Exploring New Aesthetics – Revitalization of an Urban River Through Low Carbon Landscape Design

By Peiwen Yu

Will the climate action in landscape design develop new aesthetics derived from the emerging landscape in rising to the challenge faced by the planet? Climate change is a global problem felt on a local scale. It seems to be a daunting task for us the Landscape Architects to reverse global warming, but we can certainly act as a trend-setter of nature-based place-making that not only brings emotional healing power but also promote a less-embodied-carbon aesthetics.

Each landscape has a unique underlying story that drives its look and feel. Once endorsed the narrative behind, we can learn to see subtle beauty and attractiveness in the landscape of carbon neutrality.  Traveling has been a great tool for me to witness how the natural and built world continues to transform around us, from walking the gangway at Venice’s flooded urban piazza, to seeing the melting glacier in Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park. Our perception of the beauty of the landscape has been shifting. In dense urban settings, particularly, many micro-renovation projects effectively demonstrated how small-scale revitalizations benefit the community without introducing tons of new materials, maintaining a grounded and contextually-infused look and feel.

In shaping the future of a livable planet, collective thinking and actions in the design world have been focusing on mitigation and adaptation. In some of the world’s biggest urbanizers, many recent large-scale projects I’ve personally participated in have embraced a clear agenda of embodied carbon reduction and ecological resilience in making ambitious public space. Carbon consciousness coupled with cost-effectiveness informed planning and design, in response to new and more drastic climate conditions, as well as a post-pandemic economic outlook. This article features a case study of nature-enriched place-making in creating a new riverfront. Longgang River Blueway Phase I project had a grand opening in January this year after a prolonged design and engineering process. It demonstrates a suitable model for transforming a degraded urban drainage channel into a restored and vibrant green-blue ribbon along the river.

Starting from an international tendering and design competition in 2020, the Blueway Initiative aims to enhance the hydrology and ecological function of the river and reinvigorate the waterfront communities by improving the quality of the environment along the river. The project design brief called for some site-specific challenges to be overcome, such as fluctuating water levels throughout the seasons, poor access to the waterfront, floodwater destruction of riparian habitat, and lack of local character in adjacent developments.

River Phase I is a 5-kilometer-long segment adjacent to Longgang’s District Downtown, bounded on both sides by high-density residential and commercial buildings. SWA collaborated with a multidisciplinary design consortium to recover and improve sediment-accumulated flood discharge in waterways, protect eco-fragile corridors, strengthen pedestrian access to the riverfront, and establish leisure amenities for daily recreational uses, social gatherings, and cultural events.

The perspectives above show a variety of waterfront places we proposed during the earlier design process. When constructability and the latest tree preservation policy got factored into the decision-making, however, plenty of new structures such as bridges, overlooks, and levee modification was either eliminated or scaled way back – the project vision shifted from creating extensive new space to a moderate upgrading of the riverfront pedestrian and leisure system. As a result, the design has greatly emphasized the river ecology through riparian habitat creation, necessary levee structure stabilization, and tree preservation, providing local community access to experience the urban nature of Longgang. The images below illustrate how the river corridor is transformed after the construction. Through the introduction of ecological habitats, a well-connected trail network, and open spaces, the newly opened blueway trails and park system reinvigorated the narrow drainage channel into a restored and activated riverfront with recreational and educational opportunities.

Ecological Design

The river serves as a major eco-corridor for the urbanized watershed, with limited ecological space for flora and fauna to live and thrive. The diagrams below illustrated some of the ecological design methods for establishing habitats in narrow riparian zones that often get flooded. The design integrates the waterways and urban parklands as ‘green infrastructure’ eco-corridors that provide habitat for the river’s flora and fauna while also purifying the water discharged into the waterways. When phase I development is completed, a total of 14.3 ha of green space has been enhanced at the restored 3.67-kilometer-long riparian shoreline, while 1.9 ha of new riparian habitat has been introduced into the channel.

Connectivity and Programs

Phase I of the Blueway project added a new 4.9-kilometer-long pedestrian and “slow track” system on both sides of the river, improving ramp and stair connections between river and urban street levels. While the connectivity is greatly improved, the surrounding community can easily access the river’s leisure destinations and fitness opportunities. The design carefully integrates program spaces into the existing river bank system, adapting to the site’s complex conditions and tall retaining walls, preserving the large tree groves on top of the bank and the existing vegetation island within the channel. The transformed riverfront trail system has greatly enhanced the living quality of adjacent
dense community.

The image above shows a small residential park named Yuelin Bay. Located in the middle portion of the Phase I river, it occupies a limited space above the levee, surrounded by high-rise residential towers and a school site.  Renovated into a community recreational space, the newly introduced park features strictly adapted to the location of existing trees to be preserved on-site. As a result, the constructed playground, elevated tree house, promenade, and leisure building nestled into the mature groves, creating a green pocket park with plenty of shade. A curvy elevated boardwalk meanders through tree canopies, ending at an overlook with open views toward the river.

At the larger riverfront park node adjacent to the urban core, the design proposed a variety of programmed spaces, river terraces, and blueway cultural pavilions, making pedestrian and visual connections of the river with major public spaces and infrastructure, such as the light rail station and commercial centers. The stone crosswalk and pearl beach weir accent the region’s cultural character while creating a playful waterfall in the river. Lastly, the big park node at the east end of phase I development is the upgrading of a series of Hakka culture gardens. New cultural and event facilities are now integrated into the existing river-side play gardens, allowing tourists to explore an upgraded thematic destination with distinct local characters and Hakka heritage. 

Graphics: courtesy SWA Group, Hassell, BLY.

Photo credit: SWA/Chill Shine, TYTVision, Yifei Kou 



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