Not long ago, I was entrusted by the local government to plan and design a new landscape along the Wujiang River. Since I was a kid, I had looked forward to visiting the mysterious and beautiful Wujiang River. With high expectations, my design team and I set off for the river. But when we arrived, what I saw disappointed and frustrated me. The river, a place of innumerable stories and legends, should have been a torrential and dangerous landscape, witnessing sorrowful and pitiful, or passionate and bold history. Instead, it had been reconstructed into a cemented channel, and flood protection embankments, dozens of meters high, had cut flat the zigzag rocks on both banks. The smooth cement desert of engineering had replaced lush vegetation and crucial habitat for wildlife. I felt angry and sad about the atrocity, ignorance and viciousness of human beings. A dozen hydropower stations that had been completed or were under construction, together with the expanding flood control embankments, had succeeded in tying up and strangling ecological corridors of crucial importance all in the name of “infrastructure development”. While the natural “infrastructure” that had once provided continuing ecological services for large urban and rural areas in China was walking toward its death! Wujiang River is not at all alone! Other large rivers in China are suffering the same fate. Devastating disaster has befallen, or is befalling the Dadu River, Jinsha River, Lancang River, Minjiang River, and Xiangjiang River, as well as the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers, waterways that have nurtured Chinese civilization for thousands of years.
If “infrastructure” is the physical support for social production and household life, which is required for a society to survive and develop, then why cannot we keep the natural, free-of-charge, and living “infrastructure” that has functioned for thousands of years, instead destroying it while simultaneously constructing mechanical and grey “infrastructure” at a huge cost, that in the end
supplies the same service?
For flood control? A research team from Peking University found that, even if China were to remove all flood embankments, only 2.8% of the country might be flooded. To protect this 2.8% of land, we have invested almost RMB 100 billion annually in so-called flood control projects! What has worked for thousands of years, we are wasting. Year after year China has generated huge wealth through hard work. Is not this worth reflection by every Chinese citizen and decision-makers in particular? In the agricultural era, 2.8% of national land supported agricultural livelihoods and the lives of tens of millions of people. In the early 20th century, at least 90% China’s GDP was from agriculture, and the production of each square meter of land was directly linked to the living standards of local people. This is no longer the case. Agriculture now contributes to less than 10% of China’s economy. We do not need to fight the floods for agricultural lands. The fact is, the flooding we now experience is the result of irrational planning and construction.
For power generation? Hydropower makes up only 15% of total power generation in China. In order to produce hydropower, we have destroyed, on a national scale, the most crucial “infrastructure” ecosystem of the world — the water and river system, and even the whole water system. Ironically, in order to get water, we designed the South-to-North Water Diversion Project, which with 13 cascade pumping stations and a total lift head of 65 meters diverts water from Yangtze River basin to Yellow River basin. How much power is needed to maintain the daily operation of such huge, national-scale infrastructure?
For addressing the water shortage in Northern China? People might not know that each year four billion cubic meters of rainwater is discharged into the sea from Beijing alone, while each year the South-to-North Water Diversion Project transfers only three billion cubic meters of water to Beijing. Each year, as summer turns into autumn, there is a fear of flood disasters in almost all cities in China. To deal with the volume of raining and flooding, our cities make huge investments to build large drainage pipelines and pumping stations, hoping to drain every drop of rain in the blink of an eye. If we could keep all the rainwater in Beijing, or even three quarters of the water, then there would be no need to transfer water from the south to the north. As huge, impenetrable infrastructure, the South-to-North Water Diversion Project has caused damage to natural and human processes, including damages to the urban and rural water system, cultural heritage, and tourist and community networks. It would be impossible to measure the ecological, social, cultural, and economic costs with simple numbers.
For addressing urban waterlogging? For thousands of years, our ancestors have gleaned rich lessons from the failures and successes of adapting to rain and waterlogging through ecological infrastructure adapted to local climates. For example, the mulberry fishponds of the Pearl River Delta, the water network south of Yangtze River, small ponds in mountainous areas of southwest China, and ponding marshes in northern China are reminders of ecological infrastructure from ancient China. These landscapes have provided the best ecological services for generations, including food and clean water supply, rainfall flood regulation and storage, drought relief, disaster prevention, and life preservation, in the context of poetic and picturesque scenery. Nevertheless, our cities, consciously or unconsciously, ignore this type of ecological “infrastructure” but instead maneuver the pen of planning, produce mandatory legal documents, and advocate for machinery that moves mountains and empties the seas. Modern planning flattens the land, turns sites into pieces of blank paper, and lays out generic, grey “infrastructure”. It builds wide, broad roads and controlled networks of water supply, power supply, and sewage pipes. Systematic, free ecological infrastructure is replaced with a set of static infrastructure that provides a single function and costs a fortune. The results are right before our eyes: cities lose their resilience when faced with the extremes of natural processes.
For water pollution treatment? Our forefathers cherished human waste, collecting it as the best fertilizer for crops. Such agricultural treasures are treated by city-dwellers as wastewater and garbage, discharged through sewers into rivers and lakes, polluting waterways instead of fertilizing hungry farmlands. At the same time, farmers stopped making use of free organic fertilizers, and in order to maintain crop yields, turned to expensive inorganic fertilizers produced in factories that emit black toxic smoke and discharge poisonous sewage water. On the other side, in cities, engineers invented sewage treatment plants. Supported by large amounts of electricity and connected by innumerable pipes, these expensive machines are devoted to removing nutrients in sewage, often ignoring that their power source emits black smoke and kills living rivers. Such infrastructure cuts short the natural circulation of materials and metabolic systems, only to send water, soil and air pollutions into an unnecessary and redundant circle.
For providing transport service? We build highways so that cars can move faster. We close the entrances and exits along these roads and construct isolation belts at the center to ensure that the highways — the backbones of infrastructure — are continuous and unobstructed. We are unaware however, that such actions have damaged another transportation network that was denser and more efficient, a transport means that is safer and greener: the pedestrian and bicycle system.
Please do not get me wrong. I am not advocating removal of cars, nor am I denying the technology that supports modern human civilizations. I am calling for a new type of infrastructure that is wiser, more sophisticated, and able to systematically integrate natural and human processes. I am calling for an ecological infrastructure that takes landscape as the infrastructure to systematically address the diseases of contemporary cities, to address regional and local flooding, drought and water shortage, water and soil pollution, alienation from nature, dullness of environmental experience, and lack of cultural identity. An ecologicalized infrastructure will bring us a new picture
of cities: a poetic, picturesque, and resilient place that is fertile and resources efficient, based on natural systems, rich in delicate human creations, and free of the turmoil of the world. This new type of infrastructure would bring us a new, low-carbon, healthful, and ecological life. Such infrastructure will help us in creating new cultures and guide us towards a new civilization — an ecological civilization.
Wulong Section of Wujiang River: Two different ways of treating with the natural process and pattern. On the left side of this picture is a friendly and adaptive way to the city and built environment. It takes landscapes as ecological infrastructure and will freely benefit from the ecological system, which includes resiliently adapting to flood and climate change in living environment, enhancing aesthetic value, and even functioning productive performance; On the right side, through erasing the comprehensive and sustainable ecological system that is essential to human survival, those vibrant landscapes have been replaced by expensive grey infrastructure under the guise of “infrastructure construction”, and destroyed the ecological “infrastructure” in the natural landscape. Like hundreds of rivers in China, these flooding control and hydropower engineering works ruining Wujiang River are not, or not exactly, an indispensable means to protect human existence. As an ecological corridor, the key ecological “infrastructure” of the National Ecological Security Pattern in China, Wujiang River is disappearing. A silver lining in this tragedy, the local government has begun to realize that the river might be saved by landscape architects (Taken by Kongjian Yu, Wulong, June 2, 2013).
Source: Yu, K. (2013).Landscape as Infrastructure. Landscape Architecture Frontiers, 1 (3):5-9.