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Sustainable Landscapes

Oct 14, 2011 | Atlanta, GA

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  • Elizabeth Ward

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Elizabeth Ward

This story is from the Newsletter created by the Student Planning Association under the directorship of Drew Swope (MCRP class of '12).

A Ferris wheel over a river. A shiny new eco-city built on an existing wetland.Hundreds of glass skyscrapers under construction. A massive slogan on a communist flag flashes over the screen: “Tianjin will be the new face of economic prosperity and success.”

As we exit the 3D theatre of the Tianjin Urban Planning Hall & Exhibition Center I ask my co-worker how he felt about what we just saw.

“It’s very impressive,” he replied. “But do you think it’s sustainable, this sort of development?” I asked, my head still reeling from what I had just seen. “I think you just have to get used to the massive and rapid development in China.”

In short, that was my summer. My eight-week internship with the China Academy of Urban Planning & Design in Beijing was a fascinating and eye-opening experience that often left me speechless; it was not until coming home that I have finally found the words.

I arrived in Beijing in June – disoriented, jet-lagged, and naïve. I have traveled to many different places and experienced many different cultures throughout my studies, but nothing could have prepared me for the intense culture shock of China; I have never been somewhere so completely foreign to me. A large part was due to the language barrier; not only was it difficult to not be able to speak or understand Chinese, but I found it a great handicap to not be able to read or write. I often felt that I could not fully access the culture or relate to the people because of this language barrier.

Fortunately, a few people in my department spoke English. I was placed in the Urban Design Research Department on the sixth floor of what turned out to be a large building of a very large company; CAUPD is home to thousands of employees in multiple cities (Shanghai, Shenzhen, Chongqing) and is still a growing company. The Academy is a national institute of planning, design and engineering under the authority of the Ministry of Construction; it is a public institution that operates as a private firm, with the public and private sectors often blurred. Within the company are multiple departments such as housing, landscape, international relations, transportation, etc; all of the departments work together to complete a diverse range of regional and master plans throughout China. My department worked on the planning and design of projects of multiple scales, from small resorts to entirely new cities.

In my first week of work, I was taken on a business trip; my director was leading an Urban Design Research Conference in the city of Chengdu, and I was brought along to see CAUPD’s recent work in the earthquake ravaged Sichuan province. It was here that I got my first taste of the planning process in China. In 2008, the small town of Beichuan was struck by the Sichuan earthquake; 80% of the buildings were destroyed and over 5,000 lives were lost (over ¼ of the population) – both the town and the people were devastated. The remaining town now serves as a memorial to those lost and those who live on - it is an eerie feeling seeing a town frozen in such a horrifying moment. But Beichuan has a happier story too. From all of this destruction came a new life for the town - the new town is located in a more stable site about twenty minutes away from the old town. Many provinces in China jumped to action after the disaster, each one claiming an area to aid - all nonprofit. CAUPD was hired to do the planning for new Beichuan - a feat which is still quite unbelievable to me. In a matter of three years, an entirely new town has sprung up - roads, sidewalks, parks, memorials, museums, schools, residences, hotels, libraries, gyms, stadiums, shops - all complete. It is another eerie feeling, although a much different kind, to see an entire town planned at once - but in this case, what else is there to do? We visited two other reconstructed towns that  weekend; it was here that I discovered the benefits and downfalls of such massive and rapid reconstruction. China’s government allows planners the unique position of power and control; because of this, cities can be planned, developed, and built in the short time span of a few years. In some ways, especially for the town of Beichuan, this works very well; it also, however, encourages planners to proceed headlong into projects that might not have been completely thought through – this will be a recurring theme through out my time with CAUPD. In any event, I will be very interested to see how the towns develop over the next few years - once life begins to infiltrate them.

While my business trip was my introduction to Chinese planning, my work at CAUPD involved projects on a much smaller scale. I worked specifically on a resort development project in the city of Jinan, developing four sites with hotels; I also conducted a variety of relevant case study research. The resort is being built on a wetland north of the Yellow River, so I spent much of my time, research, and design efforts focused on sustainable practices. Because the primary aim of Chinese development is economic growth, it was extremely important for me to keep this in mind as I pushed for sustainable design. I provided examples of habitat preservation that had spurred tourism, rainwater collection that had saved money, waterfront recreation that incorporates rather than destroys the natural wetlands; they were not only interested in what I had to say, but eager to learn more.

While China wants to be at the forefront of green technologies, they have thus far proven to put economic development above and often at the expense of the environment. The Sino-Singapore Eco-City in Tianjin is one example. The efforts of the eco-city tended to be focused around green technology: wind turbines, solar panels, low-flow fixtures, etc. When talking about how the design will incorporate a desalination plant, I mentioned that desalination plants are incredibly expensive, they consume large amounts of energy, emit large amounts of carbon, and produce a salty byproduct that is toxic to marine life. Is this in fact, sustainable, even just economically speaking? They said that it will be slightly more expensive but that because the water would not be used for drinking it was not anything to worry about. Just as my question was misunderstood, so too is the concept of an ecological city. Building a brand new city without need is never sustainable; creating developments seeking tourism, profit, and economic growth is rarely ecological, no matter how much green technology is inserted into the plan. It is great that China is not only interested in green practices, but able to implement them at a rapid pace and scale; however, it is not until the true meaning of “sustainable” is understood that these developments will be successful models for the future.

While I hope that this article conveys both the positive and negative aspects of the Chinese planning process, I also hope to impart that my experience with CAUPD was an extremely positive one. The people I worked with were warm, hospitable, and welcoming; they were open to new ideas and eager to teach me as well as learn from me. The projects I worked on and the ones that I visited were rich experiences, allowing me to get a sense of planning and design in a completely foreign environment. The integrated office structure of CAUPD allows them to work with and across many different fields and while this unique setup allows them to be efficient and quick, this efficiency is also their greatest weakness. The rapidity of the process has led to rampant development, often without precaution or heed to the future. China can teach us many things – both positive and negative – and I am sure I will continue to be influenced by this experience for the rest of my life. But as my coworker suggested, I am not sure I will ever quite get used to the “massive and rapid development” I saw this summer.

Elizabeth is currently enrolled in the Georgia Tect dual degree program, pursuing Masters degrees in both Architecture and City & Regional Planning with a focus in Urban Design.  She is from Atlanta, GA and recieved a Bachelor of Science in Architecture from Georgia Tech.

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