Over the last 30 years, more than 200 million people have migrated from the countryside to China’s cities, and officials plan to relocate another 250 million rural residents over the next decade. 55% of China’s population is now living in cities. What are the consequences of this vast urban shift?

On May 6, the Urban Design Forum invited Kongjian Yu, founding principal of Turenscape, James von Klemperer, President of Kohn Pedersen Fox, and Clifford Pearson, editor of Architectural Record, to discuss the enormous challenges and opportunities presented by China’s rapid urbanization.

Kongjian Yu urged attendees to look past the narrative of economic and urban growth in China to see how the last 30 years of development has impacted the environment. Citing widespread water pollution and conversion of arable land to development, Yu called for a renewed environmental ethic to guide urban development, what he termed “big foot urbanism.” Unlike the manicured gardens that have historically dominated Chinese landscape architecture–which Yu compared to the practice of foot binding–he advocated for ‘big foot urbanism,’ a return to native, restorative, and productive landscapes in the heart of Chinese cities.

Yu presented several of Turenscape’s projects that exemplify ‘big foot’ strategies, including Qunli Stormwater Park and Minghu Wetland Park. In Qunli, Yu restored a wetland ecosystem, channeling stormwater that otherwise would cause urban flooding into a “green sponge.” The park is now the center of a booming urban development, demonstrating what Yu calls ‘reverse planning,’ or the prioritization of ecological infrastructure as the first step in urban development. In Minghu Wetland Park, Yu removed concrete channels that had previously enclosed the Shuicheng River and adding elevated paths above the park, allowing the river to flood while ensuring users to access the park during the rainy season. At Shenyang Architectural University in Northern China, Yu took a different approach, integrating rice fields into the campus to create a productive landscape.

Despite his warnings about the state of China’s environment, Yu remains optimistic about the potential to address these issues. As part of his strategy to change China’s path of development, Yu has presented lectures about ecological design to thousands of mayors from around the country and maintains faith that interest in ‘reverse planning’ is growing.

James von Klemperer, who joined Yu in conversation, stated a similar optimism about the Chinese government’s commitment to reducing environmental impacts, and noted the proven ability of China’s centralized authority to affect rapid change. During his presentation of several tall, dense, and high impact development projects designed by KPF–which he lightheartedly described as “high heel urbanism”–von Klemperer outlined the complex interplay between government and private interests and the key role the central government plays in shaping new growth. The central government owns all land, which means that absent property taxes, land leases account for the majority of revenue for city governments. Given such a unique political context, what lessons can Americans learn from China?

One attendee professed her envy of Yu’s ability to complete large-scale projects within a timeframe unthinkable in the United States. If Yu could collect data about the impact of ‘big foot’ solutions, it would inform landscape projects in cities around the world confronting drought, pollution, and sea level rise.

Both Yu and von Klemperer were less enthusiastic about what the Chinese had imported from American urbanism. Prior to 1970, most urban areas in China were mixed-use with inhabitants biking to work or school, but recent zoning has dramatically altered the historic urban fabric, enabling sprawling development along concentric ring-roads. However, von Klemperer claimed that even in sprawling systems like Shanghai’s superblocks, he has seen tremendous progress toward dense, human-scale development.

Another attendee noted the extraordinary contrast been von Klemperer’s mixed-use developments and Yu’s urban parks. Both speakers agreed that both ‘big foot’ and ‘high-heel’ urban strategies could work in tandem, balancing the dense urban cores needed to house new urban populations with active and restorative open spaces.

 

Photos

Michael Sorkin

Kongjian Yu

Kongjian Yu

James von Klemperer

James von Klemperer

Clifford Pearson

Event Photography: Sam Lahoz

Invitation Photography: Paul Raphaelson