by Lee Parks, CMLI, International ASLA
The community of international practitioners in China represents a dynamic group of current and future landscape architects forging collaborations and deeper connections with people and organizations that share similar values to ASLA and serve the landscape profession.
In August 2021, the three founding firms of the Shanghai Landscape Forum (SLF)—Sasaki, SWA, and AECOM—met to share ideas and focus on issues that will shape the future of international practice as China advances use of technology and strives to address climate change and restore its natural environment. The 8th Shanghai Landscape Forum theme grew out of those discussions and led to ‘The Future of Landscape,’ which was held on the afternoon of December 4, 2021 after multiple delays due to the continuous disruption from COVID. As the forum could not be attended by a live audience, the event was broadcast on four live broadcast platforms, which received the attention of the public and many peers, with some 6,000 views of the live broadcast.
The opening presentation from Dou Zhang, FASLA, Director of Sasaki’s Shanghai office, reminded the audience of the mission of the Shanghai Landscape Forum and reflected upon ASLA’s recently published 2022-2024 Strategic Plan. The Strategic Plan highlights the intention of ASLA to build a stronger, more resilient community—one that will lean into the challenges of the future. The plan centers on the needs of ASLA members while advancing the profession, which was an encouraging message for international practitioners in China. The plan also aligns with the mission for the Shanghai Landscape Forum—to promote our profession and build a more sustainable tomorrow, not only for the world around us but also for the profession.
‘The Future of Landscape’ forum was organized around three sessions:
- Sustainability Beyond Technology
- Nature-Based Solutions
- Landscape on Social Media
Each sub-topic began with 2-3 short presentations (each one less than 10 minutes long), followed by discussion panels among the presenters and invited guests, including developers, social activists, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), and social media platform owners. The presenters were from 7 leading international firms practicing in China, including Sasaki, AECOM, SWA, SOM, Atkins, Hassell, and Aspect Studios.
Sustainability Beyond Technology
Environmental Sustainability: Creating a Living Landscape
Dou Zhang, FASLA, presented approaches to sustainable design with systematic design thinking to empower sites by integrating environmental, social, cultural, and economic factors. She highlighted the process and outcomes of a few projects, exemplified by Xuhui Runway Park, that meet the leisure, entertainment, and accessibility needs of all groups. These projects also weave in cultural factors and economic considerations to fully display the site history using modern interpretations to reflect memory of place and create a meaningful public realm for an emerging new district.
Transforming Perceptions for a Sustainable Future
Xia Yuan, Vice Director of Atkins and Landscape Leader of Urban Development China, emphasized the importance of changing perceptions for a sustainable future from the perspective of both the social hierarchy and the landscape industry. Highlights included addressing the goals of carbon neutrality in China and the demands on all levels of society.
Xia Yuan also expressed thoughts on how to guide people at all levels of society to understand the responsibility of landscape and landscape aesthetics advocating a wider acceptance from “pursuing refinement” to “natural low maintenance,” to consolidate the social foundation of landscape sustainable development in the future.
The subsequent panel discussion included Hong Kong developer Shui-On Land, the U.S. Green Building Council, and the managing director for the Shanghai Helu Architectural Planning and Design Company. Together with representatives from Sasaki and Atkins, the panelists discussed challenges and opportunities of applying nature-based solutions from a macro point of view, and how to advance sustainable development goals and technology to support net zero goals.
Towards a Nature Positive Future
Lee Parks, Director and Landscape Practice Leader at AECOM in Shanghai, presented on a nature positive future. Concerned that nature-based solutions alone will not be sufficient to address the interconnected crisis of biodiversity loss and climate change, Parks believes that we all have a personal and professional responsibility to mitigate the climate and biodiversity crisis. Quoting Johan Rockström, co-author of A Nature-Positive World: The Global Goal for Nature (Harvey, L et al, 2021), a nature positive goal holds that sustainable development goals can only be achieved if the biosphere-related goals are met. There needs to be a conceptual shift from sustainable development seen as a set of competing interests (environmental, social, economic) to a hierarchy based on the environment. A nature-positive world is one in which the dominant importance of nature to humanity is recognized and human actions are governed accordingly.
Advocating lifestyle changes such as adopting plant-based diets, reducing carbon footprints through cycling, and promoting nature-based solutions in planning and design and education, Parks believes landscape architects need to be change agents and lead by example.
Design Based on Natural Law: Jinan Yellow River Ecological Planning Practice
SOM Director Yu Han shared her experience applying nature-based solutions to the Jinan Yellow River Ecological Planning Project, which covers some 183 km. Starting from an ecological planning framework, based on the ecological restoration strategies in two different regions, the presentation highlighted using natural systems to guide the process, ensuring ecosystem restoration and to balance the needs of people’s livelihood on the premise of minimizing human intervention.
From Construction to Operation – Design Brings Sustainable Value to Places
Zhu Shaoting, Senior Design Director of Hassell, proposed more attention be paid to design, construction and operations to bring sustainable value and resilient design to placemaking. Examples of using carbon sinks and monitoring carbon sequestration, influencing governance and operations to the West Bank of Shanghai’s Xuhui Waterfront Park strengthens community identity and engagement, increasing vitality and promotes community participation.
The subsequent panel discussion included Yinying Zhou, Associate Director, SOM, a registered urban planner and architect; and Shiyang Lin, Director and Head of the Urban and Landscape Design Department, Hassell. The discussion centered on how to balance nature conservation and economic benefits while taking a nature-based solutions approach in the design process. The discussion looked at this from various scales and contexts, with larger-scale planning often having more scope for integration of nature-based solutions, such as when planning involves water catchments, green corridors, and clear opportunities to strengthen the role of nature in future plans. The challenge was identified on smaller-scale urban projects where scope and physical constraints limit the application of nature-based solutions.
The key message was to consider how interventions truly create solutions to urban situations, such as creating a healthy and comfortable environment and mitigating the impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss. When small but significant landscape interventions can increase habitat, provide shade and reduce urban heat island effects, sequester carbon, slow stormwater run-off, and form part of a network of micro solutions, their collective benefits can scale up to enhance the quality of development and life for people and nature.
Communication is also an important factor, not only within the design team, but between different professionals, and with the government and local citizens to explain the benefits of nature-based solutions.
Landscape in Social Media
Shanghai SWA Principal Shuyi Chang and Shi Chen, Senior Designer, delivered a speech on the relationship between landscape and social media. They referred to landscape vs. the virtual world (visible and invisible) and landscape publicity compared to the designer’s original intention (promotion and design), and then discussed the opportunities and challenges of landscape design brought by social media.
SWA used the opportunity of the forum to create a platform for discussion and dialogue between designers and users. Three questions were raised:
- Should landscape design change according to social media?
- Should landscapes pursue social media exposure?
- Does the landscape need to go beyond its boundaries, to the virtual world, to enhance its influence?
Transient Landscape or Long-Term Landscape
Chen Yun Tian, Landscape Project Leader at ASPECT Studios, discussed how the desire for internet traffic on social media has changed the business model and has a profound impact on the offline landscape design industry. More and more, designers are required to pay attention to the Internet celebrity punch card and instantaneous media exposure (the Instagram effect) for real-estate demonstration areas and commercial developments, and to elevate IP in a highly competitive market.
Chen called on the industry to focus on long-term sustainability of landscape, to discourage the short-term economic profits at the expense of long-term space creation and experience. He reminded us to improve the ecological environment, explore site culture, and strive for outcomes that foster people-oriented landscapes for longer lasting value to communities.
The third panel discussion included founders from MOOOOL and ARCHIDOG (popular social media sites in China) together with speakers from ASPECT Studios and SWA. The panelists were in consensus on how social media is a great platform to bring users and designers closer together, facilitating objective public and professional perspectives. Publishing work allows for positive open debate of ideas and promotes progress in the industry. Social media raises awareness of new possibilities in landscape and architectural design as boundaries of design are broken and new works inspire and speed up innovation.
The forum brought together views on the future of landscape across three sessions, and through presentations, panel discussions, and online audience questions, the 8th Shanghai Landscape Forum concluded that landscape professionals and society face a variety of challenges in the context of climate change and biodiversity loss. However, the opportunities to support China’s embrace of eco-civilization as a national objective and pledge to achieve carbon neutral goals enables landscape professionals to amplify their voice to better communicate the value and importance of the profession and the relevance of this work to everyday life.
About the Shanghai Landscape Forum
The Shanghai Landscape Forum is a themed landscape professional sharing event initiated by Sasaki, AECOM, and SWA in 2017, with participation from SOM, ASPECT Studios, Hassell, TLS, and many other international landscape firms. The forum aims to pioneer new practices that result in design innovation and influence policy transformation; raise public awareness of landscape architecture’s vital contributions; advocate for landscape architecture as the driving force for social progress; and promote our profession and build a more sustainable tomorrow.
Lee Parks, CMLI, International ASLA, is Director and Landscape Practice Leader of AECOM based in Shanghai, China. He is chair of ASLA’s International Practice Professional Practice Network (PPN), Chair of AECOM’s Global Landscape Practice Sub-committee, Co-founder of the Shanghai Landscape Forum, and a regular speaker across professional and academic forums in China.