Walking the Path vs. Knowing the Path – Designing Places for Authentic Cities

In an age of technology that so often produces simulated reality at the expense of the real, how do we design American and global cities to be smarter and more enjoyable to live in? Today’s technology and artificial intelligence has amplified the power of humans significantly. However, human feelings will never been delivered through a map on your device, or by virtual reality, as no technology has by far successfully “hacked” humans by fully decoding our complex emotions.

Remember the 1999 movie The Matrix, about the “double life” lived by Neo and a group of rebels who hacked into the Matrix to “unplug” enslaved humans? If given the choice between a red or blue pill representing simulated reality or authentic cities, what would people choose today? Some historians have predicted that “authority may actually shift away from humans to algorithms,” implying that powerful data will gain significant ability to understand humans and eventually take over.

“Homo sapiens is on the brink of an upgrade—sort of. As we become increasingly skilled at deploying artificial intelligencebig data, and algorithms to do everything from easing traffic to diagnosing cancer…” says historian and best-­selling author Yuval Harari in his new book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow.  “The tipping point is when you have an external algorithm that understands you—your feelings, emotions, choices, desires—better than you understand them yourself. That’s the point when there is the switch from amplifying humans to making them redundant.”

We’re not likely to unplug ourselves, and humanity has proven its ability to rise to the challenges posed by dangerous new technologies. As a landscape architect and city builder, I am always enthusiastic about the beauty of experiencing real places, and how much authentic environments can affect our emotions and health. I believe it’s imperative that we construct public spaces with authentic cultural contexts that feed humanistic feelings. When it comes to the experience of city living, such as getting from point A to point B, having dinner with friends, or spending one’s weekends in a shopping park, what are the most precious memories we take away?  One can easily share an Instagram post about New Orleans, but can a picture ever convey the fullness of one’s experience walking down Bourbon Street?


Taking as an example George Town, a UNESCO world heritage site (and Malaysia’s most vital tourist hub), the most classical way for tourists to explore the streets is by “cycle rickshaw” (flower bicycle) rides. Although this classical mode of transport is quite primitive,it aids travelers in capturing their most genuine feelings and have an authentic encounter with the city.

Making places that are informed by authentic cultural value reinforces the connection between people and places, through experiential reactions while “walking the path.” Designing such places has been hard given fixed formulas. It requires designers to really make cultural uniqueness visible by interpreting and revitalizing it, through means of design, programming, and operation. Thanks to psychology, cognitive science and neuroscience, we have a much better idea of the kind of urban environments that people like or find stimulating. The book Places of the Heart, by Colin Ellard, offers insight into how space moves us, indicating “Human beings have evolved to operate in particular types of environments, with optimal levels of complexity that are ultimately related to our biology.” He further pointed out “Perhaps the defining characteristic of humanity: we build to change perceptions, and to influence thoughts and feelings; by these means, we attempt to organize human activity, exert power, and in many cases make money.”

Two stories about place-making that were curated to enhance people’s experiences –public waterfront promenades designed with a site’s unique heritage always in mind.

Shekou Postindustrial Promenade (Initial phase: first kilometer) 

Shekou Coastal Promenade will be a new addition to the global city of Shenzhen’s open space system, expressing the renewed culture and the city’s desire to transform an out-of-date industrial shoreline into a vibrant waterfront. The once disconnected, dull and even dangerous shoreline walk has been designed to incorporate various programmatic elements and culturally enriched landscape elements. Part of an international competition-winning scheme called “Culture Lines from Hinterland,” Phase I was built along a 1,000-meter-long shoreline, formerly an engineered barge docking edge, with some loose sandy beach area and a disused pier. It’s about one fifth of the total length of this coastal transformation project.

As an important recreational route for cyclers and joggers, this promenade separates pedestrians and bike traffic; along the way it provides places of interest for staying, viewing and experiencing memorable landscapes that were designed to remind people about the past of this waterfront. Below are renderings of the Promenade. A variety of spatial nodes are linked to compose a rich experience.

Interpreting nature’s rich, complex and subtle beauty lays a foundation for place-making through paving patterns, topographic forms and planting textures.

On top of the ground plane, landscape and site furniture are introduced to create comfort that helps people to stop and relax along the corridor with great views. Borrowing from wooden fishing boats and quarry stones, the idea is to design benches and seat walls to create a contextual material vibe of this place.

Many simple but effective Corten metal art installations are curated along the Promenade. They each serves as a thematic place-making node that delivers impressions of the tide, the wind, the coastal grasses and industrial city skylines.

Breeze Plaza Corten Steel Light Installation, Invisible City Steel Installation and the High Tide Stone Block terrace.

Marking the end of the initial phase, “Window to the Sea Plaza” is situated in a location where the city road and promenade meet and open up the views from the street to the ocean. A shade structure featuring the fishnet concept was proposed to help frame the picture window. Using thematic design cues from fishing boats and fishnet, seating and shade canopy create a moment reinforcing the visual connection and memory of the region’s fishing history.

Design rendering of the canopy, and construction phase photos.

Jade City Levee Walk

As Southeast Asia’s hub for jade crafting and trading, Foshan’s Jade City in Pingzhou is now known as a top national tourism destination. Pingzhou’s modern jadeite industry began in the 1980s and has matured rapidly since 2000. There are about 100 manufacturing businesses and more than 3,000 stores on Pingzhou’s Jade Street. The jade market district features many gardens built specially to display the work of the great carving artisans.

When the adjacent riverfront open space was planned to become a public park, an international competition was held to solicit design proposals that promote and celebrate the Jade City culture. A riverfront park system diagram below shows the scale of this transformation of Foshan’s 45-kilometer-long, former industrial waterfront. The river corridor is still largely used for shipping. Currently, an engineered levee system does not support recreational purposes, and the experience of a levee walk was mostly uniform and boring. As a key vision of this project, turning the waterfront into a livable place that captures and promotes local cultural characteristics has been driving the design of parks and greenways. The waterway used to be the lifeline of this town, and now it’s the time to put some soul back into the forgotten riverfront.

The park and levee promenade at the Jade City is intended to render a sequence of place experiences—from jade quay boat dock, to the elevated viewing bridge, then onto the jade pavilion and cantilevered event deck. Keeping the levee structure intact, the idea is to propose an entertainment destination with contemporary structures along a narrow linear space on the improved levee, with the vibe of a busy historical boat quay. Space, materiality and programming supports building a vibrant waterway hub where people remember the cultural uniqueness of Jade City by exploring a transformed levee walk.Vernacular materials and a formal vibe of traditional building morphology are interpreted and applied into the levee place-making proposal. The goal is to create a new cluster of landscape architecture cladded by brick, tile, and jade materials with a traditional sensibility, extending the jade city’s cultural programs all the way to the riverfront, including tea house, gallery, and museum and dock spaces.

Vernacular materials and formal vibe of traditional building morphology are interpreted and applied into the levee placemaking proposal. The goal is to create a new cluster of landscape architecture cladded by brick, tile, and jade materials with traditional sensibility, extending the jade city’s cultural programs all the way to riverfront, including tea house, gallery, and museum and dock spaces.

The section crossing the levee and inner lake shows the long viewing bridge building/gallery space and the amazing sunset views people will have from within. The rendering below is the jade pavilion/tea house behind levee structure, and event deck on the level top, where special celebrations and festivals will take place. The big water steps reminds people of the impression of an old river port in the region, and now provides a viewing point for the postindustrial parks cross water.

When the era ends (and if AI eventually become dominant), human cultural heritages may only be found in fragmented memories and perhaps virtual reality. Authenticity is a buzzword of the 21st century. Landscape architects must fully understand a philosophical approach and employ related skills to make the value of heritage visible and able to be experienced in physical environments. As TCLF Director Charles Birnbaum has recently pointed out, the next frontier in creating fully resilient sites is to develop proficiency in integrating “authentic” cultural values that take into account functional, aesthetic, and ecological perspectives.

Shekou project photographs, diagrams by Peiwen Yu

Source graphics by Peiwen Yu, Tarana Hafiz, Xin Sui, Kunkook Bae, Kuang Xin, Michael Robinson, Lei Zang, Fangyi Lu, Allison Pate

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