China’s Landscape Architects Undo the Damage


Chinese landscape architects are buffeted by two trends changing the planet: the information technology revolution coming out of the U.S. and one of the largest mass migrations in history, the current process of urbanization in China, said Liang Wei, PhD, a landscape architect and professor at the Beijing Tsinghua Urban Planning & Design Institute (THUPDI), at the American Institute of Architects convention in Washington, D.C. Liang said 10  million new residents are moving into Chinese cities each year, with one billion new square feet being built to accomodate the influx. By 2020, China will be 65 percent urban, which means landscape architects, planners, and architects have an unbelievable amount of work to do to make these new cities more livable, sustainable, and scalable while also undoing the worst environmental damages.

The incredible rate of urbanization has led to changes in how design is taught in China. Since the 1980s, the number of landscape architecture, architecture, and planning programs has exploded, with 10,000 students now being taught in 200+ schools. There are now 100,000 architects working in China (some 40,000 are licensed). About 40 percent are found in Beijing and Shanghai, which means it’s harder to find a design professional in the rest of the country. With all the development, each architect is doing something like 10 million square feet of new buildings each year. Similarly, China’s landscape architects are working with thousands of hectares annually.

Tsinghua, which is equivalent to a top Ivy league school in the U.S., has adapted itself to address the market demand for designers. Forging connections with the market, much like M.I.T. or Stanford does, Tsinghua has set up a set of institutes that “bridge the school and market and fill in the gaps by addressing practical problems.” THUPDI, where Liang teaches and works, scaled up from a staff of 30 in 2000 to more than 800 these days, with 1,000 or more Tsinghua design students coming through to learn about how design is actually practiced.

Putting the landscape in the center of one of his models, Liang explained how landscape architecture connect urban development, ecology, architecture, and infrastructure. Liang said instead of starting with common infrastructure issues as the basis for planning new developments — roads, housing, stormwater pipes — perhaps green space can become the point of creation. “Through landscape, we can create a new structure for the city.” Outlining a few examples of landscapes that provide multiple ecological services, Liang said “landscape architects can also be infrastructural engineers.” 

One example of this is the new 680-hectare Beijing Olympic Forest Park, designed by Hu Jie, ASLA, head of the landscape architecture department at THUPDI. The project, which has picked up an ASLA professional award among others, was a team effort led by Hu that included some 200-300 experts from many disciplines. A new mountain, Yangshan Hill, was built out of the reclaimed debris from the new Beijing subway and Olympic stadium construction projects. In the same way, the new 20-hectare lake was filled with reclaimed water. The lake water, which is residential grey water, as well runoff, rain, and flood water, is cleansed through a man-made 4-acre wetland, where it’s then used to maintain the landscape. Hu said this system also helped preserve the native “mountain and water tradition” while creating a new landmark.


There are incredible benefits for a city engulfed by new development: 300 new species of plants spread throughout the site, which create new habitat for birds and insects, produce 5,400 tons of oxygen, detain more than 4,900 tons of dust, and suck up 32 tons of carbon dioxide annually. The team even created the kind of ecologically-rich wildlife corridor that many communities in the U.S. only dream of.


Another remarkable project by THUPDI is the Tangshan Nanhu eco-city central park, which won the Torsonlorenzo international prize last year. According to Hu, a 630-acre wasteland was turned into the “largest central park in northern China in three years.” A deeply polluted site, the area was a place to dump coal mining waste. Using a GIS system, Hu and his team found that among all the layers, there were some 4.5 million cubic feet of trash, which was then covered, contained, and turned into a hill, where trees were planted. A new ecologically-restored park starts at the base and works its way up the top of the trash-filled mountain, which is a new scenic destination.


At the edge of the water, willow trees took root and actually create a new habitat in place of the old brownfield. Throughout, the landscape architects only used “low-cost material with low-impact.”


Then, landscape architect Zhu Yu-fan, PhD, explored some of his beautiful sites using his “depth of field” theory as a guide. The Quarry Garden in the Shanghai Botanical Garden used to be “dangerous to use,” but a new stairwell, walkway, and terraces were created, which offer a safe path down to the deep pools at the center. The entrance provides a portal into another ecologically-restored landscape. 


Zhu said “now, you can experience a thrill but there will be no danger.” 


THUPDI clearly demonstrates that landscape architects all over the world are now taking aim at brownfields, and beautiful, high-performing ecological designs aren’t just being built in the U.S. and Europe. Learn more about THUPDI’s ambitious projects (12 MB).

Image credits: THUPDI

2 thoughts on “China’s Landscape Architects Undo the Damage

  1. chrisccl 06/19/2012 / 11:15 am

    Fantastic ideas coming out of China. It’s good to see all the cleanup efforts are paying off, too. China was such a heavily polluted country now it has turned around.

  2. scientiste 07/10/2012 / 10:20 pm

    Reblogged this on Mental Flowers and commented:
    It is great to hear that Chinese architects and planners are working to retain and or restore the natural environment and beauty of China. And great to hear that Chinese government is more open to preservation rather than focusing purely on “progress.” Restoring and/or preserving the environment is good for China’s people’s physical and mental well-being, and healthier for the world at large.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s