China’s cities are rapidly exploding and constantly evolving—struggling to keep pace with a growing population and transforming economy.  This is no surprise.  However, all of this change necessarily means that the urban form is constantly in flux as well.  As regions shift from agriculture to industrial to post-industrial, and small towns beget mega cities, there is tremendous cause for concern regarding the effects that this will have on local ecologies as well as the global environment.  Significantly, there is also tremendous opportunity to utilize the latest sustainable methods and reintroduce nature into China’s urban areas for the services its can provide for its infrastructure—in terms of management and remediation—and for its people—psychologically, recreationally, and aesthetically.

Qiaoyuan Park in Tianjin, China, is an exemplary case study that embodies this hope and builds upon the opportunity that nature holds for the future of urban China. The park sits on 54 acres, bounded to the west and north by a highway and an overpass, and to the south and east by densely populated residential areas. Once a shooting range, it had been transformed over time into a heavily polluted garbage dump and drainage sink for the city, with severely contaminated soils.

In 2003, the citizens of Tianjin called for the environmental improvement of the site, and the local government contacted Turenscape, headed by Kongjian Yu ( landscape architect/urban designer and professor at Harvard and Peking Universities), to design a strategy for its improvement.

The resulting park is remarkable for the two purposes that it fulfills, one utilitarian and one aesthetic. First and foremost, the design attempts to repair the saline and alkaline soils and treat urban stormwater through natural processes integrating biologically diverse ecosystems and their regenerative capabilities.  Its innovative strategy—called Adaptive Palettes—involved the construction of 21 ponds with varying depths, moisture, and pH levels.  Integrated with the topography and carefully chosen indigenous plants, each pond produces a microhabitat—ranging from wetland to grassland—that can provide different functions for the site.

Potentially more exciting than the park’s physical resilience, enabled by the design, is the social and cultural function that it provides for the people of Tianjin.  It aims to engender a love and appreciation of nature and educate on important ecosystem services by allowing urban dwellers an intimate, bodily experience.  For example, wooden platforms encourage visitors to sit right in the middle of patches of native grasses and wildflowers, among the hum of insects and birds, while a network of paths enable them to explore its messy landscape, unveiling natural processes, patterns, and species.

Qiaoyuan Park—with its bounty of untended native species and messy beauty—looks very different from the carefully mown lawns and ornamental gardens that have characteristically embodied China’s park aesthetic (and the U.S. and Europe’s for that matter). In a 2010 article for Topos magazine, Yu wrote: “The park has unveiled as new aesthetic in China—one that adheres to environmental aesthetics and a heightened sense of ecological awareness.”

Given the success of Qiaoyuan Park (over 200,000 people visited in its first two months), it stands to reason that it has an opportunity to make a tremendous impact on how residents in Tianjin view and value nature. And, it can serve as an inspiration to those of us in other parts of the world, too—of the possibilities embodied in the places that we design and create to offer the public a new lens to see their home cities, a lens that values nature both for its performative significance and its beauty.

Post by Harriett Jameson, Biophilic Cities Researcher

Harriett is a candidate for a dual Masters in Landscape Architecture and Masters in Urban and Environmental Planning at UVa.

Photos from