Published by City Farmer, Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture


Modern Environmental Initiatives in Urban China

Tracy Penner, BLA

Photos accompanying this article can be found here.

China's urban landscapes change dramatically as the economy grows and rural migration to cities continues at an unprecedented rate. This has created tremendous strain on the environment, among other things. The city sky has a constant haze, traffic continues to build and water from the domestic service is not safe to drink. While environmental issues are hot topics in China -- the need to improve is acknowledged in media reports and government initiatives across the country--evidence is that they still have a lot of work to do.

Yet there are many ways that China has preceded us in improving the urban environment, through both large scale planning initiatives and smaller design features.

This should come as no surprise since China has a long history of sophisticated engineering accomplishments. The Chinese of today are descendents of those who built a wall eight metres high and 6000 km in length that still stands. They are a society that implemented a fifty million tree reforestation plan in the12th century. And it was they who engineered and built the 1700 km long Grand Canal to connect the Yangtze River to Beijing some 1200 years ago, in order to supply water for agriculture and transportation between the capital and the resource rich south. Environmental mega-projects are not foreign to China.

(Photo 1. Canals built in the Ming dynasty in Beijing carry water from the Yangtze River 1700 km south )

The devastation of recurring flooding has driven the need for engineered solutions for thousands of years. The Chinese have used this opportunity to design moats around palaces and cities, canals for drainage and irrigation, and to connect lakes and rivers for easy transportation. In fact, this early manipulation of water has provided China's modern cities with their best environmental features. Each city has its own series of linked lakes, canals and rivers, and in each case the banks of these urban watercourses are used as public lands for river access, recreation and linear green space.

Urban dwellers make use of these waterside parks in China in a myriad of interesting ways that makes life in China's cities dynamic. Rather than building these parks purely for linear movement, designers have created a wide, undulating promenade that traverses a series of distinct outdoor spaces. This functions as a public corridor giving access to a series of variously sized semi-public rooms that encourage diverse uses. The experience of travelling through these park spaces is one of constant discovery of both scenes of nature and social situations.

An entrance to a typical river park begins in a small plaza where a tea kiosk sells breakfast to small groups of people who sit at bistro tables catching up on the day's events. Immediately adjacent is a riverside terrace which is large enough for a group of 12 seniors to practice tai chi. A section of woods protect the river bank for a short stretch while the path meanders inland, and a short while later a pavilion in traditional architectural style emerges with another 20 or so younger people doing an open air aerobic dance class. Traditional Chinese dance is taught in another covered pavilion across the river. (Photo 2)

As the walk progresses, it is evident that this juxtaposition of forest with pavilion, open space with bosque, clustered seating with solitary benches addresses the diverse needs of a whole society. In addition to the more organized fitness and recreation activities, one may observe mothers strolling with infants, young adults huddled in discussion in a u-shaped seating area, and seniors engrossed in games of mah jong on benches. There are always individuals unselfconsciously engaged in solo fitness activities. In a clearing a woman performs traditional sword exercises; a man uses a tree in a nearby grove to carry out physiotherapy on his back. There are many who practice martial arts in hedged, cloistered corners, someone meditates among the trees in a yoga posture, joggers come and go. (Photos 3, 4) The widespread use of these parks along the waterways attests to their value in the urban landscape. It is these parks as well as the beautifully planned streetscapes that make the greatest impression in China's modern cities.

Large urban streets are designed for pedestrians, bikes, buses and cars, in that order. Sidewalks tend to be wide with granite bollards of all designs blocking access by vehicles. Buses often have dedicated lanes which are used also by motorized scooters and two wheelers. There are treed medians separating cars from buses, and usually another median separating buses from bikes. This makes even very wide streets more navigable and less oppressive and creates a positive aesthetic condition. But is how they honour the bicycle that is most inspiring in China's cities.

Bicycles are used for all kinds of transportation, including delivery of goods, since they are much more agile than a van, and can park on any sidewalk for a brief duration. (Photo 5) We even spotted one bike and cart delivering 6 boxed television sets in downtown Shanghai! On busy streets there are dedicated bike lanes; in older areas where streets are too narrow for this, entire streets are designated bicycle traffic only. Giant bike parking lots are located directly outside of large job sites, with over 500 bicycles parked in front of the wholesale garment market in Hangzhou! North American cities should take a lesson from the Chinese transportation planners-even a city as old and crowded as Shanghai has found a way to develop new boulevards with separated bike lanes, and these streets are as beautiful as they are functional. (Image 6)

The urban forestry program in Beijing is a large scale environmental initiative that appears to be very successful. This was one of Mao Tse-Tung's programs to help reduce air pollution, and while the sky remains murky this program does give Beijing a distinctive beauty. As the major highways and exterior ring roads were built, buffers of a few hundred metres wide parallel to the roads were heavily planted with trees in a regular, 3-m spacing. The effect is that even when travelling through industrial suburbs or high density residential areas, there is a visual connection to nature that provides relief to the masses of concrete. (Image 7)

On a more site specific level, there are many examples of small but valuable environmental design initiatives. Permeable concrete pavers are used extensively throughout Chinese cities to mitigate flooding created by non-porous surfaces in both commercial and residential applications. Often driveways are paved and graded to direct run-off into the permeable parking stalls. (Photo 8)

Channelling hard surface run-off into planted areas is another design initiative that benefits the environment. In many plazas, parks and gardens, hard surfaces are graded into a central low point or to a geometrically laid out series of planters containing ornamental wetland species such as sedges, various lily family species and bamboo.

The use of plants is both creative and practical. Public spaces such as parks and street medians make use of several varieties of shrubs planted tightly to create hedgerow effects, crowding out weeds and garbage to minimize maintenance. There is widespread use of a few favoured species that differ by region. This consistent use of plants gives a unique character to each city and cohesion to the image of streets and public places. Many novel groundcovers are preferred to lawn in open green spaces, especially outside of Beijing. Heavy use of lily turf, ornamental grasses and even clover minimize the need for mowing and weeding. (Photo 9)

Chinese pragmatism and creativity has provided many environmental innovations from the regional scale to the site-specific during its recent boom in development. This experience, and its long tradition of environmental engineering innovation, should enable China to overcome the serious environmental issues that have emerged as a by-product of their massive modern industrial and urban development.

Photos accompanying this article can be found here.

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Revised Monday, Oct 14, 2010

Published by City Farmer
Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture