Homepage >  News >  Media Coverage >  Text

Open Horizons: Kongjian Yu Bringing Big Ideas Down to Earth Through Nature-centered Landscape Architecture

2022-12-09 Source:Open Horizons

Kongjian Yu

Bringing big ideas down to Earth through

nature-centered landscape architecture

The purpose of this page is to introduce non-specialists in landscape design to the work of Kongjian Yu, founder and dean of the Graduate School of Landscape Architecture at Peking University and founder of the planning and design office Turenscape in Beijing.  Professor Yu received the Cobb Common Good Award in 2021.  His work is immensely important to those of us in the worldwide process community who are committed to the ideals of Ecological Civilization.  In designing our cities and working with the land around us (including water and wind) he invites us to reject the elitism of urban elites and to "think like a farmer."  We do this in collaboration with the natural world and with an impulse to care for one another, as if we lived in a small village.  With help from his many ideas and projects, we can help build flourishing communities that are both humane and ecological.  Such building is part of what it means to practice process philosophy.

- Jay McDaniel, May 30, 2021

Red Ribbon Tanghe River Park:

eco-friendly landscape architecture

"The Red Ribbon made its mark in China’s with its award-winning Tanghe River Park. The park sits on the outskirts of the evolving city of Qinguangdao, in a river corridor. Before Turenscape got a hold of this land, it was littered with trash and deserted irrigation structures. Turenscape, led by Kongjian Yu, was able to preserve the environmental treasures while integrating ecological principles. They created a ribbon of red steel that runs throughout the park, parallel to the river. The red ribbon is both functional and fashionable providing seating, and plenty of lighting and plan displays. The red is bright and inviting while symbolizing China’s joy and prosperity towards preserving the environment. The Tanghe River Park won the 2007 ASLA Design Honor Award and received first place in the national competition."

- Trendir: The Latest Designs

The Red Ribbon demonstrates another important idea – minimal intervention, ecological minimalism. It’s not formal minimalism, but ecological minimalism, which means we can create a dramatic landscape through minimal intervention. We don't have to build those gigantic, baroque-style landscapes. We can actually just build a tiny, skinny red ribbon, and it's functional. We integrated all these functions urban people wanted: seating, board walks, and lighting. We should not take more than what we need. We should create what we need – minimal intervention and use modern art, modern technology. It's called modern, but you can see it's still Chinese. Red Ribbon: it has Chinese color, and style. The Red Ribbon demonstrates my idea about how we can create a very normal landscape, yet make it dramatic. - Kongjian Yu

Bringing Big Ideas Down to Earth in Urban Landcapes

excerpts from talk given by Jay McDaniel at

Cobb Award for Common Good ceremony, May 2021

Professor Kongjian Yu as honoree and recipient

How might big ideas come down to Earth?  Or, if you prefer, how might big ideas arise from the depths of life - from the soil and water and wind and sunshine – so that they give hope to us all? 

Take the idea of an Ecological Civilization: that is, the hopeful idea that we humans might learn to live in harmony and love for one another, in harmony with nature, with no one left behind.  In his time Jesus had a big idea like this, and more recently Gandhi and Martin Luther King had a similar idea.  John Cobb has an idea like this, too.  And so does our honoree tonight, Professor Kongjian Yu.  How might an idea like this come down to earth, or arise from the depths?

Let me be more specific, how might this big idea get translated, not only into our hearts, but also into our very design of cities and urban landscapes, such that they (the urban landscapes) embody harmony with nature and encourage fellowship with one another, combining sustainability and beauty? 

One way is through the remarkable work of the man we are honoring tonight: Professor Kongjian Yu,  professor of landscape architecture at Peking University (PKU) and the founder of the planning and design office Turenscape in Beijing.  He has transformed urban spaces in more than three hundred cities in China in ways that are humane, ecological and beautiful.  If the Cobb Institute is a think-tank with legs, he shows what the legs look like.


Think Like a Farmer

Professor Yu has a unique history.  He was born to a peasant family in Dong Yu village in southeast China’s Zhejiang Province, located where White Sand Creek and the Wujiang River meet.  He tells us about his childhood in a recent talk:

I swam in the creek during the summer and caught big fish when the monsoon season came. When I was small, I took care of a water buffalo, which grazed along the waterways and between the paddy fields. There were seven ponds, a patch of sacred forest and two big camphor trees in front of the village, under which many legendary stories about my ancestors were told... The land and water were precious, but the weather could be unpredictable, so we had to design and manage our farm fields wisely, following nature’s cycle and wasting nothing, and adapting in order to make a living.  We worshipped the Earth God, Water God, and Yu the Great, the legendary king who knew how to manage water and plan the land. We also worshipped our ancestors, who had the wisdom of adapting to nature and cultivating the land.

The highlighted sentences give us a key to how big ideas might come down to Earth and indeed, down to cities?   We might learn to think like a Chinese farmer, following nature’s cycle and wasting nothing, adapting ourselves to the landscapes in which we dwell, all the while sensitive to the fact that life’s ecology includes the invisible as well as the visible, the spirits as well as the physical, woven into an evolving whole.

Of course, Professor Yu’s experience did not end with his childhood. His family suffered in the cultural revolution and he could not attend school.  But then, at about age fifteen, something remarkable happened.  In his words:

But in 1978, I immediately enrolled in school and began studying hard to catch up.  In 1980, after 17 years working on the commune, I passed the national university entrance examination. I was the sole lucky university entrant out of 300-plus students in our rural high school.

The rest of the story is history.  Trained at Peking University and then at Harvard, he did not leave the farm behind.  Today Professor Yu applies what he calls “peasant wisdom and practices” to urban architecture, showing how human cultures in urban settings can be enriched by ancient rural wisdom.

Sponge Cities and Creating “Sponge” areas

One example of his remarkable work – but only one – is what has come to be called “the sponge city.”  A sponge city is a city designed with ecologically friendly alternatives to traditional flood defenses and drainage systems. The basic idea of a sponge city is to replicate the natural water cycle by keeping water where it lands.

There’s a contrast here.  Modern cities are made of concrete, glass and steel. They look and act unnatural – absorbing heat and repelling water. The idea behind a sponge city, is to imitate the natural environment as much as possible.  However, like a farming village in rural China, a sponge city is not an impermeable system, preventing water from filtering through the ground.  Instead, it is more like a sponge, absorbing the rainwater, which is then naturally filtered by the soil and allowed to reach into the urban aquifers.

The means of this absorption include planting on rooftops, the cultivation of wetlands, and laying down permeable roads that absorb rainwater.   Currently, “spongy” designs are being explored in 30 cities in China, including Shanghai, Wuhan, and Xiamen. The current aim of the initiative is that 80 percent of urban areas in China will re-use 70 percent of their rainwater.  Designs such as these are aimed at synthesizing ecological sustainability with beauty at a human scale, for the well-being of local life.

Beautiful Big Feet

One of Professor Kongjian Yu’s articles, published in the Harvard Design Magazine in 2009, is titled “Beautiful Big Feet: A New Landscape Aesthetic.”   His title plays upon the idea in ancient China that elite women had small feet, the result of binding, whereas rural peasants had big feet.  He is using the image of big, beautiful feet as a symbol for a new “constructively postmodern” aesthetic: that is, a new way of thinking about beauty and what beautiful cities can look like.  

This new way is new in unique, constructively postmodern sense.  It does not seek replace the agricultural past with an urban-industrial ideal of ‘modernity’ governed by concrete and steel, skyscrapers, and dams.  The old, “modern” aesthetic saw beauty in terms of artificial ornamentation, as in a floral garden separated from the world.  The new postmodern aesthetic finds beauty in ordinary life and the natural world, as illustrated in farmers working with the land, living within its limits and rendering it into forms of production that benefit human and the earth, and celebrating together at the end of a harvest.  Indeed, Professor Yu identifies “celebration” itself as one of the key features of farming life that can and should be enjoyed in the city as well.  The celebration at issue can be collective and vibrant but translated into an urban setting it can also be the quiet “celebration” of a family enjoying a picnic while sitting on a bench close to a wetland.

Indeed, that image provides a holistic view of ecological civilization. Ecological civilization is not “the environment” alone or “human life” alone, but both together in their differences as well as their similarities.  It combines human culture and natural culture, respecting each.  It is the family having the picnic and the plants growing the wetlands. Both are beautiful.

“Life Lessons” from Kongjian Yu

Jay McDaniel

Think like a farmer even if you live in a big city.

I swam in the creek during the summer and caught big fish when the monsoon season came. When I was small, I took care of a water buffalo, which grazed along the waterways and between the paddy fields. There were seven ponds, a patch of sacred forest and two big camphor trees in front of the village, under which many legendary stories about my ancestors were told... The land and water were precious, but the weather could be unpredictable, so we had to design and manage our farm fields wisely, following nature’s cycle and wasting nothing, and adapting in order to make a living.  We worshipped the Earth God, Water God, and Yu the Great, the legendary king who knew how to manage water and plan the land. We also worshipped our ancestors, who had the wisdom of adapting to nature and cultivating the land.” Professor Kongjian Yu

As you design cities and portions of city, use nature-based approaches that work with the “deep forms” of the land, air, and water.

The deep forms emerge from nature itself, in the wind and water, the landscapes and waterways.

Don’t forget the wider ecology: The earth god, the water god, the ancestors. The spiritual side of life.

Don’t waste.

Celebrate the harvest.

Adopt a holistic understanding of Ecology

Think of ecology as the interconnectedness of all things, and recognize that it includes visible and invisible dimensions of life: what we feel and remember and hope for, as well as the land (water, wind) around us.

Recognize that Ecology includes our social relations to one another - friendships and family, for example - as well as the landscapes that can facilitate such relationships.

Know that ecology includes the spiritual side of life: the earth god, the water god, the ancestors, and perhaps also a compassionate and life-nurturing Spirit in whose life the whole of life unfolds.

Choose deep beauty over shallow beauty.

Shallow beauty is ornamental, separating beauty from what is practical and messy.  It emphasizes what is “pretty” as in an isolated flower garden, but not what is beautiful, as in a terraced landscape for farming.

Recognize beauty in the practical.

Find beauty in the ordinary: ordinary landscapes, rural and urban, ordinary customs, and ordinary human connections.

Choose survival over catastrophe

Recognize that humanity is at a crossroads with two ways of living available to us.

The way of industrial civilizations with their steel and concrete, dikes and dams, skyscrapers, and will-to-mastery. Alienated from the natural world.  It is what many mean by “modernity.”

The way of ecological civilization with its impulse to live in harmony with the earth and in harmony with neighbors, finding fulfilment in community and love.

The way of ecological civilization is a matter of survival.  Choose life.


Combine adventure with homecoming: live with roots and wings.

Be critical of the worst aspects of modernity and recognize the problems of the preindustrial past as well.  No need to romanticize the past or present, but also recognize that:

There are aspects of modernity worth appreciating: science and technology, for example, fast trains and the internet.  Welcome them.

There are aspects of the ancient past worth appreciating: the design principles of ancient farming, for example, the idea of wasting nothing, the sense of holistic spirituality.  Welcome them.

A merely “modern” approach to life rejects tradition for the sake of what is new, rejects the past for an imagined future.  A “constructively postmodern” approach welcomes the old and new.

Combine adventure with homecoming, wings with roots.

A  New Vernacular

excerpts from an interview with Kongjian Yu in

American Society of Landscape Architects


In an interview with Time Magazine, you said China needs a dramatic shift. “We've misunderstood what it means to be developed.  We need to develop a new system, a new vernacular to express the changing relationship between land and people.”  What should this new language be?

The new language should be native in terms of material and plant use. Secondly, it must be for the common people, normal people. We should not consider this high-culture, traditional landscape gardening as the solution for modern China. We should find a new solution, which I call the vernacular – a new technology for common people from local vernacular materials.

It should address the issue of survival, not pleasure making, or ornament. It should be for survival, because we are now, as human beings, at the edge of survival. Especially in China, we are at the edge of survival. We have a serious shortage of water, and our water's been polluted. 70 percent of our surface water has been polluted. And the underground water is dropping. We are at the edge of survival, because we all have only 7 percent of natural resources -- water, energy – but we have to take care of 20 percent of the world population. That's an issue of survival.

The new vernacular is different from the old vernacular. The old vernacular is agricultural based. It's survival for agricultural China. And that's a low culture; it's a vernacular low culture. For 5,000 years, Chinese agriculture has developed this vernacular to adapt to the land and people. At the same time, we developed a kind of high culture. Chinese gardens and Chinese ornament, paintings, and poems. This high culture does nothing to ensure survival. It's only for the pleasure-seeking of the elite, the emperors, only for the high class.

Now we are again at the stage of survival, not only for the farmers, not only for the normal people, but also for the higher classes. That's why we need to pick up this low culture, because that's the culture for survival. We have to develop a new set of survival skills based on low culture. This low culture, the vernacular Chinese culture, is seldom mentioned in text books by Westerners.  It's not being talked about, so we know little about how normal Chinese actually survive through these skills. I think now we have to deal with the issue of survival, but with new survival skills. I call landscape architecture an art of survival.

What you’ve said relates to my next question. Landscape has played a key role in Chinese arts. Traditional Chinese landscapes are featured in brush painting, and poetry.  How can the new landscape architecture like you're talking about revitalize reverence for nature in China?

High culture landscape gardening should be considered a heritage – a dead heritage, not a living heritage. The Chinese have a living heritage. This is the low culture of agriculture, field making, irrigation, and land use. That’s the tradition we should carry on. We should make it living today. We should make it function today. Not as a brush painting, not as garden making, not as ornamental display. We mistakenly take high culture as our only tradition. We forget we have really functional and useful low culture. That's the vernacular, the functional vernacular.

Many Chinese cities that have gone through new development are sometimes starting to look the same.  I noticed this on some of my travels when I was there.  What are the main arguments you made to urban planners to use a “negative approach,” as you've said in the past?

This is what I'm trying to do: Reverse the approach to urban and regional development planning.  Conventional planning is based on population growth, and oriented towards economic development. Development becomes the focus. You assign a certain amount of land for development, and new infrastructure that allows for the development. That’s the conventional model of urban planning.  My idea about negative approach, or reversed approach, is that landscape should lead the way, which means we should plan and design ecological infrastructure. This should be the basis for urban development, and occur before other planning is done. This kind of plan safeguards the ecological process and cultural heritage. This means we integrate storm water  management systems, flood area, biodiversity conservation, cultural heritage sites, green corridors, etc. All together. We integrate them into a kind of infrastructure.

In America, we call this green infrastructure, but I also hear the term ecological infrastructure used, which specifically focuses on ecological processes to secure ecological services, including clean water, clean air, biodiversity, enjoyment, recreation and cultural heritage.

Zhongshan Shipyard Park

The Zhongshan Shipyard Park reflects my idea of how to recycle, use and recover brown field in the city – to recover the ecosystem. At the same time, the park keeps the memory of the city and history of the city, even if the history is only 30 years old, like the ship yard. It was built in 1950s, and went bankrupt in the 1990s. Normally we would wipe out this kind of old factory, because it's nothing special compared to other Chinese historical sites. It doesn’t fit into the Chinese traditional idea of aesthetics. It's nothing beautiful. The idea here is that we should take care of the common people, not the emperor’s. These normal people also have a history that's very important. In this park, weeds or native plants, which have been considered ugly or wiped out, are allowed to grow. The weed is a native grass, native plant. In Zhongshan shipyard, we actually demonstrated two things: one is the common, the everyday, the vernacular, normal people, the old, bankrupt factory. The second: we should create new aesthetics, the new ethics of the environmental conservation. We used native plants, native species. Both of these things were unusual in China at that time, five years ago.  I was seriously attacked by traditional thinkers. They thought it was ridiculous. Now, it has become more accepted by society.  - Kongjian Yu


All comments only on behalf of Internet users