, and rural redevelopment might be several avenues worth noting for my fellow international landscape practitioners.
Urban Infill—Densification and Conservation
Even with the GDP growth numbers going soft, urbanization still proceeds. With China’s urban population projected to rise to about 1 billion, or close to 70 percent of the country’s population, by 2030, China’s leaders are seeking a more coordinated process to move people to town. For decades, local governments depended on large scale infrastructure expansion and the subsequent land sales for most of their revenue. When the “Great Leap Forward” transitioned to “look before you leap,” it provided a breathing zone for in-time assessment of whether the investment should go toward established urbanized areas, for both half-built new towns and old cores.
For most new towns, the speedy development and typical right-of-way planning determined that all cities look increasingly undifferentiated. From Beijing to Zhengzhou, Guangzhou to Shenzhen, the urban design is shaped by the same set of day-lighting laws, setback requirements, green ratio, and fire codes. This formula generated mega urban districts with disconnected neighborhoods and disoriented relationships between people and land. In a 2014 report from the World Bank, “Urban China: Toward Efficient, Inclusive, and Sustainable Urbanization,” three out of six main areas for reform related to densification. As landscape architects, this is a good chance to begin a rich dialogue of how to re-align urbanization toward a more compact, unique, and meaningful space at multiple levels.
A city’s human scale, its historical context, and its celebration of open space are pivotal to success. From the traditional, narrow alleys of Hutong in Beijing, to the mixed style of Shikumen in Shanghai, China has a rich history of creating a highly complex and functional urban fabric. As Chinese lifestyles continue to shift, there is an opportunity to evolve planning policies that create cities that are reinvented from their past while projecting toward something new. Evidence has shown that municipalities and developers are gradually paying more attention to urban heritage and its transformation. While the super large scale construction comes to an end, the effort of improving the finer grain may be just beginning.
Sponge City—A New Urban Drainage Paradigm
China has been promoting “ecological infrastructure” for years. Whether the term is an aspirational vision, or propaganda justifying large public investment, the concept has been accepted by public and private agencies, except there are no real metrics of practical applications. With the alarming environmental crisis regularly hitting national news, municipalities face ever more complicated runoff management and surface water quality degradation issues. This problem is particularly agonizing when there is simply no time to act, and the standard nationwide engineered drainage does more harm than help.
This might change rapidly. As a country known for its centralized, top-down process, the government is embracing a new alternative in urban drainage. In October 2014, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development issued a draft of the nation’s first low impact development (LID) manual: “Sponge City: Low Impact Development Technical Guideline.” This document still looks preliminary, compared to similar LID development in the US, but its simple, non-exclusive, and multidisciplinary approach might just give landscape architects a better role in a field usually dominated by civil engineers. Half of the advocates who helped to draft this Chinese Sponge City document are from architecture, planning, and landscape professions. It’s a good time to join the movement, and contribute for a larger impact.
While implementing green infrastructure in the US often entrails a struggle to retrofit inch by inch, arduously coordinating with utility/ stormwater compliance, China certainly offers a platform for advancing LID techniques in a potentially more integrated model. More could be done in China, and far more business models are yet to be defined. In these circumstances, the landscape architect is in a position to bridge the gaps and advocate urban drainage alternatives, which apply not only in the integration of LID concepts, but also in the synchronization of the landscape planning and design processes within rapidly growing urban areas.
Rural Redevelopment—Slow Revolution
While China continues its drastic urbanization process, rural China has been largely overlooked in the international and national media. It’s a global problem of urban-rural discrepancies, where rural regions often suffer from poor socioeconomic capital and mismanagement of their tremendously valuable heritage. In recent years, the government has been attempting to improve the urban-rural relationship through measures such as reforming property rights, re-organizing land use, securing food production, and re-establishing social infrastructure.
The nostalgia for an idyllically 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. With fewer opportunities and more competition in urban areas, developers have started to look at rural areas for alternative investment. From resorts to experimental farms, there are many creative, smaller scale design challenges in combining modern living with rural preservation.
Other than the market driven trends, there is another bottom-up force that has started to grow. Early immigrants are reinvesting in their hometowns, or simply returning for greater opportunities away from the city. With their education, skill set, and awareness, these people’s homecoming might be forced by the economic slowdown, but it also strengthens their connections to their roots, allowing them to grow deeper. The recently founded NGO Rural Renewal Initiatives is a good example for a platform to integrate such energy. It coordinates communication, volunteering, local participation, business incubators, and even crowdsourcing for various local construction events.
Slow Down, Soak Deeper
On the bright side, the slowdown offers practitioners a moment to recalibrate their business model and redefine the role of landscape architects in such developing contexts. Many landscape architects were drawn to the Chinese market by its sheer demand in construction, but what our profession could contribute is far more than delivering drawings. In fact, the Chinese market and international practices have become 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 to improve the market.
by Chih-Wei G.V. Chang, ASLA, EWRI, LEED-AP. He is an Associate of SWA Group, lecturer in Academy of Art University of San Francisco, and co-chair of International Practice PPN.