Brons + partners explores Riverbank parks in Beijing

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_ARTICLE_ by Ellen Wilms

Globalization in our profession of landscape architecture means that there are opportunities to widen up the perspective of our working domain. Started in the Netherlands, Brons + partners is since 2012 more and more involved in an international orientated domain of work. To understand the foreign market and its opportunities, Brons + partners decided to do some international surveys by visiting promising markets, offices and projects. In the summer of 2012 the office joined the IFLA conference in Cape-Town, South Africa. At that time, Flore Bijker, student at Wageningen University, followed her internship at our office and accompanied us to this exciting town. In June 2013, Ellen Wilms, Rudy Brons (director of Brons + partners) and Xun Cui (designer at Brons + partners) prepared a professional visit to the city of Beijing and explored the profession of landscape architecture in this capital city. We had several talks there with Chinese colleagues and representatives of the government and we explored the city.

Why China?
During our research and our contact with the Chinese we found out that the design attitude in China is slowly changing towards more respect for the existing qualities and a stronger focus on ecological and sustainable design principles. So, we were curious to find out more about the Chinese mentality of landscape planning and design and the long term vision on maintenance. We made plans to visit several parks in the city of Beijing and to meet with Chinese landscape architects at the office of Beijing Zhu Ze landscape architecture.
In the design approach of Brons + partners we always pay high attention to the integration of existing values and qualities of a landscape into a master plan, in other words, we search for the genius loci of the place. Cultural values, natural values, historic values or social relationships between inhabitants and other people are part of this approach. Within this approach a place is always seen as part of a bigger system, like an urban network or a natural environment with all her layers, qualities and beauty. It is interesting to find out more about the design approach in China: is there a relationship with the context of the city and which values are chosen as cornerstones of the design? To find out about the approach we visited two parks, accompanied by the designers of these parks.

Walk and discussion with Zhu Ze landscape architects. © Ellen Wilms

Walk and discussion with Zhu Ze landscape architects.
© Ellen Wilms

Beijing Riverbank Green Corridor Projects
As part of the Beijing City Master Plan 2004-2020, ten green corridors are planned between the Beijing River Bank and the second ring road of Beijing. Together they strengthen and improve the city-green structure. This plan is called the Green Corridor Project.

The first phase of this project covers in total 9.3 kilometers and will be executed by the end of 2013. We visited the river park Ying Cheng Jian Du, designed by Beijing Zhu Ze landscape architecture. The directors and project leaders of Zhu Ze were our host and guided us along the projects.

The Moat of Beijing (the water defense system of the city) was originally built in 1368, with a strong and heavy structure to defend the heart of the city against enemies. After more than 600 years the function of the Moat and the river have transformed from defense structures into a green corridor of the city. Beijing, as a high-density city, has very limited public green spaces for people to stay outside. So the government of Beijing decided to transform the steep Moat riverbank structure into a park zone.

The park was designed by Zhu Ze landscape architecture within one year and is now, one year later, realized. The park offers a nice green corridor through the warm and dense city. The shade of the trees is a very welcome addition and adds comfort to the walkways and the areas to sit. Also pavilions are introduced to offer shade and are comfortable places to sit. The project is located alongside several important cultural heritages, like royal gardens, temples and a bell tower (built in 1574). The design team re-used original cultural Chinese symbols and integrated these in the total design-concept, in order to retell the history of Beijing. Examples are the statue of the ‘fisherman’, the use of typical stones throughout the project, the image of the lotus flower and the yellow and red flowers that refer to the Chinese culture. The use of handmade patterns in the pavement, benches, fences and lightning shows their attention for detailed solutions which we don’t see that often in modern parks in the Netherlands and in Europe in general.

The approach of creating a green structure, consists of a range of detailed design solutions in a small corridor. Dutch landscape architects are more used to a concept for park design with a recognizable spatial structure divided in main and subspaces.

In the Netherlands, maintenance costs and the need for sustainable and ecological green structures have led to park designs which are easy to maintain, to ensure that the park can last for a long time. This visit showed that intensive park design asks for intensive maintenance. I wonder if this way of park design remains affordable on the long run, especially when you want to widen the green structure in the urban area of Beijing.

The Green Corridor Riverbank through the city. © Ellen Wilms

The Green Corridor Riverbank through the city.
© Ellen Wilms

Public open space with a nice green microclimate. © Ellen Wilms

Public open space with a nice green microclimate.
© Ellen Wilms

Nan Chang He Riverbank Park
Brons + partners also visited a second park of the Riverbank project, named the Nan Chang He Park. This park was designed in only one year (2012-2013) by Zhu Ze landscape architecture. While we were there, the execution was nearly finished. The location is nearby the Summer Palace royal garden and is surrounded by residential buildings. The main goal for this park is to offer green public space for residents.

To respect the historic quality of this location, the designers used several elements to represent the local history. The sculpture map with water lily pond represents the history of the capital city Beijing of Jin Dynasty (1115-1234), when the water structure has been built in the city. The designers also integrated existing trees in the plan, replanted local trees like willows in the Willow Boulevard, and reused local materials like tiles as design elements, to refer to the history of local landscape and local culture.

The park offers a nice green lung alongside the Riverbank and provides people and children with a beautiful quiet space in the open air. Water is used as a design element in many ways water, for instance in the lotus garden, as a small stream along the main walkway and in a pond in front of the pavilion.

Pavilion with repeated wall design. © Brons + partners

Pavilion with repeated wall design.
© Brons + partners

Handmade fence with the water lily. © Brons + partners

Handmade fence with the water lily.
© Brons + partners

The water lily represents Chinese culture. © Brons + partners

The water lily represents Chinese culture.
© Brons + partners

From Chinese design tradition to sustainable parks
While the ecological and sustainable concerns of landscape design just arrived in China, we have seen that these principles are for now not yet an integrated part of the design process. Questions arise about the contribution of the park to the ecological system along the riverbank. The water features, grass beds and (vertical) flower arrangements have a high esthetic visual impact, but ask a lot of attention concerning the water management and the maintenance. In China park maintenance is done by hand, like watering and taking care of the flowerbeds. This high level of maintenance will probably become a vulnerable point in the future of the park. Although water is used as a main principle in the surface design, with a lot of shallow water basins, the introduction of a sustainable water system for irrigation and water quality is not considered yet.

The tradition of watering trees every day is on the long run, even in Beijing, untenable. The first step to ecological and sustainable city planning and design asks an awareness of the possibilities of reintroduction of natural and ecological systems in the city. This, in combination with high technical solutions for water management, could lead to a more sustainable and ecological green structure in the city. The side effect will be that the green structure for the long run is better affordable and has a better chance to survive. Nowadays the main cornerstones in the design approach refer to elements of Chinese culture and history. The challenge for the future is to combine this Chinese design tradition with principles of ecological and sustainable park design, as part of a related green structure throughout the city.

Replanted willows surrounded by water tables. © Brons + parners

Replanted willows surrounded by water tables.
© Brons + parners

Pond as water playing area in front of the pavilion.  © Brons + partners

Pond as water playing area in front of the pavilion.
© Brons + partners


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