What kinds of public spaces contribute the most to building memorable and attractive cities? As landscape architects, a large portion of our practice focuses on ecology, natural processes, and material performances. The global urban age is happening at a dizzying pace and scale, and with a diversity and complexity that challenges traditional design paradigms. Weaving human purposes into natural systems frameworks, we ideally tackle the urgent challenges of today by creating highly attractive places that provide unique spatial experiences and authentic regional identities.
Building celebrated and socially enduring public space requires having a deep understanding of what creates livability and popularity, as well as working within a culturally specific framework to embrace the needs of contemporary cities.
The term “Ren Chi” describes the kind of space with a prominent quality of vitality and life energy. Translated from Chinese characters, 人气, 人(REN) means humanity or people, while 气 (CHI) means air, with an extended meaning of spirit, or life energy in Daoist philosophy. Spaces with Ren Chi are known for the “life “energy” radiating from people’s activities there. Although not necessarily constructed with expensive materials or including iconic architectural landmarks, these places are highly effective in attracting people to stay, and in delivering the experience of being part of the culture and urban dynamics.
(Comparison Diagrams of Bottom Up Design and Top Down Design, Graphics by Patrick Sunbury)
Why have many designers failed to create Ren Chi in their work? First, the absence of a liberal arts and social science methodology in the design process, including contextual research, post-occupancy analysis, and a set of tools from psychology and even neuroscience. Second, prevalent professional tendencies of our age place emphasis on individual and isolated actions, and seldom address the shared ideas and continuity among different pieces and disciplines. As William “Holly” Whyte once advocated in his sociology research for public space design, people should use “a new way of designing public spaces—one that is bottom-up, not top-down.” Using his approach, “design should start with a thorough understanding of the way people use spaces, and the way they would like to use spaces.” Through understanding the social DNA, designers should consider an organizing system that is flexible and adaptive enough to contain everyday life energy, which is spontaneous, non-institutional, and even disordered.
为什么许多设计师在他们的项目中未能创造出这样的人气空间呢？首先是因为在设计过程中缺乏对环境背景调研、用后体验分析等人文艺术与社会科学研究方法的认识，也没有掌握一套包括环境心理学，甚至是神经科学方面的辅助研究工具。其次，当今专业研究领域的重心更倾向于探讨单个与独立的问题，而很少涉及对不同方面与不同学科之间共通的理念与连续性进行的深入研究。正如William “Holly” Whyte在其关于公共空间设计的社会学研究著作中提出的，人们应该用“一种新的设计思路处理公共空间的设计，即一种自下而上的思路，而不是自上而下的思路”。采用这种思路就意味着“设计应从对人们目前如何使用空间以及未来希望如何使用空间的深入理解出发。”通过对这种社会DNA的理解，设计师应研究如何体现一种灵活的、自发的、非制度甚至是无序的公共空使用方式，从这些信息来组织设计系统，以提供足够的适应性，容纳日常生活的各种行为，保障活力。
How can the idea of Ren Chi be observed, measured, and developed? The theoretical framework would be built on the observations and arguments of sociology, environmental psychology, economics, and policy making. We modern-day city builders face the challenge of developing a set of design criteria for public spaces that promote Ren Chi, taking into account such issues as density, diversity, flexibility, informality, social inclusivity, and the area’s regional identity. Once the social DNA of the context is decoded, forms need to perform well under such guidance and offer an instrumental physical conduit to promote people’s usage. In this way, we may begin to deliver more happy urban living experiences that are legible through the presence of Ren Chi.
Guided by desired objective, rather than a set of prescribed physical outcomes, the Ren Chi design allows a variety of innovative place making solutions. Good Ren Chi spaces can be described by many prominent qualities, including but not limited to the following:
- Highly popular and supportive to variety of activities
- Well accessible from surrounding neighborhoods and major places
- Enhance a sense of place and culture characters of the region
- Human scale, spatial dimension reflect enough density, avoiding oversized public spaces that look empty when not in use
- Socially inclusive, inviting, and encouraging interactions
- With a comfortable microclimate of balanced sun and shade
- With user-friendly and lasting site furniture
- Emotionally uplifting, inspiring and delightful
- Informal and flexible, allow users to rearrange the space when needed
- 具有舒适的微气候 – 均衡场地中阴影和阳光的配比
PUBLIC SPACE PROJECT CASE STUDY 人气项目案例研究
CASE STUDY ONE: 案例一
CITY NAME CARD – CULTURE PLAZA OF NANHAI THOUSAND LANTERN LAKE PARK SYSTEM (PUBLIC PROJECT, BUILT)
都市文化名片 – 南海千灯湖水公园二期之文化广场 （公共，建成）
One of the successful RenChi Place Making examples is Nanhai Thousand Lantern Lake’s Culture Plaza, which was built as an important public space for the phase two of Lantern Lake Park System. Designed as an event space with stage for local festivals and outdoor opera performance, the plaza also accommodated daily recreational and social activities through negotiating the scale, micro climate, site furniture, shelter space and its attractive water edge. Culture Plaza is now a year-around popular land mark among many local parks and squares.
Thousand Lantern Lake Park System was selected as one of the two winners of the 2015 ULI Urban Open Space Award
(Video by Jonnu Singleton)
CASE STUDY TWO: 案例二
URBAN NOSTALGIA – HUIZHOU THOUSAND FLOWER ISLAND COMMUNITY (RESIDENTIAL, CONCEPTUAL DESIGN)
记得起乡愁的城市楼盘 – 惠州千花岛 项目（居住类，概念设计）
Not all public space sites are located in dense and vibrant population center that helps to make attracting RenChi much easier. For a regular landscape project that aims to create an attractive outdoor experience with some public ownership, and observed RenChi, what should be the measures to take in order to draw people outside and interact with others? RenChi space design solutions have a lot to offer in decoding the social DNA of certain region, spatial programming and creating user-friendly outdoor rooms that are interesting and meaningful to people’s daily lives. Thousand Flower Island is a typical high-rise residential development located in a South China town called Huizhou. With booming economy and vast scale housing development, the city is largely considered of losing culture heritage connection during it fast urbanization in past 30 years. Known for its deep historical culture value and Hakka community tradition, Huizhou old town still kept historical temple and lake parks with nice scale and local craftsmanship, but its new town was building too fast to reflect the memorable place quality and events that people use to cherish. Swept by miles and miles of monotonous high-rise housing projects in its urban periphery, the city was listed among the top “Bubble economic urban area” in China, and the real estate developers were struggling to come up with attractive new ideas for their projects to stand out in the markets fierce competition.
The author and her team took the landscape conceptual design of Thousand Flower Island Project, and spent decent amount of time to research the cultural traditions of the region, especially on its Hakka community, which has deep influence to local cultural and social DNA. Workshops with client group were conducted thourouly to discuss how future residence would like to use the landscape space, what are important programs or spatial qualities that likely to draw them outside and experience a true sense of belonging to this new home of Huizhou’s busy working class. Without retail components in the project, place making is challenged to really use garden rooms, playgrounds and landscape features to choreograph places that can hold a lot of activities and events, bring RenChi outdoor and form a vibrant community ambiance.
Graphics prepared by Peiwen Yu, Patrick Sunbury at SWA Group
Photo credit: Jonnu Singleton, Tom Fox at SWA Group, Foshan Nanhai Planning Bureau