Tell me about the brief for the project?
Our brief was to develop a model for a Sponge City that would serve as an exemplar for other designers to follow. The park should also be an exemplar for sustainable construction, energy waster and surface water treatment along with the integration of local skills and crafts into the park.
What would you say was your main goal with the landscape scheme?
Our main goal was to integrate the remnants of tea plantation terraces into the masterplan so that the historic landform could be preserved as a reminder of its past use. We integrated them as a series of bio-filtration regimes that prevent runoff from roads entering into the watercourse.
Do you think you achieved your main goal?
In terms of the design of the water management system I would say yes we did. But in terms of achieving a platform for research, development and innovation I would say not really. However, from our perspective the most important thing was to build a sponge city, a site that behaves very much like a sponge that absorbs water runoff and treated water run off. Part of the reason why this site was chosen is that it took on a limestone cast geology.
What that means is that any water that falls on the ground goes straight into the water aquifer. So if it gets polluted it will take that pollutant right into the drinking water effectively. So we had to demonstrate that even on a difficult site like that, we could achieve a system that filtered and cleaned up the surface water run-off before it got into the ground.
How were you commissioned to work on the project?
We were originally brought in as environmental consultants to the Building Research Establishment (BRE) but were retained as part of the design team to take the scheme forward to construction.
Who was the client and how was it working with them?
Our client was BRE China but our ultimate client was the mayor of Gui’an New District, who comissed us to design an area of around 1700km² that will be built over the course of the next 10 years.
How big was the team working on the project?
We worked with a team from the Urban Design arm of Tsingua University in Beijing (Tsingua Holdings Human Urban Planning and Development Institute) or THHUPDI for short.
Tell me about your history in landscaping?
Wilder Associates has always been focussed on the planning of developments that integrate responsible water management. This has taken us to places like Kenya, Bermuda, Brazil, USA, China, Australia and more recently New Zealand. This passion for integrating water into the landscape was inspired by working with Herbert Dreiseitl on Potsdamer Platz in 1996.
I started out working in the landscape industry by working on sites, building things and constructing landscapes. From that I have learnt a lot about how to technically design landscapes.
How long did the project take to complete?
Surprisingly only three months for the first phase. President Xi Jinping was coming to address a conference on sustainable cities and he would open the park whilst there. We had no alternative but to work around the clock for several weeks to complete the design whilst it was under construction. It’s not an ideal way to deliver schemes and some of the areas that were rushed now look a little worse for wear. However, this pace of construction is quite common in China.
Can you tell me about any difficulties you encountered?
Apart from the programme, trying to explain sustainable design principles was not easy. I remember having meetings with engineers, ecologists, architects and hydrologists and trying to get their compartmentalised thinking into one coherent design approach. There was also a reluctance to take on any new or innovative approaches, but I explained that the purpose of an innovation park is to test new ideas and approaches. The Chinese are very afraid of failure even if it leads to learning outcomes.
What was it like working internationally? Did you fly down to the site quite a lot?
Working internationally has many advantages and disadvantages. The eight hours time difference means that just as the day in China is ending, the work day in London is beginning. It is a chance to brief the team and have them work up ideas and concepts as well as catching up on issues with UK projects. The downside of this is that you usually end up working a 15-20 hour day. We were down on site for a week at the project inception to see the site and develop concepts with the team from Tsingua. The rest of the work was carried out from London apart from attending the opening and the sustainable cities conference.
Was there a language barrier?
I wouldn’t say a barrier. We had translators on the project and part of it is getting them to understand the issues so that they correctly interpret and translate them to the team. It’s not really a barrier but you just have to be aware that it takes much longer to explain ideas when you have to go through a different language. This is especially true when giving a powerpoint presentation, since you have to say what you want to say, and then wait for it to be translated and then wait for the answer to come back. It triples the amount of time it takes to have a conversation, but in some ways it slows it down so you have to think about the answers you want to give.
How much area does the project cover?
The Innovation Park covers an area of 20Ha but it forms the centrepiece of a wider development of 1700km². Much of that area is made up of green infrastructure and wetland management, so the Innovation Park serves as an exemplar of how those areas will be managed.
Were there any other designers working on the project?
Yes the team from Tsingua University.
What was the budget? (If you can say)
I don’t know what the budget was unfortunately.
Tell me more about the visitors centre?
We worked with the team that designed it and we looked at the sustainability principles of the building but we didn’t design it. Part of my role with BRE was advising on sustainable building design from a landscape point of view, so how you can integrate passive systems into buildings, so we looked at the ‘labyrinth calling’ system in the building which connects with the landscape. We were involved with that but not with the building.
Tell me about the scheme’s approach to surface water management?
We basically carried out a hydrological profiling of the land, which meant modeling the terrain and looking at how the water runs off. With that information we looked at how we can use planting to intercept the run off and prevent silt and other pollutants from getting into the watercourse. We used gradient modeling software and environment design to prevent run off from the site.
How has the reaction to the project been?
The scheme has received mixed reactions. On the one hand it sets out objectives for designing Sponge Cities and it achieves a lot in terms of how development can work in harmony with nature. But much of the research programme that we produced to explore the use of biofuels and new construction materials from local sources has yet to be implemented. We had bold visions for a building that would be built entirely of bamboo (the area is renown for its large bamboo forests) and another building where everything used would come from within an 88 mile radius of the site, encouraging the establishment of local supply chains. Sadly those visions have not yet been realised and it highlights the issue of research parks. It’s not just enough to build them but the research upon which the design is focussed also needs to be implemented to get the most value from the scheme.
What is your favourite aspect of the project?
My favourite part of projects like this is the dialogue between groups of experts that are approaching the design from different angles. We all learn from the experience and ideas rub off. We have learned a lot about working in different climate zones and the integration of landscape into buildings and its my guess that other members of the team have learned a lot about water sensitive design. Building something using new technology that has never been used before is always rewarding.
The site incorporates a lot of greenery? Can you tell me a bit more about that?
The green in this project is representative of the urban wetlands that will form a large part of the new districts masterplan. We wanted to incorporate bamboo forests, stormwater wetlands and urban food production into the design of the site. Consequently it has large areas of green infrastructure which function as the water treatment, food production and biofuel facilities as a model for future cities that are far more resilient and sustainable than current ones being built. Whether the park has the ability to influence change is yet to be seen.
The Innovation Park was a collaboration between Wilder Associates, BRE and Tsingua University, and lies at the heart of Gui’an New District, a 1700km² new city that merges Guiyang and Anshun. The scheme, part of the BRE Global Innovation Park Network, was set out to demonstrate new approaches to surface water management.
Culture and heritage also lie at the heart of the masterplan, with historic field patterns and tea plantation terraces incorporated into the design. The visitor center, a design by Tsingua Holdings Human Settlement Development Group, is a modern and passive building that incorporates local materials and craft skills into its fabric. The Innovation Park provides a platform for collaboration between Government, Academic and Industry specialists in the development of new construction technology.
The biggest challenge for me was developing ideas that combine the best of Eastern and Western design approach. A lot of ideas end up on the cutting room floor in the process of arriving at a scheme that sits well within the context of China but embodies the sustainability principles of the West.
Juggling between working abroad and at home was also another challenge. When I was away in China I would also need to be managing the business in London as well. I had all of my admin stuff on our cloud system, and I was able to keep up with all the HR, admin timesheets and marketing. I had a virtual office in my bag effectively.
This article first appeared in the November 2018 issue of Landscape Insight