Photographers have taken to the air en masse. With drones loaded with high-resolution cameras, aerial photographers are capturing surprising and beautiful scenes from both nature and cities, giving us a fresh perspective on the planet’s complexity. After receiving submissions from 126 countries, the Siena Awards Festival selected their latest Drone Photography Awards. The grand prize winner took home €500,000 (US$586,000) of aerial photography equipment.
Photograph of the year went to Love Heart of Nature by Australian photographer Jim Picôt (see above), who captured an amazing scene in which a shark chases a fish within a heart-shaped school of salmon.
In the urban category, aerial photographer Tomasz Kowalski describes the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, as an alien landscape.
Dmitrii Viliunov, the winner of the wildlife category, explains that “many think herons make nests in reeds or in a swamp. In fact, they nest in the tops of huge trees.” With a drone, it’s possible to get a sense of their home life.
In the sports category, photographer Roberto Corinaldesi captures swimmers “taking refuge between the blue carpet and the white foam of the waves.”
And in a wonderful photograph by Joseph Cheires, winner of the nature category, we see a gray whale who seems to enjoy interacting with whale watchers. Cheires writes: “at the end of the gray whale season, I was told about a whale that for the last three years played with the boats, pushing them gently. So we went back the year after, and incredibly the gray whale appeared.”
Lastly, in the abstract category, we get a glimpse of the incredible resilience of nature. Aerial photographer Paul Hoelen captures the results of the transformation of a toxic industrial mining site at Lake Owens in California into a shorebird reserve. Hoelen writes: “after a destructive past and the creation of the most toxic dust bowl in America, migratory birds are returning, and life is beginning anew.”
The photographs are now on display in an exhibition entitled “Above Us Only Sky” in Siena, Italy, through the end of November.
During this time, when people especially need places of solace and peace, the re-opening of our sanctuaries seem particularly important. After a comprehensive restoration and expansion, the Rothko Chapel, a non-denominational sacred space in Houston, Texas, has re-opened on a limited basis. Much of the revitalization effort, which encompasses the building and landscape, helps to more fully realize the vision of Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Rothko and the Chapel’s founders, John and Dominique de Menil.
The skylight in the original Chapel, which was designed by architect Gene Aubrey in 1971, has been reconceived, letting more light pour onto the 14 deep, dark, textured Rothko paintings. The landscape surrounding the building has been re-imagined to lead visitors on a more meaningful journey from the street to the artworks. And a new visitor center helps welcome and orient visitors.
The Rothko Chapel is a spiritual center open to those with “any background, any religion, any faith, or no faith,” explains Christopher Rothko, the son of Mark Rothko and chairman of the board of the organization that runs the Chapel.
In an introductory video, he explains how his father, who created some of the world’s most enduring artworks, had always wanted to create a space “where he could set the tone and have direct interaction” with the audience. When the Chapel’s founders, the de Menils, reached out to him, it was a “dream commission.”
Rothko the senior envisioned the 14 paintings and building together as one work of art. Architect Philip Johnson was first engaged to create the building, but Rothko and Johnson didn’t see eye to eye. Architect Howard Barnstone was then hired, but fell ill during the process. Gene Aubrey was the final architect to complete the work, which is in the form of an octagon, in reference to the spaces in a Greek orthodox cross. Rothko would never see its completion. After years of struggling with depression, he killed himself in February 1970, months before before the Chapel’s opening.
According to his son Christopher, Rothko spent his career searching for a “universal language” in art. Before the pandemic, the Chapel attracted some 80,000 visitors annually, some making pilgrimages from around the country and world. So in this sense, Rothko succeeded in achieving his goal with these enveloping, meditative panels, which are considered among his masterpieces.
To realize the vision of Rothko and the Menils, the Rothko Chapel uses its 2-acre campus and powerful art to create interfaith understanding and champion human rights. Since 1971, the Chapel has hosted 5,000 programs on religion, meditation, and spiritual healing, and current global issues.
The renovation of the Chapel was overseen by Architecture Research Office along with lighting designers at George Sexton Associates. The skylight, lighting design, and entryway into the chapel were redesigned to heighten the visual impact of the paintings. With a new central skylight, daylight now permeates the interior, which is what Rothko originally intended.
Before, visitors would gather at the Chapel’s vestibule, crowding the experience. The new Suzanne Deal Booth Welcome House to the north of the Chapel helps relieve pressure on the Chapel, creating ample space for groups and guided tours to meet, and includes an expanded gift shop and bookstore.
The landscape has been clarified and improved by Nelson Byrd Woltz | Landscape Architects. The firm writes that the existing landscape is structured along a primary axis, which is defined by three elements: “the irregular octagonal brick Chapel, a reflecting pool, and Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk that is sited at the far end of the pool from the Chapel.” These elements represent art, spirituality, and justice, respectively — justice because Barnett Newman’s piece is dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr.
NBW bordered the reflecting pool’s western and southern edges with a new screen of 32 evergreen Savannah holly (Ilex x attenuata ‘Savannah’) hedges, which they say “refocuses attention on the central axis of the campus.”
Lanie McKinnon, ASLA, a landscape architect with the firm, goes into greater detail about their efforts in the public space surrounding the pool: “The plaza space was redesigned to create a larger and more contiguous space between the Chapel and Broken Obelisk. The new plaza space features exposed aggregate concrete reminiscent of the original concrete. The new Ilex hedge was installed, offset from the plaza, to open the edges of the gathering space and include new custom benches that, through their thick wood seats, echo the original benches within the Chapel.”
The landscape architects also reworked the “arrival sequence” that guides visitors from the street to the sacred heart of the campus — the 14 paintings. The path moves visitors through a series of “calm, quiet, shaded landscape rooms.”
The firm explains: “these outdoor chambers provide visitors the time and space to physically and mentally prepare first for Broken Obelisk, then the Chapel, and finally Mark Rothko’s paintings. The sequence is calibrated to allow the eye to continually scale down while providing increasing shade in anticipation of the transition from the usually bright Texas sunlight to the Chapel’s interior. In reverse sequence, exiting the Chapel moves visitors through a range of spaces with tree-filtered views of the campus, allowing for quiet reflection in preparation for re-engaging with the city.”
NBW planted some 300 river birch (Betula nigra ‘Heritage’) trees in rows along the edges of the landscaped rooms to the west and south of the Chapel, which are used for yoga, the annual summer solstice labyrinth, and other musical events.
McKinnon told us: “the birches balance the larger gathering spaces with more intimate seating spaces. The idea was to create outdoor space for Chapel visitors to reflect before or after their journey.” All the new trees, along with a sub-grade detention system, help the campus better manage stormwater.
The total revitalization plan includes some $30 million in projects. A planned second phase will include a new administration and archive building, a renovated and relocated guest house, a meditation garden, and a program center with outdoor plaza. The program center will become the new home for the events the Chapel organizes each year.
In the 1930s, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC), a government-sponsored corporation that issued mortgages, would send lenders and realtors out into communities with a standard form they were asked to fill out. The form was meant to capture data about areas’ characteristics and figure out which had “favorable influences,” such as good schools or views, and which had “detrimental influences,” such as “obnoxious odors, a lack of utilities, or a high number of African Americans or immigrants,” explained Rob Nelson, a professor at the University of Richmond, during a session at the Urban Land Institute’s virtual fall meeting. The forms were meant to calculate the “level of infiltration” by African Americans and immigrants. Areas with high levels were marked as “high risk” areas for mortgage lending.
What HOLC and other lenders had been doing for decades would later be named redlining. The term redlining came from the comprehensive color-coded maps HOLC and other lenders would create, which would indicate “security grades” for mortgage lending. According to Nelson, grade A or B grade neighborhoods were colored in green and blue, grade C in yellow, and the lowest level, grade D, in red.
Grade A neighborhoods were “hot spots for construction,” often in the suburbs, and entirely white. Grade B neighborhoods were “still desirable” and “good for lenders.” Grade C neighborhoods were somewhat “infiltrated by lower grade populations,” and grade D neighborhoods experienced the “detrimental influence of undesirable populations.” In these neighborhoods, HOLC urged lenders to “refuse to make loans.” These predominately African American areas were deemed “hazardous,” Nelson explained.
In Richmond, Virginia, D neighborhoods, marked in red, were found closer to the city center, while C neighborhoods were a little further out, and A and B neighborhoods were in the suburbs. “Almost all A, B, C neighborhoods had no African Americans, while D neighborhoods were predominately African American. The pattern was crystal clear.”
Nelson argued that other than the racial composition of the A and D neighborhoods, HOLC and other lenders had no clear sense of the demographics of these areas. The A neighborhoods weren’t further examined — they were assumed to have multi-generational wealth and the “best people, really.” In the D neighborhoods, “comprised mostly of Negroes,” there “was no occupations listed; they were assumed to be domestic workers or gardeners.”
C neighborhoods were defined by the degree they were influenced by D neighborhoods. A neighborhood categorized as C could include a “predominately white school in a Black area, or include ‘mostly respectable’ people who happened to live too near Negro areas.”
The conclusion from Nelson’s analysis is that lenders found African Americans to be a “profound threat to property values. Just having proximity to African Americans, who may be pedestrians walking through the neighborhood, would have material consequences.”
The same exact patterns of grading communities and redlining existed in a staggering 200-plus cities, both large and small, across the U.S. “This was structural racism that was state-endorsed.”
One of the results was to “direct public and private capital to white families in the suburbs.” In effect, redlining became “one of the greatest mechanisms for white families to generate wealth and for denying African Americans the opportunity.”
The legacy of redlining, which occurred over the course of many decades, continues to impact American society. As Kofi Boone, FASLA, professor of landscape architecture at North Carolina State University explained at last year’s ULI conference, without the opportunity to accumulate wealth through home ownership, African Americans to this day have little to pass on to future generations to inherit. “Today, the average white family has $122,000 in wealth; Latinx family $1,600; and African American family, just $1,300,” Boone said.
The African American communities denied access to home ownership also experienced other forms of public disinvestment. As Nelson pointed out, a recent study from The New York Times found that historically redlined communities had “much more asphalt and concrete and much fewer street trees or parks.” This resulted in higher levels of the urban heat island effect. These areas are now highly correlated with increased pollution and asthma rates. “These places are much more vulnerable,” and their populations have “far lower life expectancy, with higher rates of diabetes, asthma, kidney disease, and hypertension,” he said.
Nelson believes the racist housing policies of the past can be undone through “anti-racist real estate practices.” The past approach for wealth building can be “reversed.”
Dr. Fullilove said on their surface, the redlining maps are beautiful, almost like cartoons. But in reality, they represented a total stratification of cities, the “trashing” of cities. (She added it’s important to note there were no redlining maps of the suburbs).
Thinking like a psychiatrist, Dr. Fullilove said the maps have had a powerful impact that help maintain an “American apartheid in our heads” and create a “paradigm in our hearts.” She then outlined a few projects that are breaking down the hierarchies established by the redlining maps in Manhattan, particularly the northern Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights.
In 2005, Dr. Fullilove founded Hike the Heights, a program that helps residents of northern Manhattan cut across neighborhoods once graded A,B,C, and D and break down the “mental map” that still segregates communities.
The program created a walking and biking map of a newly imagined linear North-South trail that begins from Central Park and ends at the Cloisters museum at Fort Tryon park in the northwestern edge of Manhattan.
After expanding her efforts by forming the City Life Is Moving Bodies (CLIMB) community group, Dr. Fullilove and team worked with designer Sagi Golan to fine tune a map they pass out at walking events and festivals.
The map’s route was entirely guided by the community, including children who helped with data collection. Dr. Fullilove then consulted with an urban designer, who advised that the trail, which children said looked a bit like a giraffe, needed a head, so it was decided that it should end at the Cloisters. The team added in east west components as the trails moves north south.
As groups of upper Manhattanites organized by CLIMB began to walk the trail, the community started to clean up derelict parks and revitalize “scary places” that had been occupied by junkies with children’s art, like papier-mâché giraffes.
The new investment of community energy into these green spaces caused the city government to follow suit. CLIMB’s advocacy work led to the New York City government to invest $30 million in restoring Highbridge Park in Washington Heights.
Dr. Fullilove’s former students also started Design The We, an inventive research and planning project in New York City aimed at “un-designing the redline.”
Still, the legacy of redlining is being felt to this day. As Dr. Fullilove explained, redlining maps set up neighborhoods for urban renewal in the 1960s and 70s. “The refusal to invest led to communities to become blighted and then to be destroyed through urban renewal,” she said. Urban renewal also meant displacement.
Today, that displacement only continues. Too often urban development or revitalization efforts “happen to communities, not with or for them.” Community development is still too often a box to check; the developers “aren’t really listening.”
The foremost issue exacerbating community gentrification and displacement is the lack of affordable housing. An increasingly large share of the population is paying nearly half of their income on rent, which is unsustainable. The amount spent on housing should be around 30 percent.
Public housing no longer receives much support or investment, so housing development has been given over to the private sector. The issue is that private developers can’t afford to develop low-cost housing; they need further subsidies.
The lack of affordable housing is in turn “causing white people to gentrify previously redlined communities,” Dr. Fullilove said. “When I say ‘white people,’ it’s arbitrary, it’s who we think of this week.”
One way to slow this process down is to further densify communities and increase the amount of affordable housing available in every neighborhood. “We need to make the whole city fabulous at all price points — everywhere.”
Another way to be more responsive to existing urban communities is to diversify the people making development decisions. Showing a photo of the lenders who redlined New York City in the 1930s, it’s all white men. And then showing a photo of a group of community planners today, there is a “melange of people” providing different perspectives.
In a general session during the Urban Land Institute (ULI)’s virtual fall meeting, Bakari Sellers, author of the memoir My Vanishing County and commentator on CNN, called for Americans to get out of their bubbles and become more empathetic towards others with different identities and beliefs. He challenged everyone to spend a week watching Fox & Friends, then a week watching Morning Joe, and then a third week watching New Day. “It may be difficult for some, but afterward sit back and have some conversations.”
Sellers then spent the early part of his talk walking the online audience through the life story of his father Cleveland Sellers, a professor and civil rights activist.
His father grew up in rural Denmark, South Carolina, a predominantly Black town. After enrolling at Howard University, Sellers met Stokely Carmichael and joined the Nonviolent Action Group (NAG). In the mid-1960s, he became one of the leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was sent to Mississippi to register voters, where he was met with intense racism.
In 1968, while in Orangeburg, South Carolina, Sellers was arrested during campus protests against the segregation of a local bowling alley. The protest became known as the Orangeburg Massacre because police shot and killed three Black protesters. Sellers and others were accused of being “outside Black Power agitators.” While the nine policemen accused of using excessive force were acquitted, Sellers was convicted and sentenced to year in jail for inciting a riot. Sellers went on to receive a degree from Harvard University and became the director of African American studies at the University of South Carolina; twenty-five years after Orangesburg he received a full pardon.
Sellers explained his father’s history in detail to remind the audience of “difficult times in the past” and relay the importance of “leaving our silos” and seeing history from another perspective.
Back in the present day, Sellers returned to discussing Denmark, South Carolina, and other rural Black communities in the South that have been left behind. There, local businesses and the hospital have shut down. The schools are in the “‘corridor of shame,’ and students walk through mud to get to classes held in trailers.”
With the pandemic, the lack of access and opportunity has only gotten worse. “People feel anxious and suffocated.” Many in the community feel like they are “on the floor,” and there is no further they can drop. Their ability to “emerge from that soil and become an example has gotten so much tougher.”
Sellers brought up Denmark to explain that there is an “empathy deficit in America.” He said “Black people are in a constant state of grieving.” To help, “we can all do our part, take the time, do the introspection. We have made a lot of progress, but there is still so much farther to go. We need to dream with our eyes open and re-imagine the possibilities.”
Those who are developers, planners, and designers of the built environment have an important role to play in re-imagining the country. One of the first major pieces of civil rights legislation — the Fair Housing Act of 1968 — was about “real estate development.”
Before the legislation, redlining, which significantly reduced home ownership in Black and Latinx communities, was pervasive. Redlining also hampered equitable education reform. Equal access to purchasing of a home is essential to growing local tax bases, which play a large role in funding schools.
Today, much of local property taxes come from commercial properties and new development. Here lies the Catch-22: “you can’t improve schools without bringing in business and development, and you can’t bring in business and new development without better schools.”
Sellers applauded the legislation signed into law by President Trump to create opportunity zones. There are now more than 8,700 zones in the U.S. where low-income communities are seeing an influx of direct investment. In return, developers receive significant tax benefits.
But Sellers also called for a greater focus on “race-based policies to address race-specific issues.” These policies can help undo inequities in access to education, health care, transportation, and other areas.
He said even with all the new investment in opportunity zones, Black people in the U.S. are still far behind whites and other groups in wealth accumulation, in large part because of the legacy of redlining, which denied prospective Black homeowners the ability to take out a mortgage. “If white people stopped making any money now, it would still take Black folks 228 years to catch up.”
When asked by an audience member what white and other allies can do to help, Sellers said: “bringing humility and honesty, and really listening is more important than speaking out.” But then he added that “Black people aren’t the ones who are going to cure racism in this country.”
And then when asked what is holding up further change — a lack of knowledge about racism or denial? — Sellers responded: “it’s partly due to willful ignorance, and partly due to a piss-poor educational system.”
Returning to his theme of breaking down racial and partisan silos, he offered a message of solace and determination: “it’s a courageous thing to love your neighbor, even when they don’t love you back. You have to re-dedicate yourself, even when they don’t love you. For some of us, that’s an awesome responsibility.”
Since the beginning of the spread of COVID-19 in March, some real estate sectors are growing while others are contracting. At the Urban Land Institute (ULI)’s fall meeting, Owen Thomas, CEO of Boston Properties, explained that the biggest gains are being seen in data centers, industrial, science, self-storage, and healthcare properties, while residential, lodging, shopping centers, and malls have seen the greatest declines.
Thomas asked a panel of real estate investors with more than $300 billion in assets to provide their take on the current real estate market.
He noted that in July 2020, e-commerce sales were up 60-70 percent over the same time the previous year.
According to Hilary Spann, managing director and head of the Americas for real estate investments at CPPIB America, Inc., this e-commerce growth is occurring among all demographic segments, even those who previously preferred shopping in person. Even after the pandemic, she thinks e-commerce will succeed in keeping these new buyers.
With the digitization of the U.S. economy and the growth of online shopping and entertainment, there has also been massive growth in data centers and last-mile warehouses and distribution facilities. AJ Agarwal, senior managing director at Blackstone added that “we are seeing less infill warehouses in cities, and more 20 miles or so outside urban centers.”
For Francois Trausch, CEO of Allianz Real Estate, the trick has been how to figure out what people are doing in the real world via online proxies. For example, Allianz is now tracking Open Table reservations in major cities around the globe, as lunch reservations can be viewed as a proxy for nearby office building occupancy. “In Germany and other parts of Europe, we can see from Open Table that things are essentially back to normal. But in New York City, reservations are down 40 percent.”
He also noted that from his analysis, Asia seems to have largely overcome the coronavirus. “China is back at work. They have unbelievable capabilities and can administer COVID-19 tests to 9 million people in the city of Qingdao in five days; that’s something Paris could never do.”
Thomas noted that with any recession, demand for office space goes down, but over the long-term, office building development is tied to the location of jobs. “Where will jobs go? We are seeing an out-migration from cities into suburbs.”
He added that “working from home is here to stay.” There’s only 20 percent occupancy in office buildings in the U.S. right now, and those numbers may not come back to where they were post-pandemic.
All panelists seemed bullish on the long-term value of the world’s leading cities. “Our creative cities can’t experience disruption forever,” Spann argued.
While she sees Millennial families leaving the city for nearby suburbs, many people want to stay in the city. “With a viable vaccine, cities will continue to thrive over the long term.”
Across all real estate sectors, “the biggest change has been the impact of the fiscal stimulus,” said Agarwal. The stimulus, combined with recent actions by the Federal Reserve, means that “financing costs for real estate are now 30 percent less than they were pre-COVID.” But this has not translated into increased investment in certain sectors.
All were also negative about the prospects for shopping centers and malls. Frausch wondered whether malls can fill their vacant spaces, whether there are enough large retailers who will take on the risk. He sees a positive trend in the re-purposing of malls as hospitals, offices, and community spaces. “In Japan, there are now educational classes in malls.”
The investors then discussed the future outlook for hotels. When a vaccine is developed, Agarwal thinks there will be an explosion of leisure travel to resorts. But what is considered essential business travel will be redefined, and many trips will be deemed unnecessary. As a result, business hotels in cities will face continued challenges.
When asked what they foresee as the #1 topic in six months, answers were all over the board: the efficacy of vaccines, the distribution of vaccines, tax burdens for real estate development, and what shape the recovery will be. Frausch explained: “We could have a V-shaped recovery, or a K-shaped one, which bifurcates the economy into one that does well for some people and not well for others.”
Perhaps one positive note: the COVID-19 recession could also yield some innovation in the building sector. “We’ll soon see new companies that enable the online visualization of construction sites” — software that better facilitates the collaborative, virtual planning and design of projects, Spann said.
Snøhetta, OJB Landscape Architecture Top Winners of 2020 National Design Awards — 10/02/20, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Winner OJB Landscape Architecture, a landscape architecture and urban planning practice that maintains offices in San Diego, Boston, Houston, Dallas, and Philadelphia, released a statement where founder Jim Burnett noted: ‘I believe landscape has the power to transform cities and strengthen communities, and that now, more than ever, we have a responsibility to address issues of access, equity, and health in our shared public spaces.'”
Imagine a Transcontinental Network of Protected Bike Paths — 10/02/20, Fast Company
“Under an elevated rail line in Miami, a new park will open this fall with a 10-mile path dedicated to walking and biking. It’s an infrastructure improvement for Miami cyclists, but it’s also part of a larger, interstate network of trails that will eventually make it possible to ride from Florida to Maine with little interaction with cars.”
Landslide 2020 Spotlights Women-designed Landscapes and the Threats That They Face — 10/01/20, The Architect’s Newspaper
“This year, to mark the centennial of the ratification of the 19th amendment, each of the dozen threatened landscapes (two containing multiple sites) were created, designed, tended to, and championed by women including a multitude of female landscape architects and designers, many of them pioneering in the field and some unsung and overlooked.”
Dumbarton Oaks, a Harvard University research institute, library, museum, and garden in Washington, D.C., has a number of fellowships open to landscape architecture academia and practitioners focused on race, democracy, and urban landscapes.
2021-2022 Mellon Fellowships in Urban Landscape Studies: These are available as part of the Mellon-funded initiative on “Democracy and the Urban Landscape: Race, Identity, and Difference.” Fellowships are for cross-disciplinary scholars, with a preference for those with PhD or master’s of landscape architecture degrees. Apply by December 1.
Mellon History Teaching Fellowships: These are for current faculty members in universities and other post-secondary educational institutions. Apply by December 1.
Garden and Landscape Fellowships and Project Grants: Awarded for an academic year or a semester, research fellowships are available to scholars with a terminal degree. Junior fellowships are available for degree candidates who have fulfilled all preliminary requirements for a terminal degree.
According to Dumbarton Oaks, project grants are “intended to support primary research of a specific site. Project grants may be used for a broad array of projects including field research, site analysis, botanical surveys, heritage conservation and restoration planning, with the goal of promoting the preservation and understanding of historic gardens and other significant designed landscapes.” Apply by November 1.
Another opportunity worth exploring for those who design classical gardens like Dumbarton Oaks:
The Institute of Classical Architecture & Art (ICAA) is accepting submissions for the Bunny Mellon Landscape Design Prize, “which recognizes the excellence and creativity of a project from an emerging landscape or architectural design professional whose work is inspired by classical or traditional design, holistically considers the symbiosis between outdoor environments and physical structures, and interweaves garden and architectural elements within their design.”
The winner will receive a $1,500 cash prize and will be recognized at the ICAA Southeast Garden Symposium: An Exploration of Architecture & Landscape, May 30-April 1, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia, with weekend and travel expenses paid. Apply by December 15.
The prize is part of ICAA’s Bunny Mellon Landscape Curricula, which offers programs in landscape architecture for designers, students, and the public. According to ICAA, “this curricula, the first to be named in honor of Bunny Mellon, honors her commitment to landscape design, and her deeply-held belief that architecture is firmly linked to its surrounding landscape.”
It is especially gratifying to be recognized on the 120th anniversary of the birth of the man who established landscape architecture as “the mother of all arts”—Sir Jellicoe himself.
My Roots in the Village
I’d like to begin by talking a bit about my childhood, which ultimately had a profound influence on the way I’ve come to approach my work. I was born to a peasant family in Dong Yu village in southeast China’s Zhejiang Province. The village is located where White Sand Creek and the Wujiang River meet.
I swam in the creek during the summer and caught big fish when the monsoon season came. When I was small, I took care of a water buffalo, which grazed along the waterways and between the paddy fields. There were seven ponds, a patch of sacred forest and two big camphor trees in front of the village, under which many legendary stories about my ancestors were told.
The land was extremely productive. We planted three crops throughout the year, including canola, wheat, buckwheat, rice, sugar cane, peanut, sweet potato, corn, soybeans, carrot, turnip, radish and lotus.
The land and water were precious, but the weather could be unpredictable, so we had to design and manage our farm fields wisely, following nature’s cycle and wasting nothing, and adapting in order to make a living.
We worshipped the Earth God, Water God, and Yu the Great, the legendary king who knew how to manage water and plan the land. We also worshipped our ancestors, who had the wisdom of adapting to nature and cultivating the land.
In all likelihood, I would have followed in the footsteps of my father, who taught me how to cultivate the land, manage water, and be a productive farmer.
But it was a difficult time. Although we were a peasant family, we had also been landowners. During Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, my family was labeled as members of the “landlord class.” Our land was seized and redistributed to communes, after which we collectively farmed it. More significantly for me, children from the landlord class were prohibited from attending school.
But in 1978, an army veteran who came to teach in my village, Mr. Zhou Zhangchao, caught up with me one day while I was riding my water buffalo home. He told me that Deng Xiaoping had reversed the policies that barred the children of the landlord class from going to school. I immediately enrolled in school and began studying hard to catch up.
In 1980, after 17 years working on the commune, I passed the national university entrance examination. I was the sole lucky university entrant out of 300-plus students in our rural high school.
On the Shoulders of Giants
By chance, I was chosen to enroll in Beijing Forestry University as one of 30 students in the entire nation to study gardening, which had been cancelled for ten years during the Cultural Revolution. I was fortunate to have some of the best landscape gardening professors in the nation as my mentors, including Wang Juyuan, the founder of the Landscape Gardening Program at the Beijing Forestry University; Chen Youming, my Master’s thesis advisor; and Sun Xiaoxiang and Chen Junyu.
In a certain sense, leaving the dusty countryside to make beautiful gardens in the city was a dream for me and my parents.
But when I finished college and was starting my career of teaching and making beautiful gardens for the city, I returned home to find that my village had been destroyed. The sacred forest and the camphor trees had been cut and sold off. The creek itself had become a gravel quarry, and the fish disappeared.
I began to ask myself: Was there something more I should be doing? What about my village and my fellow villagers? What about the land beyond the garden walls and beyond the city walls—where, at the time, almost three-quarters of a billion Chinese lived?
At this same time, I began looking abroad to learn more. In 1992, I was accepted at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. I spent the next four years working with Carl Steinitz, Hon. ASLA, along with landscape ecologist Richard Forman and GIS and computing expert Stephen Ervin. I would often encounter Ian McHarg, Michael Van Vulkenburgh, FASLA, Peter Rowe, and others in the hallways.
For me, it was a tremendously exciting time. It was a chance to meld the village-level concepts of the Earth God, Water God, and Yu the Great, from my childhood, with the ideas of the great Chinese “gardening” masters—and some of the best minds in the West.
The concepts of landscape and urban ecology, people-oriented urbanism, landscape perception and revolutionary anthropology, landscape and architectural phenomenology, etc., enlightened the left side of my brain. Design works by contemporary masters including Peter Walker, FASLA, Laurie Olin, FASLA, Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, Richard Haag, FASLA, Maya Lin, Martha Schwartz, FASLA, Peter Latz, Bernard Tschumi, and so on, inspired the right side of my brain.
It happened to be a time of great debate within academia, and I found myself fascinated by the tensions between design as political procedure versus design with nature, and art versus ecology.
I was captivated by two questions, which have subsequently driven my entire career:
Conservation vs. Development: Spatial planning based on the idea of balance –when land and space are limited, how can we balance ecological protection with development?
Sustainability vs. Beauty: The creation of Deep Form — what is the relationship between sustainability and beauty, how can we unite ecology and art?
After graduating, I was recruited by SWA in Laguna Beach, California. There, I was able to work with Richard Law, FASLA, on luxury properties, new urban development, and projects in the booming Asian market. Life on the beach was pretty good.
But while I was happily designing luxury properties and imagining the grandeur of new cities, I found that the land at home was under assault. Old buildings were torn down; hills were leveled; lakes and wetlands filled and polluted; rivers channelized and dammed; and public squares and boulevards were built at gargantuan size. It was the opposite of everything I had learned about how to create livable cities and landscapes.
And it turned out to be a national-scale challenge. Over 80 percent of Chinese cities suffer air pollution, which kills 1.2 million people each year. Flooding causes some US$ 100 billion in damage. Four hundred of 662 cities suffer water shortages. Seventy-five percent of the nation’s surface water is polluted, and 64 percent of cities’ groundwater is polluted. 50 percent of wetlands have disappeared in past 50 years, resulting in tremendous losses of wildlife habitat.
Meeting the challenges
(1) Start with Education and a New Identity
I landed at Peking University as a professor in 1997 and was immediately joined by my lifelong friend Li Dihu. Together we started the landscape architecture program in the Department of Geography. We hoped to help an important new profession establish a foothold across a vast landscape. But we had humble beginnings: We started with a grand total of 3 students. (Today, we have 200 students enrolled, with more than 600 graduates.)
But people still tended to see me simply as “a gardener,” with no relation to urban development, land and water management, flood control, or ecological restoration.
In China, there’s a legend about “The Land of Peach Blossoms,” a magical realm of peace, a sort of Shangri-La. To a certain extent, I have always thought of Dong Yu village, where I grew up—with the two big camphor trees under which I heard the stories of my ancestors and the sacred forest where they rest–as the Land of Peach Blossoms. And landscape architecture, to me, seemed a way to recover the lost Land of Peach Blossoms.
So I felt compelled to reclaim the importance of landscape architecture itself and began describing it as “The Art of Survival.” In doing this, I was inspired by Ian McHarg’s pugnacious call to arms: “Don’t ask us about your garden. Don’t ask us about your bloody flowers …. We’re going to talk to you about survival.”
We launched a new magazine, Landscape Architecture Frontiers, to promote our new approach. We brought in top thinkers in the field to lecture and held over 15 landscape architecture conferences to educate a young generation and begin creating a consensus.
(2) Trying to reverse the damage and inspire policy change
We felt that immediate action had to be taken to reverse the damage, so we launched the concept of “Inverse Planning” (反规划 fǎn guīhuà), which emphasizes the protection of existing natural functions and prioritizes what is not built—what should be protected instead.
I also realized that the only way to reverse the damage caused by conventional planning procedure was to convince decision makers to change the policies. So I kept writing and talking and lecturing to decision makers, from top authorities to township leaders. I delivered over 300 lectures to municipal decision makers and ministers.
In 2006, I made a proposal to then-Premier Wen Jiabao that, to my surprise and gratification, initiated the process of national security pattern planning and ecological red line regulation.
These two concepts help identify and protect critical landscapes to safeguard natural, biological, cultural and recreational values and functions, thus securing this wide range of ecosystems services essential for sustaining human society. The State Council has since issued four state regulations to safeguard national ecological security.
(3) The “Big Foot” Revolution
I also realized that bad decisions were being made simply because of a misguided mentality about civilization and misguided aesthetic sensibilities. For thousands of years, the “civilized” urban elite worldwide has insisted on the privilege of defining civilization, beauty, and good taste. Bound feet, deformed heads, and twisted bodies are only a few such expressions of cultural practices that, in trying to elevate city sophisticates above rural bumpkins, have rejected nature’s inherent principles of health, survival, and productivity.
In China, for more than a thousand years, young girls were forced to bind their feet in order to be able to be considered beautiful enough to marry urban elites. Natural, “big” feet were considered rustic and rural. The obsession with “little feet” sacrificed function and dignity for ornamental value.
Today, landscaping and city building, by far, are the most visible and extensive manifestations of the folly of civilization and aesthetic standards defined from above—what I think of as “little foot” urbanism and the “little foot” aesthetic.
On one hand, the “manicured little foot” grey infrastructure simply lacks resilience and is a waste of energy and materials. On the other hand, urban elites with “little foot” aesthetics trying to elevate city sophisticates above rural peasants have rejected nature’s inherent goals of health and productivity.
These kinds of “little foot” grey infrastructure and aesthetics are not only expensive, but also wasteful and unsustainable. China’s carbon emissions in 2017 accounted for 28 percent of the world total. And according to 2018 figures from the World Economic Forum, China consumes 59 percent of the world’s cement and 50 percent of its steel and coal.
So I began advocating for what I call a Big Foot Revolution. This movement begins with questioning some of the basic values I have mentioned above, and my hope is that it will mirror an earlier revolution in the way Chinese thought about their own bodies and culture.
In the early 20th century, The New Cultural Movement was launched by teachers and students at Peking University, and ultimately led to the rejection of foot binding and a re-embracing of the natural beauty of the human form.
I believe the Big Foot Revolution will happen at three levels of action:
Planning the Big Feet (planning ecological infrastructure across scales)
Creating Working Big Feet (creating nature-based engineering models inspired by ancient wisdom)
Making Big Feet Beautiful (new aesthetics to create deep forms).
“Planning the Big Feet” or planning ecological infrastructure across scales, is critical for securing ecosystems services, and weaving green infrastructure together with grey infrastructure. Inspired by the ancient concept of sacred landscape—and by modern game theory¬—I developed the concept of the Landscape Security Pattern, which focuses on protecting the critical landscape patterns needed to ensure that natural processes can continue.
“Creating working Big Feet” means creating nature-based engineering models inspired by ancient wisdom, particularly from agriculture. We have developed replicable modules based on traditional farming techniques of terracing, ponding, diking, and islanding to address climate change and related problems at a massive scale in a cost-effective manner.
In China, all rivers are dammed and channelized with concrete flood walls. China has more than half of the world’s dams greater than 15 meters in height. More than US $20 billion is invested to control flooding each year, but US $100 billion is lost and 10 million people are affected every year. We need to accept and embrace flooding as a natural phenomenon, and turn grey infrastructure into green to help temper the damage of inevitable floods.
Due to the monsoon climate, over 62 percent of Chinese cities suffer from urban flooding. How much more flooding could be managed better if nature-based solutions were implemented nationwide? Using sponge city concepts would greatly increase water resilience.
In China, 75 percent of surface water is contaminated. Globally, 85 percent of sewage goes untreated. But the landscape can be a living system to clean water. Terraced, constructed wetland can be used to remove nutrients through biological processes.
We have already incorporated many of these ideas at several parks throughout China. In Zhejiang Province’s Taizhou City, we redesigned the Yongning Park as a “floating garden” with ecological embankments that can reduce peak flood flow by more than half, and create a seasonally flooded natural matrix of wetland and natural vegetation that sustains natural processes. This park demonstrates an ecological approach to flood control and stormwater management, while also educating people about new and forgotten solutions to flood control beyond engineering.
In Zhejiang’s Jinhua City, water-resilient terrain and planted vegetation were designed to adapt to monsoon floods. A resilient bridge and path system was designed to adapt to the dynamic flows of water and people. The river currents, the flow of people, and the gravity of objects are all woven together to form a dynamic concord. This is achieved through meandering vegetated terraces, curvilinear paths, a serpentine bridge, circular bioswales, planted beds, and curved benches.
In Harbin, in the far north, we turned the Qunli Stormwater Park into a “green sponge” that filters and stores urban stormwater while providing other ecosystem services, including the protection of native habitats, aquifer recharge, recreational use and aesthetic experience, which together help foster sustainable urban development.
At Dong’an Wetland Park on Hainan Island, off the coast of southern China, creating a green sponge in the center of the urban environment was an essential adaptation strategy for increasing resilience to climate change, particularly in an area where tropical storms can easily overwhelm conventional drainage systems.
In this case, a heavily polluted 68-hectare site was filled with non-permitted buildings and illegally dumped urban debris. Inspired by the ancient pond-and-dike systems and islanding techniques in the Pearl River Delta, and using simple cut-and-fill methods, a necklace of ponds and dikes was created along the periphery of the park that catches and filters urban runoff from the surrounding communities.
In the central part of the park, dirt and fill were used to create islands that are planted with banyan trees to create a forested wetland. Both ponding and islanding will dramatically increase the water-retention capacity of the park and increase the eco-tones between water and land to speed up the removal of nutrients. The constructed wetland can accommodate 830,000 cubic meters of storm water, dramatically reducing the risk of urban inundation.
Along the Huangpu River in Shanghai, we designed Houtan Park as a regenerative living landscape on a former industrial brownfield. The park’s constructed wetland, ecological flood control, reclaimed industrial structures and materials, and urban agriculture are integral components of an overall restorative design strategy to treat polluted river water and recover the degraded waterfront in an aesthetically pleasing way. The 10-hectare park, which is 1,700 meters long, filters phosphorous and other nutrients from 2,400 cubic meters of water per day, which is enough water for 5,000 people.
The Meshe River in Haikou has suffered flooding due to the monsoon climate and water pollution caused by sewage and non-point source pollution from urban and suburban runoff. The river had been channelized with concrete for the sole objective of flood control, which destroyed its ecological resilience.
We used nature-based solutions to create resilient green infrastructure that has revived the river. The concrete flood walls have been removed and the river was reconnected to the ocean so that tides could once again enter the city. Wetlands and shallow river margins were reconstructed so that mangroves could be restored. A terraced mosaic of wetlands along the banks of the river was designed as natural water-treatment facilities that catch and cleanse nutrient-laden runoff, and a significant amount of wildlife habitat has been recovered in the dense city center.
The Mangrove Park in Sanya City, on the island of Hainan, is another example of nature-based climate resilience. To mitigate urban flood risk caused by climate change, it was critical to restore mangrove along the waterways and coastal shorelines. One of the key challenges was finding an efficient and inexpensive method to reestablish the mangrove habitat that had been extensively destroyed due to rapid urban development. To that end, fill composed of urban construction debris and concrete from the demolition of the flood wall was recycled on site.
Cut-and-fill techniques were subsequently used to create a gradient of different riparian eco-tones for diverse fauna and flora, particularly different species of mangroves. An interlocking-finger design was used to lead ocean tides into the waterways, while also attenuating the impact of both tropical storm surge and flash floods originating in the urban and upland area upstream, both of which can harm establishment of mangroves. This also maximized habitat diversity and edge effects, which increase the interface between plants and water; this, in turn, enhances ecological processes such as nutrient removal from the water.
The dynamic aquatic environment that follows the rise and fall of tides and provides several aquatic species with the daily water-level fluctuation they need for survival. Terraces between city streets and the river have been augmented with bioswales to catch and filter urban stormwater runoff. In just three years, an area of lifeless land fill within a concrete flood wall in the center of the city was transformed into a lush mangrove park. This type of mangrove rehabilitation can be implemented at a large scale efficiently.
In China, 60 percent of urban soil is contaminated, and conventional remediation is usually very expensive. In Tianjin’s Qiaoyuan Park, I wanted to show how we can let nature do the work, by using nature-based soil remediation techniques. Through regenerative design and by sculpting land forms and collecting rainwater, the natural process of plant adaptation and community evolution was introduced to transform a former shooting-range-turned-garbage-dump into a low maintenance urban park. The park provides diverse nature-based services for the city, including retaining and purifying storm water to regulate pH, providing opportunities for environmental education and creating a cherished aesthetic experience.
Making Big Feet Beautiful means promoting the new aesthetics to create deep forms. In this, I was inspired by Anne Whiston Spirn’s New Aesthetics that “encompasses both nature and culture, that embodies function, sensory perception, and symbolic meaning, and that embraces both the making of things and places and the sensing, using, and contemplating of them.”
The timeless interdependence of culture and nature is most visible in the bond between peasants and their farmlands, and practices such as cut and fill, irrigate and fertilize, frame and access, grow and harvest, recycle and save — all of which embody some of the principles of new aesthetics that inspired my design.
In Qinhuangdao, I put a ribbon on the river to frame and transform the messy nature into an ordered urban park. Winding through a background of natural terrain and vegetation, the “red ribbon” spans five hundred meters and integrates lighting, seating, environmental interpretation and orientation. This project demonstrates how a minimal design solution can dramatically improve the landscape, while preserving as much of the natural river corridor as possible during the process of urbanization.
China has 20 percent of the world’s population, but only 8 percent of the world’s arable land—10 percent of which has been lost in the past 30 years due to urban development. Our project on the Shenyang Jianzhu University Campus uses rice paddies to simultaneously define the structure of the landscape design and introduce a productive landscape into the urban environment. It is a demonstration of a method to resolve the tension between urban development and food production in today’s developing world.
In Quzhou’s Luming Park, we embraced the concept of agricultural urbanism. On a site surrounded by dense new urban development, we created a dynamic urban park by incorporating the agricultural strategy of crop rotation and a low-maintenance meadow. An elevated floating network of pedestrian paths, platforms and pavilions creates a visual frame for this cultivated swath and the natural features of the terrain and water. Using these strategies, a deserted, mismanaged landscape was dramatically transformed into a productive and beautiful setting for urban living, while preserving the natural and cultural patterns and processes of the site.
I have also tried to show the possibilities of reusing and recycling. While China has been on an incredible building boom, it has also demolished large parts of its cities. In 2003, for instance, some 325 million square meters of new buildings were constructed, while 156 million square meters was demolished. Thousands of villages and factories were wiped out.
The Zhongshan Shipyard Park near Guangzhou, inaugurated in 2002, was an effort to show that existing building and other structures can be incorporated into new development. The park reflects the remarkable 70-year history of socialist China and has been lauded as a breakthrough in Chinese landscape architecture. The original vegetation and natural habitats were preserved and only native plants were added. Machines, docks, and other industrial structures were retained not only for functional purposes, but also to educate and because of their aesthetic appeal. The park demonstrates how landscape architects can create environmentally-friendly public places full of cultural and historical meaning on sites not previously designated for attention and preservation. Its design supports use by the common people, as well as the environmental ethic that “weeds are beautiful.”
For over 20 years, we have tested and built over 500 projects in 200-plus cities and showcased numerous replicable models for healing and transforming our land at various scales.
Looking back, I have a better understanding of how my village-level landscape experiences, melded with modern concepts of landscape and urbanism, sustainability and aesthetics, which were developed by my many teachers and mentors, have helped me to address some of the common challenges that our profession is facing today.
I find myself thinking often of my roots in Dong Yu village. I think of King Yu the Great, who had the vision of healing the earth and living with nature. I think of the peasants who transform the landscape in which they live with their own hands. And I want to think like a king, but act like a peasant.
This is an incredibly sobering time to contemplate the relationship between humans and the natural world. The global pandemic is a powerful reminder that any belief in the conquest of nature is pure folly. We are all living in a new era of humility.
Yet I also believe that the pandemic—together with climate change—is also highlighting how important it is to create landscapes that can not only heal bodies and minds, but also the planet itself.
It is such a great honor to be in the company of the many great and thoughtful landscape architects who come together under the banner of IFLA. As former IFLA president Martha Fajardo said in 2005: “Landscape architect is the profession of the future.”
Thank you, and I wish everyone the best in collectively keeping ourselves and our loved ones safe.