by Lee Parks, CMLI, International ASLA
Founded in 1896, Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU) is one of the oldest and most prestigious institutions of higher education in China. At the end of 2017, the university integrated high-quality resources in the design fields, and amalgamated three departments—Architecture, Design, and Landscape Architecture—to establish the School of Design. In 2021 the School of Design launched a professional (international) master’s program in Landscape Architecture (M.LA.) and began a new initiative to create practice-oriented academic positions and further emphasize design studio teaching and talent development.
The M.LA. program aims to achieve harmony between human and nature with the comprehensive application of scientific, technical, and artistic approaches. Students who graduate from this program will be interdisciplinary, creative, international high-quality talent, engaged in the professional field of landscape architecture planning, design, construction, and management. Research focuses include: Landscape Architecture Planning and Design, Landscape Architecture History and Theory, Landscape Plant Resources and Applications, Landscape Planning, and Ecological Restoration.
To attract design practitioners from around the world with backgrounds in architecture, design, and landscape architecture, teaching fellowship positions were created. Outstanding design practitioners from leading external universities and from professional practice are employed as teaching fellows to enrich hands-on experience in design.
The program cultivates students’ professional qualities and strengthens the proportion of overseas tutors, ensuring that outstanding domestic students can receive world-class international design teaching entirely at Shanghai Jiao Tong University without going abroad. Given the disruptions caused by COVID-19 with regards to overseas education and travel, the initiative offers opportunities for students to continue education in China whilst widening perspectives from international practice.
I was one of the appointed teaching fellows during the first year that the fellowships were launched. During the autumn semester of 2021, I taught the M.LA. (International) program of Metropolitan Area Landscape Planning and Design. The class included around 28 Masters students with undergraduate degrees in landscape design from many of China’s best universities. The class also included two international students based in Seattle and Nepal, unable to join physically but participating through video conferencing, live recordings, and information exchange at all stages. The class was facilitated by two lecturers and a teaching assistant, to guide on logistics, teaching content, grading, and regular student communications.
Rapid urbanization and the increasing size of metropolitan areas has led to increasing detachment from nature and ecology. High density of populations in urban areas, continuous development, and evolving needs of urban space function often negatively impacts areas of ecological value or sensitivity.
The course aimed to explore complex relationships between metropolitan area landscape, ecological environment, and social development, by looking at planning, urban and landscape design, habitat creation, place making, cultural and social drivers of public open space and integration of climate change mitigation.
Through a real large-scale project design, students were introduced to concepts of city resilience and sustainable landscape design in metropolitan areas. Current global issues of climate change and biodiversity loss, social equity, and inclusion were introduced with the aim of preparing graduates for integrated planning and design to tackle global issues, advocating balance between people and nature. Strategies and proposals were required to be consistent with the objectives of the Shanghai Masterplan 2017-2035, particularly in relation to climate change and city resilience.
Over the course of sixteen weeks, lectures, site visits, and workshops explored theoretical knowledge and experience in practice of urban and rural planning, architecture and urban design, urban ecology, climate adaptation, and social and cultural issues. A partly abandoned post-industrial waterfront site was chosen to put theory into practice, challenging the students to keep up with new ideas and apply analysis, planning, and design skills as they were given team and individual assignments.
Unlike previous guest teacher roles at Shanghai’s Tongji University (College of Architecture and Urban Planning), where course content was created by others, the teaching fellow role at Shanghai Jiaotong University allowed freedom to create course content and delivery style. This required a clear course outline, weekly preparation of lectures, study materials, organizing site visits, study tours, assignments and mentoring groups and one-on-one project work. Getting to know the students and watching their strengths and interests reveal themselves through the course was an enjoyable experience and gave a greater sense of ownership (and reward) as the students’ project work evolved.
Unfamiliar with the prior background skills and knowledge of the students, it was a pleasant surprise to recognize their awareness and knowledge of environmental, cultural, and social issues. In week two, on visiting the selected project site, the students were quick to articulate problems on the project site and share ideas on post-industrial buildings and relics through an assignment of finding appropriate precedents. They worked well in teams, paid attention to health and safety on site, and approached planning and design with a very holistic comprehension of climate change, brownfield issues, development planning, and community needs. Their technical and software skills were applied to environmental analysis and case studies, using a wide range of new applications to model, brainstorm ideas, and present outcomes. The use of some software for microclimate studies in some instances were more innovative than seen in practice!
When developing plans, the emphasis was on generating sketch designs and practicing delivery of presentations to strengthen communication skills to peers and outside guests. Admittedly, the sketch design process revealed weaknesses in the students’ comprehension of technical aspects of dealing with stormwater, waterfront edges, and space scale. Many times, there was a need to step back and get the groups to see issues at the metropolitan, district, and overall site scale before going back in to specific areas of interest.
The first lecture opened with a wake-up call on global issues related to the climate emergency, biodiversity loss, city resilience, carbon neutrality, nature-based solutions, and domestic approaches, such as China’s ‘Sponge City’ strategies to combat flooding and work with natural processes in cities. This also included a discussion of why choose landscape as a profession and a screening of the #Chooselandscape campaign video from the Landscape Institute.
Each week, lectures were supplemented with professional insights, to share experience in life or in practice as a landscape architect, making the course personal and connected to real situations relevant to practice in China. This often reflected on experiences with international competitions, dealing with private and government clients, and seeing projects through to implementation.
Guests were invited to mid-term and final reviews, including Lianying Bao, Deputy Director of the Planning Management Department of Shanghai Minhang Riverside Area Comprehensive Development Management Committee, which is responsible for the project site being studied. Other experts included water specialists, landscape architects, urban planners, and architects to challenge the students’ ideas and logic in addition to getting feedback from lecturers and the teaching fellow. Students would present regular assignments using digital projections through recorded live broadcast, practicing their English verbal communications and having lectures to view again online after class.
After the mid-term review, a study tour explored relevant award-winning precedents in Shanghai that successfully address post-industrial waterfront regeneration. The site walkthrough included some parts of the waterfront that instructors had participated in and won first place for in international competitions, therefore offering first-hand lessons learned.
A few weeks before the final presentation the students were still working on sketch-based designs and were prompted to finalize materials for preparing digital models, illustrated masterplans, sections, diagrams, renderings, display boards, and reports. The final presentation included Lianying Bao, ASLA International Practice PPN leader Yujia Wang, ASLA, and Simon Yue, Managing Director at East China Architectural Design Institute (ECADI), offering client, international, and domestic views on the work. The results integrated knowledge gained through other design studios to support final production. Other modules in landscape engineering and digital landscape through which the students applied parametric design, grading, and stormwater management supported their final design production.
Looking back on the teaching fellowship, the opportunity to share global issues and prepare next generation landscape professionals for a multidisciplinary and holistic approach to planning and design was a rewarding experience. Supplementing lecture notes with QR codes guided the students to international best practice such as the ASLA awards, mission areas, and publications, enabling the students to extend research and awareness of international practice. These references often led students to climate change-related studies, scientific papers, non-government organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund, and non-profit organizations such as the Landscape Architecture Foundation. Feedback from the students and all those participating in the course was very positive. Hence the new initiative by Shanghai Jiaotong University School of Design is off to a good start and plans to continue growing and evolving in the future.
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.