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Mountian-Water Cities: Chinese “Eco-Cities”?
With the opening of the 2010 Shanghai World Expo perhaps some have noticed that amongst the many reports of the expo’s environmentally friendly facitlities and regulations and many environmental exhibits, one highlight has recently disappeared from the expo’s website and official publicity. The Dongtan Eco-city, originally widely publicized to international media as the “world’s first large-scale eco-city” and which was scheduled to complete construction before the expo, has disappointed many and caused some skepticism about the possibility of truly building “eco-cities” in China. Christina Larson, on Environment360 reports that a possible reason for the failure of eco-cities such as Dongtan in China is a misconnect between the (often internationally-designed) master plans and the actual fruition of the cities by developers and government. Worldchanging.com reported that Wired and BBC both allude to misunderstandings between the expectations of the Dongtan clients and the planning team.
However, despite the disappointments voiced in the international media about the failure of the realization of some Chinese “eco-cities”, there is also a new Chinese buzzword slowly gaining more popularity in both popular media and in architectural and urban planning circles: “Mountain-Water Cities” (山水城市) . According to Baidu Encyclopedia, the term “Mountain-Water City” was first coined in 1990 by Dr Xuesen Qian, a former professor at both Caltech and MIT, and highly recognized scholar and party member in China. Interestingly, he is most famous for his contributions to the missile and space programs in both the United States and China.
At a conference given last month in Beijing on Mountain-Water Cities (April 18, 2010), Qian described Mountain-Water Cities in the following way:
“There are mountains and water. We depend on rock and are accompanied by water. Both of these balancing elements should be clearly visible. The city should have an appropriate amount of forested area and green spaces, the right amount of rivers, streams and lakes, and enough natural ecology. The goal is to allow a city to possess a positive natural environment, life environment, and residential environment.”
From this description, the traditional balances of the Chinese conception of nature—water and mountain/rock—are present alongside and interwoven with human life. Qian stated that traditional forested parks are just one part of the concept of “Water and Mountain” (see my post on Water in Traditional Chinese culture”. “Water and Mountain” really stands for a much higher ideal: that man should find unity with nature, a principle first understood by classical Chinese poets and painters and deeply rooted in Chinese culture. “We should think of it like moving the beautiful landscape of those paintings right into our city” he said.
In addition to the presence of nature in a city, Qian emphasizes the importance of people’s livelihoods and of traditional Chinese architecture and lifestyle supported by scientific advancement. In a mountain-water city, social services and amenities should be accessible, and the unique characteristics of Chinese cities—courtyards, city gates, etc—should be integrated into a sustainable urban environment.
Though Dr. Qian is accredited to having first used the term “mountain-water city”, in recent years, the terms has been attributed to Dr. Hu Jie, the principal designer of the Olympic Forest Park in Beijing. After designing Olympic Forest Park, Dr Hu has gone on to realize some very important projects in China, is has been very excited to share his vision of the “mountain-water city” with the Chinese media.
After finishing the plans for the Olympic Forest Park, Hu designed two major projects (amongst others) that exhibit his commitment to the ancient philosophies regarding the balance of rock and water, and the unity of man and nature. The two major projects are the Tieling New City in Liaoning Province and Nanhu, Tangshan, Hebei Province. The design for Tieling New City mainly featured a man-made canal system with water diverted from Fan River into a wetland lotus park to serve as a recharge system for water resources. There were also green buffer zones to protects natural rivers from highways that cross at a man made lake called “Lake of Wishes”. Th soil displaced from the man made canals and lakes were used to build artificial mountains to shield the lotus wetland. His design of Lotus Lake International Wetland Park in Tieling won multiple awards from all over the world. Dr. Hu’s work can be seen all over China in successful projects from the master plan of Qinghai Province’s Kanbula Scenic Area to Fuzhou University’s new campus proposal.
Actually, the concept of a “mountain-water city” and an “eco-city” do not seem to differ much aside from perhaps the incorporation of traditional Chinese style and philosophy. But in many senses—their aim is the same—to integrate man’s environment with a more natural environment, to utilize natural resources in an efficient way, and to create better ways of living and healthier lifestyles. So why is it that recently it seems that there is a lot of media on foreign-led eco-city plans that fail in the end? The possibilities are endless—a question of selective reporting? A problem with the communication of expectations between designers and developers? A governmental red-tape problem? In the end though, we know that through the work of Qian Xuesen and Hu Jie, that Chinese concepts and versions of eco-cities have been carried out through construction and do exist.
Beijing’s Green Lungs and Kidneys: The Olympic Forest Park
Local Beijingers like to give colloquial nicknames to the prominent architecture in the city. In the period leading up to the Beijing Olympics, the more notable were probably the “Bird’s Nest”, “Watercube” and the “Giant Underpants” (new CCTV building), but the 2008 Games also left behind a pair of “green lungs and kidneys” for Beijing: the Olympic Forest Park.
Amidst the numerous reports on Beijing infamous air quality, perhaps overlooked by many foreign media was Beijing’s biggest project to show its dedication to improving air and water quality in its natural environment. Indeed, the Olympic Forest Park was also a feature to sell Beijing’s commitment to environmental issues in the Olympic bid. And, unlike the temporary closing of nearby factories and strict car bans to improve air quality during the games, the Olympic Forest Park is here to stay, a permanent symbol of China’s intent to better its environment and utilize nature resources more efficiently.
Plans for the Olympic Forest Park began in 2003, with an official decreement on the development of the park in accordance with Beijing Municipality’s development goals. The park, which occupies an area of 680 hectares, was planted with over half a million trees, and reused 4 million cubic meters of soil from the construction of the Beijing National Stadium (The Bird’s Nest) and the Beijing National Aquatics Center (The Water Cube). It is designed to not only have zero carbon emissions, but to also act as an urban carbon sink, cutting down Beijing’s air pollution by absorbing up to 7,200 tons of carbon each year. In addition, the park also abosorbs 32 tons of sulfure dioxide, purifies 5,400 tons of oxygen and retains 4,905 tons of dust for the city annually, thus the nickname, “the green lungs of Beijing”.
Besides being a green haven on Beijing’s central axis, the park also incorporates traditional aspects of Chinese landcape design, balancing bodies of water with rock, mountain and green space to produce the epitome of a fengshui garden to the north of the city’s center. According to traditional fengshui belief, mountains at the north of the city and a southern flow of water toward the city center is very auspicious. For this reason, the park was placed right at the north end of Beijing’s North-South Axis, linking China’s environmentalism and symbols of modernity such as the Brid’s Nest and Water Cube, to its rich history with the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square at the southern end. The flow of water to complete the fengshui masterpiece was key.
However, Beijing suffers from severe water scarcity problems. While the plan for Olympic Forest Park called for a dragon-shaped lake, the source for the water to fill the lake was an issue nobody could overlook. In order to address this problem without placing more stress upon the municipal water supply, the Olympic Forest Park is designed to use reclaimed water from Qinghe Wastewater Treatment Plant. The effluent from Qinghe Secondary WWTP which is rated as Category V by national standards, has high levels of the nutrients nitrogen and phosphorous and could therefore lead to the eutrophication of the proposed 20.3-hectare lake. To address this problem the secondary reclaimed effluent is designed to first flow a system of integrated vertical flow wetlands before entering the lake. Water from the lake is also periodically pumped back through the wetlands, which are able to uptake excess levels of nitrogen and phosporous to ensure that the water in the lake meets national standards for Category III surface water. The 4.15-hectare wetland system, which consists of 6 parallel integrated vertical flow wetland units, has been in place for close to three years now, and has been confirmed to raise the quality of the lake water by processing about 2,600 cubic meters of reclaimed water and 20,000 cubic meters of cycled lake water per day, thus the nickname “the green kidneys of Beijing”.
In 2009, The team for Olympic Forest Park was the only Chinese company to receive an ASLA award. The team was led by Tsinghua University Associate Professor Dr. Jie Hu. Hu is currently spearheading a movement in China called “Water-Mountain” Cities (山水城市), that incorporate the tranditional balance of Chinese nature into urban design.
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