Strolling through a sea of sunflowers, landscape architect DR YU KONG JIAN looks like any other Chinese tourist, dressed casually in a red polo-neck and shorts. But his attention to detail gives him away – he stops to inspect the flowers, and checks the sections of walkway designed to carry visitors around the 31- hectare park.
Luming Park is one of dozens of projects that the award-winning Yu Kong Jian has designed and created for cities around the world. Educated at Harvard, where he went on to be a professor before returning to China, and now Dean of Beijing University’s College of Architecture and Landscape, and founder of landscape design company Turenscape, Dr Yu describes his work as ‘an art of survival.’
He believes that we can, and must, reconnect the 50% of humans who now live in cities with Nature. This means not only enabling city-dwellers to reap the emotional and spiritual benefits of bringing Nature back into their lives; but also working with Nature to solve many of the problems that industrial development and urbanization have brought to cities around the world.
Dr Yu was inspired by his own personal experiences. Growing up during the Cultural Revolution, Yu spent years working on the farm – experiencing firsthand the seasonal cycles of Nature and enjoying the rhythms of the countryside.His father instilled in him the ethos that every piece of land must be productive. City parks – the closest many urban dwellers get to the refreshment of Nature – seem to Yu to be a contradiction in terms. They appear to be about the natural world but in fact almost everything in Chinese public parks is unnatural. The plants have been cultivated for beauty rather than fertility, and so are sterile and can bear no fruit. Many of the trees and popular flowers planted – like roses for example – are not native to China and so require constant watering to survive, thus exacerbating China’s problems with drought. Yu likens this highly-managed garden aesthetic to the old Chinese obsession with tiny, bound feet. In contrast, in his park designs this “little feet” aesthetic is rejected in favour of “messy nature” – where native plants, trees and bushes that bear fruit and take little management are planted rather than sterile flowers.
Yu takes his passion for Nature a step further – with his “sponge city” concept. An idea that originated in the US, it resonated instantly with Yu. China suffers from drought, flash floods and water pollution and Yu believes “sponge city” design can help mitigate all three problems, simply by working hand in hand with Nature. Quzhou park in Zhejiang province is part of a large-scale “sponge city” project on the river Wu, one of 16 pilot projects across China. First, the team demolished the concrete flood barriers that had bordered the river and replaced them with earth banks, into which they cut terraces. These natural flood defences have the effect of slowing down floodwaters. Concrete flood barriers tend to speed floodwater up, increasing the danger of flash flooding downsteam. The earthen terraces absorb rising floodwater slowly, and then, like a sponge, release it in times of drought. The new recreational parks along the river were designed – in Yu’s words – to “make friends with the flood.” Rather than trying to keep the floodwater out of the park, Yu’s design has a network of high level walkways and bridges that enable people to enjoy the park even when it is inundated by the river. What’s more, every time the parks get flooded, the soil is enriched by sediment washed in from the river which helps the plants flourish. Unlike imported park plants, these local species need little help to survive. In fact, many of the native reeds that Yu has planted on the riverbank have an additional benefit – the ability to cleanse the river water of pollution. After generations of flood, drought and pollution, this sustainable landscape design is beginning to restore the balance to rivers and to the cities on their banks.