Dou is a landscape architect and the director of Sasaki's Shanghai office. Her master planning and design work focuses on celebrating unique site features, creating sustainable and integrated environments. Read her bio here.
This article was originally published in Landscape Architecture Frontiers.
Shanghai, once the economic and industrial base of China, has emerged again as one of the leading international cities in East Asia. With the highest Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and the largest annual tax contributions among all cities in the country, the prosperous economy in Shanghai has attracted people from all over China and abroad.
Looking for More Space
Located in the center of the Yangtze Delta, one of the most populous and developed regions in China, people in Shanghai are facing dilemmas of limited space and constantly increasing population. With over 24 million permanent residents, Shanghai has the biggest population density but smallest land area (6,340 square kilometers) among four municipalities directly managed by the central government. Where can more space for development be found? In recent years, people have turned their attention to the agricultural land and the ocean.
Since 2001, following the Tenth Five-Year Plan of Shanghai, nine satellite cities were quickly put into construction. Many were built from agricultural lands, and the biggest one — Lingang New City, with a total area of 315.6 km2, was erected from the 133.3 km2 landfill into the East China Sea.
Decades of landfill has created more land areas at the cost of coastal habitat destruction. The reclaimed land, however, has struggled to propel the desired development for many years due to its harsh conditions. Long-term restoration and remediation efforts are needed both along the shoreline and in reclaimed land areas.
The latest landfill in Lingang New City started in 2002, after the Lingang New City Master Plan was approved by the local government. 45% of the New City was built on the largest reclaimed land area in China. Having been coastal wetland habitat for wildlife prior to being filled in for the New City, the reclaimed land was, for a time, a habitat for migratory birds. However, this was soon cleared for possible development — and the habitat was significantly compromised.
Succession of Coastal Landscape
During the design competition in 2015 for the 546 hectares Green Ring Park inlaid in the Lingang New City, Sasaki proposed a series of long-term strategies to help the site and the larger new city to accelerate its succession and restore the coastal habitats along the shoreline. Ultimately, the goal was to make it a welcome place for both people and wildlife.
Being 1.6 times the size of New York City’s Central Park, this extensive park plays a critical role to the health of the local ecosystem and the value of the urban districts in the area. In more detail, the park will impact the water quality, soil fertility, plant community, habitat value, recreational opportunities, educational importance, and cultural transformation of the entire new city and beyond. With this in mind, the design of the park had to start with a much broader context including the environmental and social issues the entire Lingang New City was facing, and to treat the park as a catalyst for holistic improvement of this reclaimed land.
The current condition of the park site shows all issues resulted from land reclamation and the new city master plan. Soil salinity and habitat loss led to the barren landscape, while the spreading master plan exacerbated the problem. Although huge investments had been made on the landfill and city infrastructure, it is still a very windy site — a harsh environment for plants or people to live. These conditions impeded the population growth and economic development of this new city.
Our major strategies included building coastal protection system and remediating saline soil, creating complete ecological network, remediating stormwater, harvesting wind energy for power while building wind protection, and creating destinations for local residents and visitors. All these strategies would contribute to the overall livability of the New City.
The spatial design composition, Ripples in the Breeze, corresponds to the above strategies — taking cues from natural characters of the site: water and wind, and creating diverse experiences through canals and path systems anchored by program “bubbles.” Where layers of “ripples” are originated by wind near the urban core, multiple program spaces are formed along; where “ripples” spread out, the extending gestures delineate large-scale landscapes near the ocean, supporting soil and water desalination as well as coastal protection, linking adjacent communities with local recreational network and wildlife habitats, weaving people’s life, work, and joy into the larger regional ecosystem.
It is a grand vision coupled with the development phasing which will accelerate the succession of the new city. At the two western segments, where soil remediation had started and large quantity of trees had been planted to serve the adjacent developments, the plan is to focus on promoting park uses and improving maintenance strategies. At the rest of the site which remains barren, the plan is to introduce agricultural and pastoral practices for remediating soil over time, eventually making the plant communities succeed into a forest when developments start around. Large areas of wetland beyond the park site will be incorporated in the desalination process while continuing its function as a buffer to prevent sea water seepage and to attenuate big storms and waves.
Staggered stages of succession at different segments of the park will result in a very diverse landscape, with forest, tree groves, gardens, lawn, thickets, meadow, agriculture field, wetland, and water bodies distributed across the site (Fig. 3). This diversity enriches the habitat value and user experience in the new city. As the physical environment constantly improves, more people will be willing to work and live in Lingang New City.
Unsurprisingly, the local government was hesitant to taking as bold a direction as was proposed. This hesitation paired with frequent leadership changes in the past few years resulted in very little movement on the Green Ring Park. As the attention to the ecological condition of China continues to grow, we hope Lingang New City will eventually be seen as a pioneer in large coastal landscape restoration and succession.
Refocusing on the City
With tighter control from the central government on the limited agricultural land in the country, and already oversized development in the metropolitan area, Shanghai has started to look at existing developed areas for opportunities. According to the city’s Thirteenth Five- Year Plan, Shanghai will start to shrink its total development area from 2020.
As a result, urban regeneration has gained more and more attention, both inland and along the rivers. Challenging as in other cities of the world, urban regeneration projects face a complex mixture of current needs, historic preservation, constraints from existing infrastructure, land uses, and political issues. Strong design integration is crucial to the success of these projects.
Similar to other waterfront cities in the world, Shanghai’s waterfront had been the center of the city life and was dominated by industrial uses and ports until the beginning of the 21st century when heavy industries started to move away. Now, more essential urban uses such as office, commercial, and residential development, as well as recreational programs are gradually returning to the waterfront.
A great example for such revival is Xuhui Riverfront Area, which has experienced a major transformation from airport and industrial base into one of the most high-end office and commercial development clusters as well as a popular public destination in the city. Sasaki has engaged in the landscape design of the nine-hectare Runway Park inlaid among high density developments — transforming a historic runway into a public green space for recreation and respite from surrounding city.
Despite all efforts made in revitalizing city’s waterfronts, the qualities of many riverfront parks are not complimenting Shanghai’s growing status as an international city. Among all riverfront parks along Huangpu River, only a few addressed the water quality issue or habitat value, fewer provided improvement on the connections between city and river, and many are not popular due to lack of programs or adjacency to users. Some park designs are still following the simplistic panacea of planting more trees. With Shanghai’s goal of becoming a remarkable global city, the redesign of its waterfront, the city’s frontage, requires a much higher level of comprehensive thinking.
Shanghai is a city with pollution-induced water shortage. Water in the Huangpu River is rated at level 4 at upstream, and worse than level 5 at the mouth of the river. Excess nitrogen and phosphorus from upstream farmland and discharge of industrial wastewater, and urban runoff containing mercury, petroleum, ammonia, and nitrogen from the developed area are constantly contributing to the problem. Riverbanks dominated by hard edges offer no mitigation of the water, and riverfront parks filled with evergreen and ornamental species in the same planting structure provide little habitat value.
Fish population has directly suffered from polluted water with a significant decrease in both quality and number of species. Since the 1960s, 40 ~ 50 fish species have disappeared from the Huangpu River. Combined issues of the deteriorated water quality, reduced fish population, and monotonous plant communities along the river have resulted in contaminated sources of food and drinking water as well as lack of proper habitats for various bird species, along with too much human intervention, threatening the migratory bird population. All told, the overall ecological quality of the riverfront is not very optimistic.
Known as a waterfront metropolis, the reality of the riverfront in many parts of Shanghai is a bit embarrassing. It is hard to see rivers from city streets, especially at the city center. The conflict between the need for flood control and the natural drive to access water poses a constant challenge. Global climate changes have resulted in ever bigger flood events and higher water levels, while the soft clay ground in Shanghai constantly settles. In the 1930s, people used to walk directly from the streets in Bund to the docks in Huangpu River. Today, a three-meter high flood wall isolates the river from the city. Although the waterfront has experienced many rounds of renovation, an issue of visibility remains. On many riverfront streets, people can see the towers on the other side of the river, but never the river itself.
For example, Lujiazui, a peninsula on the eastern bank of Huangpu River, has been developed as a new financial district in Shanghai since the early 1990s. Although its rapid development led to the construction of its world-renowned skyline that towers over the waterfront, it hasn’t always made allowances for quality public spaces. While it is home to several parks, homogenized programs suffocated energy, and uncoordinated developments by different stakeholders over the years have resulted in a lack of connection and consistency. These issues are compounded by levee and flood wall systems that block both visual and physical access to the riverfront.
Reunion of the City and the River
Following the big push around the 2010 Shanghai EXPO, the Huangpu Riverfront Greenway project was initiated in 2016 to link all waterfront areas into a continuous system. With a design scheme dubbed “Reunion of the City and the River,” Sasaki’s plan for the 2.5-km-long Lujiazui Riverfront was not only to create a few continuous pathways along the river, but, more importantly, to address larger issues in the waterfront city. These issues included returning the riverfront to the public, injecting more energy into the inland parcels, restoring its ecological functions, celebrating its cultural heritages, and creating a central public space in the most prominent location of Shanghai. We envisioned the site as a catalyst for high-quality urban life.
During the design process, we interviewed many park users and stakeholders of the site and surrounding developments, surveyed site foot traffic at peak and off-peak hours, and made multiple presentations to the clients, stakeholders and various government agencies in order to produce a visionary yet pragmatic plan to improve the quality of this central public open space.
A holistic design strategy comprises a spatial framework of three paths stretching along the river and eleven gateways and viewing corridors linking the city and the river, integrated with diverse programs and spaces designed for all ages. The three paths — Waterfront Path, Panorama Path, and City Path — create a continuous recreational system along the river, allowing people at this unique location to enjoy a full spectrum of experiences at different levels of the waterfront — the most splendid past, present, and future of this international metropolis. The gateways and viewing corridors extending the urban streets visually and physically weave the river into the city fabric, bringing stronger connections with the riverfront as well as offering new energies to this urban district.
The river’s history as a vital industrial corridor was celebrated by preserving and restoring selected artifacts near the waterfront. The plan’s ecological design strategy integrates existing site conditions with future uses and historic context. A comprehensive stormwater management system integrated with riverbank enhancement measures will improve water quality and restore habitats along the shoreline while drawing more people to the riverfront. Assisted by native plant species and diverse landscape types, the plan will promote a sustainable and local landscape for the Yangtze River Delta and complement the overall design.
The Lujiazui Riverfront is a critical link in the Huangpu River East Bund. With much respect to the existing context, Sasaki’s design scheme incorporates elements of recreation, culture, education, and eco-restoration into this concentrated microcosm of Shanghai, creating a window through which visitors can view a distilled image of the city’s rich and unique culture.
Despite a visionary approach, close integration with existing site conditions, and collaboration with multiple stakeholders, the design was suspended midway for unknown reasons. Months later, meandering paths with ornamental plants were found on site, showing no clear relationship with the existing urban fabric or riverbanks. It is said that the existing riverfront street will be all covered and planted with thousands of trees on the top. Sometimes it is quite confusing what drives the design decisions for such critical public landscapes.
Pioneering in Resiliency, Culture, and Creativity
Shanghai’s 2035 Master Plan sets up goals for Shanghai to become an excellent global city, one of creativity, humanity, and resiliency. The plan reflects the city’s engrained culture of forward thinking, and calls for bold exploration of creative approaches in making high quality places. Large state-of-the-art public green spaces will play a very important role in achieving such a grand vision, given their endless potential coming from sizeable impact on the local ecology, its public attributes and flexibility.
Sasaki’s design scheme for the 189-hectare Shanghai EXPO Cultural Park was an exploration and statement on how large public green spaces can contribute to a reputable global city in the making. As one of the two finalists in an international design competition, Sasaki’s proposed park celebrates the unique ecological, cultural, and innovative contexts of this largest riverfront green space in the city center that will create a unique destination — a gift for the people of Shanghai to enjoy.
As a visual focal point from the west bank of the Huangpu River, this land in the Pudong District has evolved over the decades: from natural wetland, to farmland with an expansive canal system, to a base for heavy industry. The opening of the 2010 Shanghai EXPO represents yet another new chapter of the site’s history and symbolized the beginning of the site’s post-industrial rebirth. In the Spring of 2017, the City of Shanghai decided to transform this site once again — this time, into the EXPO Cultural Park.
The park is aligned along an ecological spine that connects the Huangpu River with the open space corridor on the east. The landscape framework for the park then builds upon this spine, linking the riverfront and the city, and the east and west banks of the Huangpu River with vernacular features interpreting varied history of the site. Four themed corridors and seven distinct zones form an engaging and varied experience through the park with unique programs paired with the seasonality to create an activity hub for diverse user groups, reflecting Shanghai’s culture of equity and openness.
With its recent history as an industrial brownfield, the soil and groundwater on site is contaminated by heavy metals and organic solvents. Heavily contaminated soil was removed prior to the 2010 EXPO, while less contaminated soil and groundwater were left untreated. The top priority in Sasaki’s design is to create a test bed for green infrastructure and technology to remediate the site. The design scheme adapts working landscapes into spatial experience, including soil and groundwater remediation, stormwater management, and sewage treatment. Diverse plant communities are introduced not only to increase the user’s experience, but also to build a variety of wildlife habitats and serve as a valuable ecological patch in the heart of the city.
Embracing the EXPO’s slogan, “better city, better life,” the design aims to create a new brand that represents the urban cultural life of present-day Shanghai: an arts and culture destination on the Huangpu River. Cultural destinations on both banks of the Huangpu River are linked into an arts and culture route; both international and local plants are proposed in the park to create an “EXPO Forest” highlighted by Magnolias, Shanghai’s city flower.
As another expression of the EXPO spirit, the park is also designed to be the window to the latest innovative ideas. The “Inspiration Corridor” essentially transforms the entire park into a stage. It connects the preserved pavilions, a showroom converted from a factory building, and an innovative living greenhouse — providing flexible indoor and outdoor platforms for technology education, design exhibition, and cultural exchange, and serving as the primary gathering space for the city of Shanghai.
The design feedback from the client was focused on the cost and duration of the phytoremediation process. Although research shows that it may take approximately 10 years to clean up the site — a short wait for such a significant project — there is a desire to see a mature forest growing on this barren site immediately, partially due to the pressure from the government. Many parks in Shanghai were built in just a few months. They would rather spend large amount of money shipping all the contaminated soil offsite, in lieu of borrowing nature’s power to remediate it onsite over time, simply because it is faster. This is in stark contrast to how decision makers in New York City reacted to the reclamation plan of Fresh Kill Park, a 30-year process initiated in 2008.
Who Should Determine the Public Spaces?
Large public green spaces in a city create huge impact on the local ecology and life quality. Well-designed spaces can enhance the ecological value, create recreational and educational destinations, and promote local culture. Who shall be the one making decisions on the future of such public green spaces?
As the ultimate users of the spaces, the local public plays a very important role in the success of such spaces. Tax payers should also have every right to decide where to spend their tax money. In Western countries, holding public meetings during the design process is a common way to involve the public as well as engage stakeholders whose support could greatly expedite the project.
Although some online platforms have started public surveys on a few major public projects in Shanghai, the decision making processes in China are still dominated by the top-down procedure. Political agendas often become the driving force in forming the design direction, which in many cases deviates from the best professional judgement; instant need often overrides the long term vision. This can lead to missed opportunities to create a much bigger ecological, cultural, and social impact through these large public landscape projects. How can landscape architects better influence the decision making process is a question worthy of consideration from all professionals.
What is more, improving public awareness in China of the multiple values of the landscape is as critical to the success of a project; for example, planting more trees is not a panacea for all ecological issues, but rather the solution must arise from the specific site conditions. We have seen in many cases a lack of professional ecologists invited to review the design of large public green spaces, which indicates the organizer’s ignorance of the importance of the ecology in such projects. More in-depth educational programs and project promotions online or in physical forms need to be considered in landscape projects to help the public understand what is involved in achieving the environmental and social goal of a project.
There is still a long way to go. With Shanghai growing into a truly global city, we hope its large public green spaces could catch up on its pioneering vision and design.