Water is a resource that is unevenly distributed, across time and space, affected by urbanisation, deforestation and climate change. Modern development practices make us vulnerable, but Chinese tradition managed water resources carefully.

– We have to work with and not against flooding and natural processes, even inside cities, says Professor Kongjian Yu.

2005-2015 is designated as the UN Decade for Action “Water for Life”. 2013 is the UN International Year of Water Cooperation. The 22 March was also the World Water Day. For landscape architects around the world, this is a reminder of the need for protection of water resources through landscape planning. Access to water is essential to meet basic human needs, and both our future environment and poverty reduction across the globe are completely dependent on wise management of water.

Water - a shifting resource

Good water management is challenging, because water is unevenly distributed in time and space, and the hydrological cycle is very complex, making it difficult to get an overview of the consequences of different landscape interventions. Rapid urbanization, pollution and climate change threaten water resources, and at the same time the need for clean water is increasing to meet the needs of the growing population, household, food production, energy and industry. But everyone has the right to clean water, and water management must take into account a number of conflicting interests. This provides opportunities for collaborative efforts between users. Cooperation on water management involves a multidisciplinary approach where culture, education and science, as well as religious, ethical, social, political, legal, institutional and economic dimensions are all significant. Central to this picture is the landscape architect, dealing with specific challenges such as adaptation, prevention and management of more frequent and more severe cases of flooding.

Kongjian Yu _Photo: NLA/Lone Kjersheim_

Water in China

China has a long tradition of managing water resources. When Carl Steinitz, professor of landscape architecture at Harvard University, published a list of the most influential ideas in landscape planning in 2008, his first example came from China: West Lake in Hangzhou was constructed as early as in the 8th century for long-term water supply, aquaculture and agriculture. 1 Later, during the Song Dynasty, this landscape was rehabilitated and developed under the guidance of poet and governor of Hangzhou, Su Shi (1037-1101). Over time, the West Lake has come to be considered "natural", a beautiful place with a great cultural significance.

Today Chinese landscape architecture is still valued around the world, and when Kongjian Yu – Professor of Landscape Architecture at Peking University and principal of China's largest landscape architecture company, Turenscape – visited the Department of Landscape Architecture at UMB in 2011, we talked to him about landscape planning and water management.

Tianjin Qiaoyuan Wetland Park, Tianjin City, 2008. Turenscape planned the regeneration of a deserted shooting range and former garbage dump into a low maintenance urban park.

TEB/KJ: Many of your projects, both in management and planning, focus on floods and environmental crises. Handling of water has to some extent been your “brand”. You have also published numerous publications on this topic, and won awards for projects dealing with water. A term you frequently use is that "we must be friends with the flood." How can you be friends with flooding in a crisis like the one we see emerging today?

KY: Flooding is a very serious issue in China, and we have a 5000-year history of flood management. Environmental crisis and increased urbanization has frontlined this theme. But it is also a global problem. Every civilization has had to adapt to flooding. In China, the various dynasties flourished according to how they were able to adapt, cope and live with floods. The first king of the Kingdom of Dali in central China, Duan Siping, was selected to the kingship in 937 because he had an understanding of how to deal with flooding. He chose places to build cities where one could live with floods, without creating dams and stopping the water. He did not want to stop floods, but to work with and not against flooding. I consider him to be the father of landscape planning in China. He is a legendary figure, and this shows how important flood has been in Chinese civilization.

"Flooding is a very serious issue in China, and we have a 5000-year history of flood management. But it is also a global problem."

China has a monsoon climate. There is a lot of rain in the summer and a very dry season through the fall, winter and spring. Thus, the rivers often flood in the summer. Yangtze River is the mother of China; the central Chinese flood plain is quite similar to the Egyptian Nile landscape. Both agriculture and cities have adapted to floods and exploited them. Elsewhere, towns are built with minimal protection, and surrounded by dikes instead of channelling the river. They do not control the river, but defend themselves against the water. In China, the city is in the water or surrounded by water like an island, so that when the flood comes, water is absorbed like in a sponge inside the city. The city is an urban pattern in the water.

Typology of flood-adaptive city forms in the Yellow River alluvial plains. Each square is 1 sq.km.

Look at the architecture. The buildings are often raised up on a platform, on pillars, above water. This is a local building tradition. The countryside, the cities and the buildings are adapted to water.

Agriculture also adapted to flooding. There are over ten different types of rice fields built on terraces, including floating meadows. In China, we have developed a human-made rural landscape. Channels form a network in which flooding is absorbed instead of being rejected. We have a heritage that adapts to flooding, comparable to that of Venice. There is a water park system at the local level.

But during the last hundred years of modern urbanism, we have almost forgotten this legacy. And during the past 30 years, cities in China have been built on a Western idea of beauty, based on engineering solutions with pipes, pumps and dams; with an infrastructure that has forgotten the capacity of nature. There are 25,000 high dams in China. This is approximately half of all high dams in the world. The United States has only 8,000. We have tried to protect ourselves from flooding by channelling rivers and running them in pipes using concrete and modern technology, instead of keeping the river free. The Yellow River is an example of this; reservoirs were supposed to hold back the water and protect towns from flooding. As a result, we have destroyed the inherent abilities of nature. The ancient water-adapted agricultural landscape is destroyed.

The result is that we have become totally dependent on the technical infrastructure. Although we have tried to protect the cities, we still have floods: now they occur inside the cities. 80% of the precipitation is concentrated in summer, and up to 20% of annual precipitation may fall in one day. In such a situation, regular street drains are insufficient, and the results have been disastrous. It could get even worse with climate change.

Shanghai Houtan Park, Shanghai Expo 2010. The park is laid out on a brownfield site and combines wetlands, storm water handling and urban agriculture.

New solutions for flood and drought

KY: If we want to resolve this, we must look back to our heritage and at the same time use new methods. We must develop new strategies and solutions to deal with flooding. This is what we try to do in Turenscape. We look back on the heritage and respect it, without being nostalgic, and show how we can use the landscape as ecological infrastructure, to ease the problem of flooding. It is a challenge for landscape architects to gain acceptance for these new solutions.

In China, the same region may have problems with both flood and drought. Two-thirds of China's major cities have water shortages. China has 20% of the world’s population, but we have only 10% of the world's freshwater resources and 75% of this water is contaminated. So we are trying to see how to deal with flooding in a manner which also solves the problem of drought. The traditional way to solve this was to create reservoirs. But that creates new problems, because it destroys the rivers. In North China there is very high evaporation, 5-6 times as high as the precipitation. Beijing has 500 mm rainfall, but evaporation is 1700 mm – almost four times as much. So any exposure of water is a waste. Therefore we try to make storm water into ground water. Floods can contribute to wetland areas to restore habitat for plants and animals. Flooding must be utilized in several ways: flooding is a resource, it must be a friend.

"Flooding must be utilized in several ways: flooding is a resource, it must be a friend."

In China, the drop in the water table – a result of rainfall patterns and population concentrations – is very serious. Some cities, like Beijing, are entirely dependent on groundwater for drinking, for irrigation and industrial production. In the Beijing region, there has been a dramatic drop in the water table – 2500 mm in 30 years. This is causing other serious environmental problems, such as desert storms and loss of biodiversity. We must use flooding to reduce the problems of drought and improve groundwater levels. We could use water as a resource throughout the year, instead of sending it out to sea.

Yongning River Park, Taizhou City, Zhejiang, 2004. A combination of natural and man-made elements provides an alternative storm water management solution.

Political systems

TEB/KJ: Environmental problems are international, but cultures and political and economic systems differ. Is the political and economic system in China especially beneficial or unfavourable to water development, compared to systems in the West? Do we need new systems? How can landscape architecture contribute and develop solutions under different regimes?

Zhongshan Shipyard Park, Zhongshan, Guangdong, 2002. The design is based on reuse of existing dockyard elements, and on local plants.

KY: Our financial system has become more similar to that of the West. We now have a consumer society in China as well. This is a disaster feeding a crisis. We sacrifice the environment and destroy the ecological resources we depend on.

The traditional Chinese model is based on the recognition of limited resources. Prior to 1950, only 10% of the population in China were city-dwellers. These 10% lived a luxurious life. The rest of the population contributed to saving resources, in the traditional Chinese way of life. Today, China has allowed a Western consumption pattern that gives rise to major environmental problems, and the lack of good solutions makes these problems even more serious in China than in many other countries. We accept this model, which destroys our natural heritage and has a major impact on the ecosystem. The ecosystem is very fragile, and often the effects are most clearly felt by the individual farmer with a small piece of land.

But in China, we have a national top-down system. By making landscape policies a part of national policy, we can prevent many problems that destroy the ecological infrastructure. Part of our work in Turenscape has been to influence politicians. I have personally written to the Prime Minister, who in turn contacted and influenced the Minister of Environment. That's how we started the project on national ecological infrastructure planning – a national habitat system that integrates a national heritage system, known as "The Great Canal". It is proposed as a national heritage project, and should achieve UNESCO World Heritage status. It is not just a transport network, but a cultural and ecological system. The landscape is not only visual, but a system of water regulation, productivity, livelihood and culture. This concept is important for landscape architecture. This process occurs at the national level. We have a Ministry of Land and Resources, which has great authority and has taken the use of ecological infrastructure into the national planning system.

Shenyang Architectural University Campus, Shenyang City, Liaoning, Turenscape 2004. The campus is located on arable land, and the park is conceived as a functional rice paddy where students and teachers can adress issues of urbanisation and sustainability.

TEB/KJ: What about user participation, is there room for that in such a large-scale planning operation?

KY: In today's Chinese society, there is little social equity. There has been an increase in the number of wealthy people in urban areas, but there are many rural poor. Previously you could just move people to achieve national goals. But today, a regional development process is leading to changes; more attention is given to the requirements of the population. Entire villages can no longer be removed, as they were only a few years ago. There is more participation and better compensation for those who still have to move. Before, a fee was paid to the state when a dam was constructed, a quarry opened or a mine established. But now a new law has been passed, which means that before any development can begin, the developer must pay a resource tax that should go back to the locals. It's a big improvement.

The landscape belongs to the public and should benefit people. 20 years ago, parks were generally closed in behind fences. People had to buy tickets to visit them. Today they are open or will be gradually opened to the public. We had the opportunity to build the first park that was not fenced off. Ports and harbours are another matter; they have often been dominated by industrial and other installations that have prevented access. We try to make the waterfront accessible in our projects. Planning of landscape infrastructure contributes to the integration of biological, cultural, social and ecological aspects, and to long-term management of resources, such as water.

Planning vs. design?

TEB/KJ: You have written a lot about "Big Foot revolution", the art of survival and the productive landscape that belongs to the local culture, as opposed to the ornamental and "Small Foot landscape" belonging to the upper class. Nevertheless, many of your design solutions show a great attention to detailing, The Red Ribbon, for example. Many even see this as your trademark. How do you see this relationship between design aspects and ecological planning?

Quinhangdao Red Ribbon Park, Quinhangdao City, Hebei 2008. A 500 metre "red ribbon" integrates lighting and other services and retains the natural landscape.

Quinhangdao Red Ribbon Park, Quinhangdao City, Hebei 2008.

KY: Every civilization has two parallel main cultures: one is a gentrified culture and the other a survival culture. In China this is very visible. But it's just the elitist high culture that is celebrated by the West and by China's intellectuals - the Forbidden City, paintings, the Summer Palace, China's classical gardens and so on. That's what is perceived as Chinese civilization. However, this is only a small part of it, and the imperial culture is also expensive to maintain and contributes to dissolution and distress.

We almost forget the other culture: The art of survival, agriculture that is sustainable, agricultural arts, such as rice fields, crop terraces, irrigation and rotation system, orchards and woods. As landscape architects, we never learned to design by utilizing these elements. We have ignored the wisdom and the beauty of these. This must now be brought to the fore.

"It's just the elitist high culture that is celebrated by the West and by China's intellectuals. That's what is perceived as Chinese civilization. We almost forget the other culture: The art of survival."

Landscape architecture is a type of art that must be based on the survival of the culture. We must discover the "art of survival", this must be the basis for ornaments. If decorative elements are used, they must have a function. The Red Ribbon is actually a bench – modern environmental aesthetics. Art should be integrated into the ecosystem, the social space, agriculture, and contribute to economic and cultural rights – not just exist for art's sake. We need some kind of balance. The bench can be made of wood or steel to make it more exciting. Art should not be ignored, but turned into ecological art.

TEB/KJ: There should be an ethical core in aesthetics?

KY: Ethics is the core of the new aesthetics. That's why I use the metaphor of Big Foot, I will sacrifice the single aspect of beauty for ecological performance. Big Foot may be ugly, but maybe it can be made beautiful? In landscape architecture a small gesture is often enough, you can use only a small band – as in a messy mane of hair – and it is beautiful.

TEB/KJ: Is there anything we can learn from garden art or Small Foot aesthetics, perhaps ingenuity and creativity that can be used to create Big Foot aesthetics?

KY: High culture is based on human instinct - dimension, space and colour, for example. We find some items there that we can learn from, but we must use them with care.

TEB/KJ: Are people willing to accept the new aesthetics?

KY: People enjoy the short cut lawn – Small Foot aesthetics – but have a natural instinct to also enjoy rolling meadows. Some of my students did a study that showed that people like this. The tall grass is beautiful. So why do we not see more of this in today's landscape? The red ribbon opens up for people enter these natural areas, but still feel safe. That is also something we all have in – the need to feel safe.

TEB/KJ: What is your main message to our colleagues?

KY: Write a letter or a book! You can influence the media and politicians. Get people to listen to you, raise your voice!

  1. Steinitz, Carl, 2008: “Landscape planning: A brief history of influential ideas”, Journal of Landscape Architecture, Vol. 3, nr 1. 

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