Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Innovations: Kongjian Yu: The Art of Survival

Nov 22, 2010

Kongjian Yu, China's leading landscape architect, pours me tea in his office in the university district of Beijing and gestures outside. "Beijing is sprawling, sprawling very fast. It seems like we have nothing to worry about, but we have a serious problem: the water underground is dropping one meter every year. The city is built on a human-controlled system of pipes and drainage, roads and infrastructure. We waste too much time, water, and energy pumping water."

Turenscape, the urban design firm he founded, seeks to correct this imbalanced approach to planning through a focus on "green infrastructure." Where conventional industrial planning subordinates nature to human development, green infrastructure gives priority to ecology. This approach comes with ambitious goals: "It looks to conserve water, avoid natural disasters, preserve natural habitats and the authenticity of the cultural landscape, and maximize protection of fertile, agricultural land. We want to make cities productive in terms of water and food."

And yet for all its scope, the ecological imperative can be summarized in one thought: "We need to be attached to the land," says Yu.

The operative word here is need. Yu is not impractical, he is not calling for a nostalgic retreat from modernity into some quaint romantic past. On the contrary, he believes that a renewed connection to the land is necessary for survival. China, he says, learned a lesson over thousands of years, one that is in danger of being forgotten. "For centuries, people in China survived in harsh conditions—deserts, flood plains, mountains—and people knew how to use minimum energy and water to cultivate rice and survive. Now we are getting rid of the land: Everyone wants to be in the city." Yu pauses: "We try to be concrete. We try to be marble without dirt."

Marble without dirt. The phrase sticks with me. I think of Shelley's poem "Ozymandias" and its warning: the broken, decaying statue of a once-mighty king with his "shattered visage," a forgotten empire surrounded by "the lone and level sand." Could a similar fate befall China?

Back to the Roots

In addition to leading Turenscape, Yu is also dean of the Graduate School of Landscape Architecture at Peking University. His company and the university form a virtuous circle of theory and practice: Many students work for Turenscape after they graduate, and the firm in turn has donated millions of renminbi to support the school's research.

Turenscape's name is derived from tu, meaning dirt or earth, and ren, meaning people, and it is meant to invoke "a harmonious relationship between land and people." But Yu also likes "country bumpkins" as another translation. He wants to upend the common snobbery in modern China that city folk are better than rural folk.

He takes me along his office hallway and shows me pictures and drawings of various Turenscape projects. The projects are striking in their simplicity, as is one widely acclaimed project, the Red Ribbon Park, in Qinghuangdao City, Hebei Province.

At a messy urban fringe area of Qinghuangdao, says Yu, residents wanted a recreational park that could instill a sense of beauty and urban community. The conventional approach is to raze everything to the ground and pour a lot of concrete. Instead, Yu and his team proposed a 1,500 foot "red ribbon" fiberglass bench winding its way through the habitat: it acted as a gathering place, night light, and symbol for a restored community, while also conserving and encouraging the growth of the surrounding vegetation. "Minimal impact, minimal time needed, minimal cost and energy," Yu concludes. The community embraced it.

Other Turenscape projects have been more complex, making use of principles and technologies like geothermal cooling and heating, energy efficiency, low-carbon design, solar panels, rainwater capture, and agricultural productivity. But none is ostentatious. The focus on working with the existing ecology—and the simplicity this entails—seems paradoxically to give Turenscape an innovation advantage, and colleagues around the world have taken notice.

Eight Turenscape projects have won awards from the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA). For example, in Houtan Park, designed for the 2010 Shanghai Expo, Yu and his team turned a polluted brownfield into a regenerated and productive landscape that cleans more than 2,500 tons of heavily contaminated river water every day. As the ASLA notes in reference to the Expo project, "It's full of the right messages of our profession."

Turenscape's down-to-earth approach is at odds with the prevailing aesthetic of China's modernization, and Yu is much troubled by the latter: "Chinese girls wrapped their feet a long time ago for show and beauty. That's the situation still in China—we still have this 'little feet' aesthetic." Only now, says Yu, such artificial constraints are "being used to build cities."

He is decidedly unimpressed, for instance, with three landmarks of Beijing's modernization. The CCTV Tower, the Bird's Nest, and the Chinese Opera House are "only for show, ugly, and wasteful in terms of energy." When I ask if I can quote him speaking so candidly of these showcase buildings he says "of course" and shows me an article he wrote in a Chinese magazine proposing to convert the Bird's Nest into a farmers market. But doesn't some part of him admire these buildings too? "No, not at all," he says. "They're deformed; wasteful. How much energy do they consume?"

Yu continues: "These ornamental buildings can't carry their own weight. We have little feet but a jumbo body of consumption and GDP growth. Chinese have this dream of being urbanized. But the buildings aren't green."

I ask Yu why people outside China should care about inefficiencies in China's urbanization. People should worry, says Yu, "because China has 1.3 billion people and now only about 45 percent live in cities. Each year one percent of the population will move into cities, and their consumption will double, triple, or even be five times what it is now if we follow this track." Put differently, 13 million people—about the same number as the population of Tokyo—are joining city life each year. "All these people," cautions Yu, "dream about having a jumbo house, an American dream, a jumbo American dream. If we live like that we will consume the energy of three planets, right?"

China itself will suffer more than most: "In twenty years if we follow this same urbanization process, if we still use water and energy like we do today, the environment will fail and the economy will fail. That's why we need a new form of urbanization," he continues. "We cannot follow the American model. We need to invent our own model: an art of survival. We must go back to our roots."

Walking (and Biking and Living) the Talk

Yu and I easily filled a morning with discussion. He then invited me to his home for lunch, a healthy meal prepared by his elderly mother next door. He showed me some of the changes he has made to his home, green improvements on the original design. A limestone wall provides natural cooling from rainwater, so he never has to turn on the air conditioner, and a greenhouse nurtures a small crop of vegetables. He takes his work home with him, but in a good way.

I ask how he became such a committed environmentalist. He talks about his childhood on a farm in Zhejiang province, near Hangzhou. Life in the 1960s and 1970s was full of simple pleasures despite modest economic circumstances: a beautiful forest, a clean, swimmable river that also had abundant fish. But by the 1980s, "people began to use herbicide and pesticide, and the forest was cut. There was a huge change in the environment: you couldn't fish anymore; the water became black."

His passion for forests led him to Beijing Forestry University, where he studied landscape gardening for his bachelor's and master's degrees. From there he made his way to Harvard for a doctorate in design, and his green sensibility was bolstered by an enlarged sense of purpose.

International Lessons

Studies at Harvard gave Yu two important intellectual influences: Ian McHarg and Jane Jacobs. McHarg, a Scottish-born landscape architect who taught at the University of Pennsylvania had "pioneered the concept of ecological planning" in his book Design with Nature. Says Yu: "He had a very good influence on me. He was my spiritual mentor." Jacobs, meanwhile, provided another part of the equation, teaching him how to make a "livable city." These two figures, combined with myriad Chinese influences and experiences, helped shape the concepts that Yu would employ in his book, The Art of Survival.

I ask how people outside China can help support the transition he would like his country to make. He talks about the importance of education, as others do, but he adds an important twist: He says there is a need for frank exchanges about mistakes the West has made. When Westerners invite Chinese mayors for visits, they need to discuss "what's wrong" in their development, "not just the grandeur of achievements of the Western world." All too often, Yu explains, "Europeans and Americans try to amaze the Chinese" when they invite them for visits. "Americans are amazing people: Look at their mansions, big buildings and big cars, private airplanes, and Air Force One! But no one asks how costly these things are, how much energy they need."

Saving China

For all his candor about the scale of current problems, Yu is optimistic. For starters, the central government has recently undergone a major shift of priorities: "Over the past three years or so, energy consumption has become a top policy, because we're facing a serious crisis. The central government understands that if we want to keep developing we have to make more efficient use of energy and water, and reduce pollution."

Yu pours me another cup of tea: "I think eventually we can save China and the world. Certainly people can make money by selling green technology, but what if low-tech solutions are a wiser way? We must tackle problems directly. We have seen demonstrations of green buildings, but they have become too complicated. How can we work with simpler approaches?"

The key is to let landscapes do their job. "Let nature work. These dirty, urban brownfields can become low-maintenance working systems. We need green infrastructure that is productive, has a mediating capacity for flood and drought and other natural processes, is life supporting, and provides aesthetic and recreational experiences for people. What is rustic, messy, and dirty must become productive and beautiful again. People need a substantial and spiritual connection to the land."

For now, however, when it comes to the aspirations of ordinary Chinese, Yu thinks a lot has to change: "In Beijing we already have nearly 5 million cars. There are about 18 million people in Beijing, and everyone wants a car." Yu also has a car, but he usually takes his bicycle to work, a practice his students and employees must notice. We talk about how in both North America and China it is assumed that executives drive cars. (Sprawl is a factor in this, but so is prestige.) In Amsterdam and Copenhagen, by contrast, CEOs can ride bicycles without any loss of face or social status. Yu embraces this: "The top class needs to ride bicycles rather than BMWs. That's a new value system."

Pessimists may harrumph that Yu's efforts are too small to make a difference in a country so large. But the potential for scale is there—as is clear from what has happened already. "I came back to China to start the cause all by myself," says Yu, "and now we have about 600 people, and they're all doing green design at Turenscape."

What is more, he says, "In China we have more than 660 cities, so if you have one demonstration project all the cities can come and visit and learn from it." Yu trains mayors every two months as part of a government program, because it is city leaders, he says, who are really in a position to act. "Ministers are very important, but they're floating at the national level. If you want to do something, you have to convince the mayors."

For the sake of China's survival, let's hope the mayors are listening.

Thanks to John Cavanagh for transcribing the interview.

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