ASPECT insights
From Quantity to Quality: new opportunities for landscape architecture in China
by Jillian Walliss and Ziming Xie

ASPECT Studios is celebrating its 10 year anniversary in China. Starting with the bid for the Guangzhou West Tower – that ASPECT worked on till completion in 2010 – to currently designing major placemaking projects like Shanghai Dream Centre and Shanghai Library. We’re proud to reflect on the past 10 years and excited to look forward to the next 10 years and beyond.

To mark our 10 years of design in China, we invited Senior Lecturer on Landscape Architecture at the University of Melbourne Dr Jillian Walliss and PhD candidate Ziming Xie to share their knowledge on the expanding possibilities for landscape architecture in China.

For many design practices, China has provided a valuable avenue for expanding their international profile. Special events such as Expos and Olympic Games, high-end residential and commercial designs have offered western designers extensive opportunities, predominantly in the mega cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Guangzhou. However, the implementation of the 13th Five Year Plan (2016-2020), combined with the slowing of the Chinese economy has led to the replacement of a ‘growth’ model with an emphasis on quality. This new focus aims to address the principal contradiction facing Chinese society: the contradiction between unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life. This repositioning offers great potential for landscape architecture to expand its scope in China, presenting opportunities for local and international firms to work on large scale ecological projects along with the design of urban spaces, streets and parks aimed at improving the quality of life. Many ambitious environmental projects are currently underway, most notably the Sponge City vision which is described directly within the 13th Five Year Plan, having been launched by President Xi Jinping in December 2013. The ability to implement large scale environmental approaches is highly restricted in a western democratic context where instead short-term government thinking tied to election cycles limits comprehensive environmental approaches.  In contrast, the Chinese government has already invested billions of dollars in over two hundred cities in order to mitigate floods, reduce the intensity of rainwater runoff, and enhance water supply security. Further, the intent to transform China into a more inclusive society including a greater sharing of economic prosperity means that attention has turned to lower tiers of the Chinese population living in the countryside, villages and the hinterland cities. Rapid urban growth is being replaced by a focus on improving living standards and access to education and health opportunities, as well as the general amenity of cities and villages. Working under the previous economic model, designers found it extremely difficult to engage with the community and develop more culturally specific design responses. Instead the need to develop projects quickly and regulate costs often encouraged design approaches reflective of particular design styles such as ‘South East Asian’ or ‘European.’ In addition, fast tracked construction frequently resulted in poor quality design outcomes. This shift to quality will hopefully strengthen the prospects for a stronger engagement with local communities, as well as encourage a higher quality construction outcome. For example, speaking at the 12th National People’s Congress in March 2016, Premier Li Keqiang introduced the concept of ‘the spirit of craftsman’ in order to encourage enterprises to adopt custom-tailored and flexible production processes to foster a craftsmanship spirit of striving for the best. These developments are already manifesting in the emergence of smaller Chinese landscape architecture firms promoting a community based practice model along with a new emphasis on material practice. In time, we can expect that the design and environmental planning originating during this period will offer innovative knowledge for the discipline more broadly. It will be interesting to see whether urban public spaces reflective of Chinese cultural identity and diversity will replace the fascination with imported western typologies. Of particular interest is how designers respond to the fluctuating and complex relationship between ideas of Chinese collectiveness and individuality. The organisation of Chinese society and community reflects shifting relationships between CCP values, traditional Chinese practices and economic concerns. How this might reflect in the spatial and social fabric of cities and villages will be fascinating to track. Equally valuable is the knowledge emerging from the ambitious environmental projects. For instance, there are already positive reports of significant drops in air pollution levels. And finally, this renewed focus on quality will place demands on international designers to work more closely with local designers and professionals. Engaging with cultural and ecological complexities will require far more localised knowledge than what many international designers have become accustomed to during the previous era where western responses were championed. An emphasis on quality therefore might inspire the emergence of a contemporary Chinese landscape ethos which echoes the concept of ‘the spirit of craftsman’ introduced by Premier Li Keqiang, along with establishing more harmonious and productive relationships between ecology, community and urbanism.