Posts by Chuan Ding

A fire hydrant in San Gabriel. Photo by Chuan Ding.

A fire hydrant in San Gabriel, California. Photo by Chuan Ding.

It was only recently that I began to notice that the fire hydrants around my apartment are all shaped differently. One of them is skinny and tall and another is more round. These differently shaped fire hydrants have broken my preconceptions about the standard look of fire hydrants, but planted the idea of fire hydrants as street design, urban art elements/installations, or even as the city’s landscape decor. I began imagining these fire hydrants appearances changing according to annual holidays or the cultural communities that it served.

A fire hydrant in Downtown LA. Photo by Chuan Ding.

A fire hydrant in Downtown LA. Photo by Chuan Ding.

A fire hydrant is a connection point by which firefighters tap into the city’s water supply. Aside from the general purpose of delivering water for firefighting, the hydrant design selected must be based on a number of operational elements:

  • How much water (GPM or L/min) is needed for firefighting.
  • The amount and size of hoses/connections required.
  • The established hose sizes and coupling threads in the region.
  • Current (and future) configuration of fire apparatus.
  • Issues of clearance and visibility.
  • Operating characteristics of the hydrants.
  • Amount of head (static pressure) that is present in the system.
  • Climatic conditions in the area.
Different Shapes of Fire Hydrants in San Gabriel. Photos by Chuan Ding.

Different shapes of fire hydrants in San Gabriel. Photos by Chuan Ding.

As landscape architects we’re constantly attempting to make the streetscape more welcoming and encourage pedestrian use. Public art, installations, and other community based landmarks – even as small as a fire hydrant – can encourage exploration by foot. If you don’t believe me, just take note of the explosion of pedestrian activity throughout the nation, all motivated by Pokemon Go, a game that has filled the streets with players exploring the city in ways city planners could have only dreamt of.

Instead of a big and expensive art installation, a thoughtfully decorated fire hydrant might be one of the simplest ways to add a small and playful element to the community landscape without much cost or effort. It is time we instill imagination into the urban landscape in unexpected ways, engaging people to see the inherent beauty in the everyday.

For more fire hydrant art, check out this website.

Image_1 The memory of the village

White walls with grey tiles reflecting across the surface of a lake. Gently swaying willows growing along the river. Wild flowers blooming in a confetti of color along the riverbank. These are all cherished childhood memories of my hometown, Nanjing. With the high-paced development of urbanization unfolding in Nanjing, as in many other parts of China, these memories of country villages and farmland are increasingly being replaced by the appearance of industrial campuses, mixed use complexes, and high-rise residential apartments.

Image_2 People and their Life

Fortunately, with the Nanjing Youth Olympic Game in 2014, planners and government began paying more attention to remaining villages of yesterday with a progressive ecological and environmental perspective shaped by today. Planners converged on a village located at the southeast part of Nanjing, attracting a group of architects, planners, and artists to come together to help develop an ecological village that maintains the historical and cultural appearance of yesterday while operating with the contemporary ecological technologies.

Image_3 Lake and Wild Flowers

Image_4 Farmland

“The renovation of those villages is not to destroy the original things, but to preserve the memory of what is remaining based on history, and to step further,” explained lead planner and designer Zhu Shengxun. The old abandoned industrial building and railroad path was preserved, while some art major college students moved into the industrial building to renovate the space into an art exhibition area. An old water reservoir was also persevered.

Image_5 Old Truck in front of the entrance

An old tractor turn into art piece in front village entrance.

Image_6 Old House turn into a library

An old farmhouse converted into a library and meditation room.

Image_6:2_Old house turn into library

Image_7 A New overlook Deck

Image_7:2 A new overlook Deck

Image_8 A new overlook Deck

A new overlook deck and viewing pavilion.

Image_9 Gravel Path Along the wetland

Gravel paving along the wetland.

Image_10 Paving Pattern

Nice paving and wall façade details, constructed using historical tiling and old pottery parts.

Looking back, I now recognize how much the memories of my hometown helped shape me. Similarly, history, culture, and now technology continue to shape my hometown. I believe the planning of this village was quite successful, noticing an increase of visitors during the weekends in Nanjing, and I like to imagine they’ll soon cherish the sights, sounds, and scents of Nanjing tomorrow as I do today.


The past century has been defined by an epic migration of people from rural areas to the city. In 2008, for the first time in history, more of the Earth’s population was living in cities than in the countryside. The U.N. now predicts that nearly 70% of the global population will be city dwellers by 2050.

These time-lapse by Time magazine using Google Earth reveal the impact of a vast population shift into cities around the world, exposing how urban sprawl has transformed the landscape, affected resources, and even the climate around us. These changes are happening fast and will shape the world in the next 20 years.

I grew up in Nanjing, a city close to Shanghai, and I have experienced grand changes in front of my own eyes: more and more skyscrapers, the establishment of new city centers, the expansion of freeways and city roads taking over farmlands, villages, etc. Observing these changes using Google Earth is stunning and alarming – the speed and aggressiveness of our urban sprawl magnified – a salient reminder that human activities have both immediate and long-lasting consequences.

“These Timelapse pictures tell the pretty and not-so-pretty story of a finite planet and how its residents are treating it — razing even as we build, destroying even as we preserve. It takes a certain amount of courage to look at the videos, but once you start, it’s impossible to look away.”


The eye now sees in substance what the mind could only subjectively conceive; (the view form the air) is new function added to our sense; it is a new standard of measurement; it is the basis of a new sensation. Man will make use of it to conceive new aims. Cities will arise out of their ashes. – Le Corbusier, “Aircraft”

The best time onboard an airplane for me is always when taking off or landing. Both are moments when horizons, topographies, textures, and patterns start to form from the perspective of amazing and breathtaking aerial views. From above, the views inspire thoughts about how we started, how we reshaped and formed landscape, and how we built the city within it. Yann Arthus-Bertrand‘s 2009 documentary, “Home”, is a surprising cinematic view of undisturbed natural landscape of the Earth from an aerial perspective. The stunning images evoke questions about how human life affects not only the shapes of the city, but the ecology of our planet.

Landscape as a Pattern Language

We began with that part of the language that defines a town or community. These patterns can never be “designed” or “built” in one fell swoop – but patient piecemeal growth, designed in such a way that every individual act is always helping to create or generate these larger greater patterns, will, slowly and surely, over the years, make a community that has these global patterns in it.  – Christopher Alexander, “A Pattern Language Towns Buildings Constructions

The concept of a “pattern language” was devised long ago by architects and urban planners, an idea which includes more than 250 patterns that in total form the foundation of a language. From large scale town planning, urban spaces, to the details of constructing materials, and even the patterns which arise from one’s life experience, a pattern language provides us a new way to look at the city and landscape, permitting designers to come up with our own ideas about the space and patterns.

Image 4_Landscape Urbanism

Landscape Urbanism

Increasingly, landscape is emerging as a model for urbanism. Landscape has traditionally been defined as the art of organizing horizontal surfaces.., by paying close attention to these surface conditions – not only configuration, but also materiality and performance – designers can active space and produce urban effects without the weighty apparatus of traditional space making.  – Stan Allen, “Mat Urbanism: The Thick 2-D

As landscape urbanism increasingly becomes a topic both locally and internationally, such discussion encourages society to take increasingly extend the view from further above, a perspective of the planet which affords us a greater understanding of spatial relationships, the landscape in connection to part and whole, and the patterns we’ve left as marks upon the planet.

Image_1 Natural Pattern


“Wow, interesting. So, what exactly do you do as a landscape architect?”

This is the most common question I’m asked when I meet someone outside the architectural field. I’m never really sure how to satisfyingly answer this question (and apparently I’m not alone), since our work is multidisciplinary, and touches upon so many parts of everyone’s daily life (even if they don’t know it). Explaining the entirety of our expertise can be confusing for the layman. Sometimes it is more simple to show, rather than tell: a decorative garden, the tree-lined streets following the sidewalk, a public park, or even a college campus. Since an overhead perspective is rare, most of the time the general public will only notice a small portion of a landscape architect’s vision, but landscape architecture is all around us.

So, back to the question of, “who we are and what do we do?”.

The ASLA‘s definition – as my colleague Gary Lai noted – states our profession of 22,500 professionals in the United States has “a significant impact on communities and quality of life”, and that as a whole, “Landscape architecture services in the U.S. are valued at $2.3 billion per year, according to the National Endowment for the Arts.” 

The latest data, which cover up to 2012, show landscape architecture services accounted for 14 percent of total architectural services. Residential design is the largest market sector. Most of that work consists of single-family homes, but also includes multi-family and retirement communities.

Back when I was in college I never expected I would have such trouble explaining  what I was studying so hard to become, but maybe that is because what I do is not just one thing, but many.