Chinese Landscape Architect Kongjian Yu, Champion of “Sponge Cities” Concept for Addressing Climate Change Accelerated Urban Flooding, Wins 2023 Cornelia Hahn Oberlander International Landscape Architecture Prize
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Biennial prize includes a $100,000 award and two years of public engagement activities
October 17, 2023 (Washington, D.C.) – The Cultural Landscape Foundation (“TCLF”) today announced that Beijing-based landscape architect Kongjian Yu is the recipient of the 2023 Cornelia Hahn Oberlander International Landscape Architecture Prize (“Oberlander Prize”). The biennial Oberlander Prize includes a $100,000 award and two years of public engagement activities focused on the laureate’s work and landscape architecture more broadly. Yu is the global champion of the “sponge cities” concept for addressing climate change accelerated urban flooding, which was adopted as national policy in China in 2013. The biennial Oberlander Prize is bestowed on a recipient who is “exceptionally talented, creative, courageous, and visionary” and has “a significant body of built work that exemplifies the art of landscape architecture.” Yu was selected by an international seven-person jury, supported by Oberlander Prize Curator John Beardsley, from more than 300 nominations worldwide. The Oberlander Prize Jury Citation noted of Yu, he is a “brilliant and prolific designer … [who] is also a force for progressive change in landscape architecture around the world.”
Yu defines landscape architecture as the art of survival. “He lives and breathes his conviction that landscape architecture is the discipline to lead effective responses to the climate crisis,” said TCLF President & CEO Charles A. Birnbaum, “and his ideas are inspiring planners and decision makers in Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, Denmark, Egypt, England, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Mexico, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Russia, Singapore, South Africa, Sweden, and elsewhere.” His “sponge cities” concept addresses climate change accelerated urban flooding with large-scale nature-based infrastructure – including constructed wetlands, greenways, parks, canopy tree and woodland protection, rain gardens, green roofs, permeable pavements, bioswales, other measures – that acts as sponges soaking up and storing rainfall instead of relying exclusively on traditional concrete reinforced riverbanks, dams, pipes, drains, and other conventional engineering solutions. Since being adopted as national policy in 2013, more than 70 cities in China have implemented the “sponge cities” concept with the goal that by 2030 80% of the cities would be able to absorb 70% of their rainfall.
About Kongjian Yu
Yu is the founder and leads the Graduate School of Landscape Architecture, and the College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture at Peking University. He is also founder and principal designer at the landscape architecture firm Turenscape, which today numbers some 400 employees. The firm’s name combines the characters “Tu” 土, which means dirt, earth, or the land, and “Ren” 人, which means people, man, or human being. “Turen … means earth man, a relationship between land and people. The firm’s philosophy is to create … harmony between land and people and … sustainable environments for the future.” Yu received a Doctor of Design Degree from the Harvard University Graduate School of Design (1995) and is the author of more than twenty books and the founder and chief editor of internationally awarded magazine Landscape Architecture Frontier. He has been an invited lecturer, speaker, and guest professor around the world; he and his firm’s projects have received numerous awards.
The Oberlander Prize website includes a written biography of the laureate, a short introductory video with Yu, and videos about three significant projects: Zhongshan Shipyard Park (Zhongshan, China), Red Ribbon Park (Qinhuangdao, China), and Benjakitti Forest Park (Bangkok, Thailand).
Yu has been called the “Olmsted of China,” a reference to Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., the influential founder of the landscape architecture profession in the United States and best known as the co-designer of New York City’s Central Park. However, Yu describes himself as a “peasant’s son” who was born in 1963 and raised in Dong Yu village in Jinhua, Zhejiang Province, which had a population of less than 500 people, a place he called a paradise. It is where the White Sand Creek flows down from the mountain through 36 weirs, which help facilitate crop irrigation, and into the Wujiang River. When the monsoon season-related flooding came, he says, the whole village would get excited because carp would swim up the creek from the Wujiang River to spawn, going over the low weirs, and into the fields and rice paddies where they were caught.
“Yu’s journey from farming in a remote Chinese village to international preeminence in landscape architecture traces an extraordinary odyssey,” wrote William Saunders in the book Designed Ecologies: The Landscape Architecture of Kongjian Yu, (2012). “[D]uring the 1966 to 1976 Cultural Revolution … [h]e grew up near an enchanting forest and a fish-filled creek, only to see the forest cut down and the creek become too polluted to support life. This helps explain the depth of his commitment to recreating and protecting natural abundance. He suffered social ostracism in the countryside for having wealthy ancestors and then for being a ‘country bumpkin’ when he made it to the big city. This helps us understand his conviction that parks are to be enjoyed by all ranks of people. He loved farming and was proud that his commune used every square meter of its land productively. This helps explain his revulsion to landscapes that are ‘merely’ ornamental. He learned how to deploy scarce water resources and cultivate crops in ways that ensured their survival. And this helps us understand his will to create parks that are low-maintenance and ‘productive.’”
In 1978 Deng Xiaoping reversed the policies that barred children of the landlord class from going to school. Within two years, according to Oberlander Prize Curator John Beardsley’s essay in Designed Ecologies, Yu was the “only one of three hundred in his county’s secondary school to pass university entrance exams [and] he was admitted to Beijing Forestry University in 1980. Because his examination score was higher than that required for forestry, he was invited to enroll in the landscape gardening program, which he recalls as the only university program in the field at the time in China.” He earned a Master’s degree in 1987.
Yu cites three events as being influential. In 1972, the year that U.S. President Richard Nixon came to China, his village used newly available pesticides for the first time. The use of DDT resulted in a massive fish kill and the sickening of people who consumed the contaminated fish since no one knew the pesticide was poisonous. A year later he fell into the monsoon swollen creek and nearly drowned. He caught hold of an overarching branch of one of the stream’s many willows; the trees and other volunteer vegetation slowed the current. In the 1980s concrete dams, culverts, pipes, and other so-called “grey infrastructure” were constructed throughout China, which severely disrupted the natural flow of the local waterways, eradicated trees and vegetation (the sort that saved him from drowning), and altered finely calibrated irrigation networks, including in his own village. In a recent interview Yu said “the destruction of my own paradise is what make me think that we need a revolution”; at the core of that revolution is the “sponge cities” concept.
After Yu received Doctor of Design Degree, he practiced with the SWA Group in Laguna Beach, CA, before returning to China in 1997. For more than 25 years, he has spent his career fighting against deteriorating urban ecologies and transforming and stewarding the natural and cultural environment. His work has significantly elevated the role of design in the process, and what landscape architects can provide in designing large-scale nature-based solutions for the public’s benefit and enjoyment.
His pioneering research on Ecological Security Patterns (1995) and Ecological Infrastructure, Negative Planning and Sponge Cities (2003) has been adopted by the Chinese government (2013) as a guiding theory for nationwide ecological protection and restoration campaigns. He created Peking University’s landscape architecture department, which started with three students and has graduated more than 1,200 master’s and doctoral students. He helped shift Chinese national-level policies from economic development-centered urbanism toward ecologically prudent urbanism through numerous letters to top Chinese leaders and more than 600 lectures to mayors, ministers and almost all ranks of Chinese officials; numerous media appearances; and as a leading member of several national expert committees, including vice president of the Society of Urban Studies.
To date Yu and his firm have some 600 built projects in more than 200 cities, principally in China, but also in France, Indonesia, Russia, Singapore, Thailand, and the U.S.
Notable projects include the following:
Zhongshan Shipyard Park, Zhongshan, Guandong Province, 2001. A 27-acre park built on the site of a 1950s shipyard that went bankrupt in 1999. Rather that raze the culturally significant site, the design, an early example of the “sponge cities” concept, retained some of the extant vernacular architecture, along with machines, docks, and other industrial structures that were repurposed. Yu believes in the retention of cultural landscape heritage, including industrial sites and working landscapes.
Red Ribbon Park, Qinhuangdao, Hebei Province, 2007. The principal design element is an eye-catching yet minimal intervention – a surgically-inserted, sinuous 1,640-feet-long (500-meter) red benchlike structure threaded along the length of a narrow rectangular park on the Tanghe River. It integrates a boardwalk, seating, and lighting; lit from inside, it glows red at night. The park retained the site’s lush and diverse native vegetation, eliminated dumped garbage, and provided scenic and recreational opportunities.
Shanghai Houtan Park, Shanghai, 2010. This narrow liner 34.6-acre (14-hectare) park, with a mile-long constructed wetland was created on a former industrial site located along the Huangpu River waterfront. The wetlands control flooding and help cleanse polluted water. Reclaimed industrial structures and materials are woven into a pedestrian network composed of a main loop, a series of perpendicular roads bisecting the wetland, and an array of footpaths leading through the site’s terraces.
Qunli Stormwater Park, Qunli New District, Harbin City, Heilongjiang Province, 2011. One of the first “sponge cities” projects to gain wide attention, this 80-acre (34.2-hectare) national urban wetland park was created from a dying wetland. The park features a series of ponds and mounds with native grasses, meadow, and silver birch trees that create a dense forest setting. A series of pathways and elevated walkways ring the park and include multiple viewing opportunities including elevated platforms and towers.
Sanya Mangrove Park, Sanya, Hainan Province, 2016. A lush and biodiverse mangrove park along the Sanya River measuring 24.7 acres (ten hectares) was sculpted from a trash-strewn landfill with concrete flood walls. The site was sculpted into a series of finger-like landforms, with skywalks connecting with pathways that lead to elevated pavilions, which afford multiple viewing opportunities.
Sanya Dong’an Wetland Park, Sanya, Hainan Province, 2016. One of the earliest and the most significant demonstration and multi-functional projects of the nationwide sponge city effort. The 168-acre (68-hectare) site was transformed from a polluted wetland on a river corridor that had been filled with urban debris. The new park design integrates wetlands, ponds, rice paddies, greenways, and coastal habitats into a holistic sponge system to retain, cleanse water and recharge the aquifer. This green infrastructure also integrates interconnected pedestrian and bicycle paths that provide freedom of movement throughout the park.
Nanchang Fish Tail Park, Nanchang,Jiangxi Province, 2022. A 126-acre (51-hectare) floating forest in the provincial capital reclaimed a polluted former fish farm and coal ash dump site. Dozens of small islands planted with dawn redwood and two types of cypress, some of which are ringed by giant stands of yellow irises, help regulate storm water, provide habitat for wildlife, and offer an array of scenic and recreational opportunities. A network of walkways connects to bridges, platforms, pavilions and viewing towers that are strategically placed to key vistas and focal points.
Benjakitti Forest Park, Bangkok, Thailand, 2023. This 104.5-acre (42.3-hectare) park at a former tobacco factory with numerous single-story warehouses was transformed into the largest public recreational space for residents of downtown Bangkok and its environs in just eighteen months. In constructing the park, extant trees were retained and integrated into the new design, while several vernacular warehouses were repurposed. Three new constructed wetlands feature hundreds of small islands that provide habitat and manage stormwater.
His built U.S. projects:
Chinatown Park, Boston, MA, USA, 2007. A joint project with Boston-based CRJA, (now IBI Group) the roughly three-quarter-acre (.3-hectare) site was one of 45 parks and public plazas that resulted from the Central Artery/Tunnel Project, known as the Big Dig, which replaced a deteriorating elevated six-lane highway with an underground tunnel route. The arced rectangular-shaped park that replaced a former off-ramp features a serpentine path lined by on both sides by low stone benches that terminates in an open, multi-purpose gathering space.
Hing Hay Park, Seattle, WA, 2018. The dominant feature of this two-third-acre (.27-hectare) park in the heart of the Chinatown-International District Neighborhood is a twenty by 70-foot angular perforated red metal gateway inspired by Asian paper cutting and folding traditions. A project with Seattle-based SvR Design Company (now MIG | SvR), the site includes multiple garden terraces, inspired by the rice paddies of Yu’s agrarian upbringing, and numerous gathering and performance spaces. The plant materials include Chinese natives such as white crape myrtle and lacebark pine.
Gary Hilderbrand, Chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture, Harvard University Graduate School of Design, recently said Yu is the “all-time greatest spokesperson for landscape architecture in China—a nation that needs environmental rescue on a colossal scale.”
“Kongjian Yu has achieved the extraordinary,” said Birnbaum. “He is a landscape architect whose design philosophy and concepts, which interweave nature and culture, and are committed to design excellence, have been adopted as national policy in one of the world’s largest and most populous nations – that has international implications and global impact.”
About the Oberlander Prize
The biennial Cornelia Hahn Oberlander International Landscape Architecture Prize, which includes a $100,000 award and two years of public engagement activities, was created to increase the visibility, understanding, appreciation and conversation about landscape architecture. The New York Times called the prize’s namesake, Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, the “grande dame of landscape architecture” and reported she was “one of the first landscape architects to speak passionately about climate change and was an early adopter of storm-water-management systems and green roofs.”
Creation of the Oberlander Prize began in 2014 amid TCLF’s efforts to prevent the demolition of the Frick Collection’s Russell Page-designed viewing garden on East 70th Street in New York City. “A lead million-dollar gift by TCLF Board Member Joan Shafran and her husband Rob Haimes, turned a dream into a possibility,” according to TCLF’s Birnbaum. “Financial support from additional donors,” he added, “including members of the 100 Women Campaign, along with key strategic advice from Jill Magnuson and other senior leadership at the Nasher Sculpture Center and Martha Thorne, former Executive Director of the Pritzker Prize, among others, helped the possibility become a reality.” The inaugural laureate, landscape architect Julie Bargmann, was announced on October 14, 2021.
As an Oberlander Prize laureate, significant built works by Yu will be added to TCLF’s What’s Out There® database, which currently features more than 2,700 sites, 15,000 images, and 1,100 designer profiles. As with the inaugural laureate, Julie Bargmann, Yu will also be the subject of a forthcoming Pioneers video oral history. His work and design philosophies will also serve as the curatorial inspiration for public engagement activities that will take place beginning in 2024.
Oberlander Prize Jury
The seven-person jury includes leading landscape architects, urban planners, architects, academics, and other experts from around the world: Jury Chair, Elizabeth Mossop, Dean of the University of Technology Sydney School of Design, Architecture and Building (Australia); Christian Benimana, Co-Executive Director and Senior Principal, MASS Design Group (Rwanda); Consuelo Bravo, owner of Panorama (Chile); Adriaan Gueze, a Founder of West 8 urban design & landscape architecture (The Netherlands); Leonard Ng Keok Poh, Ramboll Studio (Singapore); Kotchakorn Voraakhom, CEO and Founder of Landprocess and Porous City Network (Thailand); and Jane Wolff, University of Toronto (Canada).
About The Cultural Landscape Foundation
The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF), founded in 1998, is a 501(c)(3) non-profit founded in 1998 to connect people to places. TCLF educates and engages the public to make our shared landscape heritage more visible, identify its value, and empower its stewards. Through its website, publishing, lectures, and other events, TCLF broadens support and understanding for cultural landscapes. TCLF is also home to the Cornelia Hahn Oberlander International Landscape Architecture Prize.
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