Posts tagged China


All photos: Yiran Wang

Last week I went back home to Beijing to visit my parents. To my surprise, I came home to discover they’ve become obsessed with a new hobby: urban agriculture. Yes, they’re farming, renting a piece of farm land with a couple of friends. Together, they’ve laid out vegetable plots to tend. They’re already on their second round of harvesting!

“Escape the cities, harvest the days,” said my father.

They’ve come to enjoy the labor, tying up luffa stems and watering their pepper plants, even though they need to drive almost an hour every other day to get out of the huge city.


“It is a trend! You know our friend…she and her family spent millions and bought a big house on the perimeter of the city so that they could farm their own land!” explained my mom, trying to convince me they were not alone in this unexpected urge to grow things.

A day's harvest from my parents' garden.

A day’s harvest from my parents’ garden.

To show them my support I told my parents that landscape architects are vocal proponents of community gardens, edible gardens, and other outdoor spaces set aside to allow plants to grow.

our-tomatoes unknown-melon-in-my-garden

“Those ‘modernized’ Americans like artisan farming?!” exclaimed my dad, doubtful about the idea of affluent and modern Americans returning to the land.

But whatever thoughts he had about this idea of rural pursuits was soon eclipsed by his desire to disappear back into the “jungle” of their garden. Soon, I could only hear his voice from somewhere behind a curtain of cucumbers plants.

“This cures the ‘urban disease’!”

typical LA neighborhood
When my grandparents came to Los Angeles to attend my graduation two years ago, they continually complained about the American neighborhoods. These complaints came as a surprise, as my grandparents would often remark, “Nothing compares to a single house with frontyard and backyard”. They had plenty of complaints:

“You cannot take a walk outside after dinner!”
”Why there is no convenient store within your neighborhood? What ?! A supermarket of 5 minutes drive?!”
“Where is your community security people?”
“ This is unacceptable!”

typical Chinese community design

A typical Chinese residential community design.

Thinking about my neighborhood in Beijing – a big gated community with tons of people dwelling in high towers, all connected by wide expanses of public space – I do understand and agree to some extent with my grandparents’ criticisms of Los Angeles. Back in China every morning and evening, my mom walks my two dogs within the gated community, a trip that can take up to 2 hours just to navigate through all the pocket parks. I used to wake up early on weekends due to the loud music that accompanied the activities of morning dancing and exercising groups nearby.

With modern Chinese metropolitan cities operating under the duress of growing population density, residential tower communities reaching upward seem to be the only solution. A few months ago the Chinese government issued a statement declaring the end of constructing gated communities, causing more urban troubles. But I do see some interesting effects resulting from building upward rather than outward, especially the appearance of wide open landscape.

Le-Corbusier-A-City-of-Towers1Towers can accommodate for more people in a smaller footprint, leaving more ground level space for urban ecology and transit access, a basic concept from Le Corbusier’s assumptive urban planning scheme [right]. Such urban layout works well for certain types of residential projects, such as student housing, industrial parks, residential community, etc. Reviewing the urban planning changes, it’s easy to imagine the application here in Los Angeles where we could reclaim public spaces to improve communities.

The illustration below might seem idealistic or perhaps even “delusional” – a conceptual exploration overlooking political, social and economic issues. But even so, the idea of denser and larger developments with multi-level buildings (earthquake-safe, of course)  is worth exploring for all the benefits of incorporating more open landscape connecting multiple residential parcels instead of developing small parcels separately, with vacant spaces converted into community gardens. Los Angeles will always struggle to find opportunities for developing large open spaces for the community, but perhaps we can integrate numerous smaller open spaces to connect neighbors to neighborhood as they’re doing in China today.

A “Delusional” reimagining of Century City, with a Chinese residential towers and open public spaces connecting the buildings together. Image by Yiran Wang.

A “Delusional” reimagining of Century City, with a Chinese residential towers and open public spaces connecting the buildings together. Image by Yiran Wang.

Yanweizhou Park in Jinhua City by Turenscape

Yanweizhou Park in Jinhua City by Turenscape

After the first El Niño fueled rainfall landed across California a few weeks ago, concerns about potential flooding across Los Angeles neighborhoods became a popular topic of discussion. Friends, coworkers, and neighbors shared tips for preparing for future storms or floods, recognizing this year’s El Niño had the potential to be one of the strongest on record (though the recent mild and warm weather are a deceptive respite). And when it comes to its peak this February and March, Californians have been trained to expect “mudslides, heavy rainfall, one storm after another like a conveyor belt.”

Despite the El Niño rain expected to hit Central and Southern California by the end of this month, the drought will remain in effect according to the U.S. Drought Outlook. With Los Angeles expected to grow in size and population in the coming years, the threat of the cycle between extreme weather like El Niño and the drought becoming the norm seems reason enough for the city to review and replace its outdated and single-use grey water infrastructure system with something greener and more water re-use efficient. We can look to China for possible solutions.

"China is working to develop several 16 “sponge cities” that utilize multiple ways to capture, filter, store, and distribute rainwater." (Image: CCTV America)

“China is working to develop several 16 “sponge cities” that utilize multiple ways to capture, filter, store, and distribute rainwater.” (Image: CCTV America)

What is a “Sponge City”?

Since 2008, the number of Chinese cities affected by flooding has more than doubled. Conversely, severe and extreme droughts have also become a serious nationwide issue since late the 1990s.

“The rate of flooding is a national scandal,” said Kongjian Yu, the dean of Peking University’s College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. “We have poured more than enough concrete. It’s time to invest in a new type of green infrastructure.” Sounds very familiar and similar to the challenges we’re facing here in Los Angeles.

China’s solution? Sponge City.

“A sponge city is one that can hold, clean, and drain water in a natural way using an ecological approach,” said Yu, who is helping to coordinate the national project. According to The Guardian, these projects will include developing rooftop gardens, ponds, filtration pools, and wetlands, with permeable roads and public spaces designed to soak rainwater back into the ground.”

A resilient landscape designed by Chinese government backed, Turenscape: Yanweizhou Park in Jinhua City

A resilient landscape designed by Turenscape: Yanweizhou Park in Jinhua City

“It’s a new way of thinking about stormwater, not as a problem but as an opportunity and a resource to augment our water supply.” – Richard Luthy, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University.

One project that perfectly represents the Sponge City concept is Yanweizhou Park in Jinhua City. Completed by in 2015, the project is a water resilient development with plantings designed to adapt to seasonal monsoon flooding. A resilient bridge and paths system permits both the flow of water currents and pedestrians, both adaptable as the season changes. The project utilizes the existing riparian sand quarries with minimum intervention to protect the local micro-terrain and natural vegetation. Rather than building high concrete flood walls up and around, the project incorporated floodable pedestrian paths and pavilions, both integrated with planting terraces designed to be closed to the public during periods of flooding. In addition to the terraced river embankment, the inland areas of the park are all permeable thanks to the use of gravel and re-used material across the pedestrian sections, with permeable paving used in the parking lot.

Sponge City 's terraced riverbank / gravel pavement are part of the park's planned permeability.

Sponge City ‘s terraced riverbank / gravel pavement are part of the park’s planned permeability. Photo: Turenscape

Is this “Sponge City” concept applicable to Los Angeles?

“Sponge City” seems a novel and catchy idea, yet the strategies and principles are actually an adaption of existing technologies already in play here, solutions inspired and sourced from the Low Impact Development (LID).

Actions have already been taken to make Los Angeles more “spongy”. An example: the Elmer Avenue Neighborhood Retrofit, a transformation of a residential street incorporating storm water best management practices (BMPs) to capture and filter runoff from a 40-acre area. Before the installation, the neighborhood was subjected to frequent flooding, but with vegetated bio swale and rain barrels, trench drain, and permeable pavers on the private driveway, the performance and appearance of the street is highly improved.

Council of Watershed Health - Elmer Ave Retrofit

Council of Watershed Health – Elmer Ave Retrofit

Moreover, increasingly more single-family homeowners are installing rain barrels to collect rain runoff from roofs to reuse for irrigations or cleaning. And for high-rise residential apartments, green roofs have been installed to reduce the runoff from roof.

Additionally, AHBE's own South Park Streetscape project is the first green street in Downtown LA.

AHBE’s own South Park Streetscape project is the first green street in Downtown LA.

While researching the concept of a Sponge City, I thought about the long-term benefits of these water-wise solutions in both China and here in Los Angeles. Even though we’ve already begun “pre-sponging” the city of Los Angeles by adding several green streets and green roofs, I believe we need to begin thinking of the infrastructure network as a whole system rather than individual sections. Site studies and research of both the Los Angeles Watershed and the city itself is required. However, I am optimistic about the idea of making Los Angeles a “Sponge City”, excited about scaling these water-optimization systems across all of Los Angeles.

I believe an important first step is simply spreading public awareness about the concepts behind a Sponge City. Currently, most Angelenos are not aware of these systems and solutions which could in sum alleviate the stresses placed upon Los Angeles by extreme weather fluctuations. Professor Anas Ghadouani, the regional executive director of the CRC for Water Sensitive Cities in Perth, Australia noted, “There is more awareness of the [drought] issue. When you compare it to somewhere like San Diego, I’d say Perth is well ahead; California seems to be shocked when there is a drought, whereas in Perth people are more aware of where water comes from. There’s a focus on diversity of sources that doesn’t surprise people now.”

It’s a notable point worthy of letting “soak in” as we plan for a more water-efficient future.

More resources about Sponge City: