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China: an urban revolution

Article by Thomas van den Berg.

Living on the 25th floor in the centre of a booming mega city, working on huge-scale urban planning projects and finding my way in the midst of millions of people every day; this is the story of my internship in Wuhan, China. For five months I lived and worked in the fastest country of the world. China is developing its cities at a speed that is unprecedented. Grontmij Hubei gave me the opportunity to be part of the urban revolution of 21st century China. The sky is the limit, so it seems, and this clearly puts its mark on how landscape architects approach and design landscapes.

The basis for this article is a 5 months internship at Grontmij Hubei in Wuhan, China (July-December 2013). Photos © Thomas van den Berg.

My time in Wuhan was an interesting one, although I never heard of this city before, it is as big as London counting ten million citizens. Wuhan, located in the centre of the country, is just one of the countless megacities in China, uprising and over expanding their urban territory beyond their city limits (Hulshof & Roggeveen, 2011). This urbanization leaves its mark on the way landscape architecture is being practiced. In this article I will try to compare this to the Dutch landscape architecture approach by drawing from my own experience in Wuhan and a literature study.

To be able to compare the difference in landscape architecture practice between China and The Netherlands, we have to understand that China is in the middle of a grand economic development process. Basically it began with the opening of China after the approximately 30 year regime of Mao Zedong. A new period of internationalization began in 1978 after decades of isolation (Boden 2012). The new leader Deng Xiaoping carefully introduced market policies to bring economic prosperity to his country. He was convinced that China had to focus on economic growth by a combination of export and foreign investment. At first this only occurred in the Special Economic Zones (SEZs): ‘government designated areas with liberal economic regimes’ (e.g. Shanghai and Shenzen) (Hulshof & Roggeveen 2011, p. 91). The word ‘liberal’ explains a lot, as China used to be economically isolated during the regime of Mao Zedong (Boden, 2012).

The view from my window, in which you can see various stages of urbanization. Also notice the Spanish style shopping mall next to the high-rise apartment buildings. This shows the lack of integration between different plots.

Nowadays, China is transforming its rural landscape into urban dwellings at an incredibly high speed (Long et al., 2010). Planning agencies want to gain economic efficiency and therefore they draw road grids and designate plots to different design offices. This grid structure is similar to how New York City developed in the 19th century. However, there is a lack of integration between different plots. The consequences can be seen all over China; huge roads divide individual blocks that lack any relationship to each other (Hulshof & Roggeveen, 2011). Also there are less projects for sophisticated, small-scale landscape design because of the incredible large scale. In The Netherlands we design landscapes through analysing its different layers, by telling its story or so-called Genius Loci, and we integrate our design in its surroundings by designing at various scale levels. We respect the environment and gradually turn rural areas into cities. The scale of this rural-urban transition in China makes the consequences tremendous (Long et al., 2010). In addition, Chinese clients appear to be very powerful and singlehandedly decide on mega-scale urban planning projects. In this way it seems relatively easy to make a mistake; by for example developing thousands of urban dwellings that cannot not be occupied by inhabitants. Often the supply of urban households in China exceeds the demand (Hulshof & Roggeveen, 2011).

However, a major incentive for decision-makers to still continue urban development is to achieve economic growth. For example, governors that are able to show pretty GDP numbers can count on promotion to larger cities or national politics. Therefore, cities compete for foreign investors, who are among the main drivers of economic growth in China. Decision-makers increasingly focus on urban development and architecture to attract potential investors. This ‘seducing of investors’ happens in so-called urban planning centres, which show scale models of future urban development projects for the city. Every ambitious Chinese metropolis has such a specially designed venue. (Hulshof & Roggeveen 2011).

Urbanization for economic growth is visible all over Wuhan; high-rise buildings pop out everywhere.

As a result of this economic development, the Chinese market is dominated by mass construction and money driven design projects with non-negotiable deadlines, putting high pressure on urban planning, architecture and landscape architecture practices (Hulshof & Roggeveen, 2011). This affects the way landscape designers approach their profession in China. It seems common to imitate other people’s work in order to save time. Chinese clients are very demanding and speed up the design procedure, taking less care for rational analysis in the process. The image is what sells the story, the renders and visuals need to be perfect in order to sell your design.

This is different from what I was used to in The Netherlands, where sufficient reasoning to clarify design decisions is indispensable. Back home, a design project often starts with a rational landscape analysis which forms the foundation for the concept design, which in turn is elaborated further by detailed design and visualizations. In China, designers often start a project by searching for reference images, the design aims to achieve exactly the same image as found in the reference study. It seems that in China appearance is the most essential part of the design, rather than the reasoning that supports design decisions.

Also, from my experience, Chinese designers are uncomfortable with design propositions that do not fit their reference framework. In other words, in my opinion, Chinese designers tend to think less ‘out-of-the-box’. Crazy or unfamiliar ideas are not very welcome and get neglected for this reason. It also depends on the client since he does not want to risk his investment. Chinese clients like proven technology and are less keen for innovation. In The Netherlands we want to innovate and like to be creative, we can discuss with our client and criticize his design assignment. In China the client has a strong opinion on the final product and it is very challenging to change his mind. It appears this relates to the culture of China, where a strong social hierarchy decides who can exert power and who cannot (Boden, 2012).

Often design projects are copied which results in a crazy mixture of styles. This is the ‘Spanish style shopping street’ in Wuhan.

Even though the Chinese market works in a different way, it remains a promising market for landscape architecture. At this moment the market in Europe is very cold, while in China the market is smoking hot. Twenty-first century China is been described as ‘a playground for designers’ and this will not end anytime soon. In the office we worked with over 30 designers on numerous projects for often 80-90 hours per week. Yet we had to postpone new projects because our hands were full. Also during my five months internship the design team increased by over 20%, while in The Netherlands many design offices decrease at a similar rate. From my experience, I could feel the optimism among designers, while in The Netherlands it feels quite pessimistic. Hence I had a great working experience in China, it gave me the chance to put my education into practice in a fast-paced market. In addition, the intercultural aspect makes it interesting to work in China. Things in every-day life are very different compared to The Netherlands; in the most obvious and most surprising ways. I assure that you will never get bored.

To conclude, there is a priority on economic growth in current urban planning projects in China. It moves in very big steps and it drives the speed of the working environment to exciting levels. This pushes the landscape design methodology into a model where visual persuasion is most important, giving less time for sufficient analysis and integration of the project in its context. As a result, incomprehensive landscapes and megacities with little identity appear. Chinese clients prove to be very powerful and they are often not prioritizing the environment, this causes landscapes in China to degrade. Thus, in my opinion there lies a great challenge for Western and Chinese landscape architects to help develop China in a more sustainable way. We can raise sustainability on the Chinese political agenda through our ambition to improve the living environment.


Boden, J. (2012) De Essentie van China. Coutinho. Bussum, The Netherlands.

Hulshof, M., Roggeveen, D. (2011) How the City Moved to Mr Sun. SUN. Nijmegen, The Netherlands.

Long, N., Jingzhong, Y. & Yihuan, W. (2010) Rural Transformations and Development – China in Context: The Everyday Lives of Policies and People. Edward Elgar Publishing Ltd. Cheltenham, UK.

maart 25, 2014

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