Infinite nature

How Chinese philosophy could improve our cities

Both theory and practice have moved towards designing cities with a better understanding of nature and ecological processes. On both fronts, we tend to juxtapose nature to humans and the natural to the human-made.

Nature is a tool that improves the human living environment – not a natural part of it. In this way, nature and cities are opposed to each other.

But what if we looked to a philosophical system that approaches nature, people and their relationship in a completely different way? Could we find new possibilities for our future cities?

Huangshan Mountain Villa by MAD Architects (photography Laurian Ghinitoiu)

Nature and humans in perfect harmony

The idea of integrating nature in cities is not new. Around the world, it has been argued for decades that cities should be shaped to integrate nature in their design to enhance their performance (McHarg, 1969). More recently, people have advocated for organising cities around landscape rather than buildings (Waldheim, Berger and others).

According to Daoist beliefs, humans are a crucial component of the natural world and all that is human-made must follow the flow of nature’s rhythms.

Similarly, the Confucian concept of Tian-ren-he-yi holds that the truth of the world lies in the harmony between nature and human beings, seeing them as one. Humans are therefore an integral part of nature. Nature can be modified, but not in a way that renders it unnatural. Rather, it can be improved while still allowing communities and culture to learn from nature’s systems. 

Traditional Chinese philosophy does not differentiate between the natural and human-made. Instead, it integrates nature, philosophy and aesthetics. And together they play a significant role in traditional landscape design – unlike Western thinking and design practice.

'Four seasons Shanshui' by Songnian Liu, Song Dynasty

Shanshui culture was also crucial to the development of traditional Chinese landscape design. It sees humans as embedded within nature. In fact, the word for ‘human’ in Shanshui culture literally means mountain and water.

Feng/shui is an expression of the Chinese way of understanding nature and the world – the inner law of nature (wind and water) – that aims to influence in every way how humankind should live in an artificial world. 

Both Daoism and the Confucian concept of Tian-ren-he-yi combine nature with humankind. One is concerned with the importance of inner peace and spiritual freedom of the individual, which was to be achieved by experiencing natural settings. The other advocates how human intervention can help to perfect nature to form a better habitable environment.

Chinese philosophy in practice 

Philosophical systems such as feng/shui and yin/yang were applied as the basis of ancient Chinese city planning and axial city and park arrangements, drawing on these philosophical systems of fundamental integration.

In such a philosophical system, nature is ubiquitous. The dense urban environment is not separated from ecology. Instead, it sees the highest achievement of everything that is human-made to be seemingly shaped by nature. And similarly, nature is to be perfected by humans who shape and cultivate it.  

Population density and thousands of years of agrarian culture have led to ‘modified’ landscapes across China – another illustration of this intertwined concept of nature and culture.

But, after such a long history of this thinking and practice, China’s rapid urbanisation in the late 20th century has meant that this natural and cultural synergy has been lost. Many of the unifying traditions have been overridden by industrial scale, resulting in cities that are decidedly divorced from this traditional harmony with nature. 

Debate over ecological vs garden landscapes

The good news is that, in recent times, there has been a push towards developing Chinese-style landscapes by using contemporary practices.

There is a current debate among landscape architects in China around garden landscapes versus ecological landscapes. This debate centres on the merits of decorative aesthetic spaces versus designs that provide a working and essential function for cities, for communities and for the planet.

But what if we were to take this movement towards ecological landscapes one step further? We could look at how the idea of ubiquitous nature – derived from this understanding of the relationship between nature and people – could inform the design of cities not only in China, but all around the world.

It would be interesting to see what the world could learn from this traditional thinking – and how it could push the way we design cities in the future. Could we completely blur the boundaries between the urban and the natural?

Greening plans of the world’s leading cities

Cities rely heavily on their liveability rankings to attract and retain the best and the brightest. And over the past decade, many have been looking at how nature can increase their competitiveness, both in terms of the quantity of green coverage and the accessibility of nature to residents.

If we look at some of the world’s most progressive cities, there’s no shortage of sophisticated plans for increasing nature in the urban fabric. For example, Sustainable Sydney 2030 outlines the city’s plan to become as ‘green, global, and connected as possible by 2030.’ Part of the vision is about planting more trees across the city, eventually leading to a 50 percent larger green canopy.

Asian cities have their own environmental initiatives. Singapore’s Centre for Liveable Cities (CLC), for example, contributes to the city’s continuing efforts to become a greener place. That vision is reinforced by a variety of stringent Singaporean policies, including the 100 percent green replacement policy requiring developers to provide roof gardens/green walls equal to the footprint of the building.

Shanghai has set itself the ambition of becoming China’s economic, finance, trade and technology centre. The Shanghai government knows that to remain competitive they need to urgently address their soft infrastructure, including the quality of the public realm and accessibility to nature. But this is a challenging goal for a city that wants to control future development to limit sprawl while still working in an engineering-led urban development environment that limits the possibility for integration.

Recent projects like the Huangpu River Waterfront connection intend to renew Shanghai’s inner city by bringing people and nature to its de-industrialised river.

Likewise, the Hongkou Waterfront proposal by HASSELL is helping to unlock the North Bund’s potential, restoring its unique, green historic identity. In this project, nature mitigates the infrastructure – like flood defence walls, military wharfs and buildings – that has kept people away from the waterfront. Through a series of newly designed green gardens, residents will be able to reconnect to the waterfront, and the district will once again hold true value for the community.

Hongkou North Bund Waterfront by HASSELL

Creative, contemporary interpretations of traditional Chinese thinking

There is also an increasing number of positive examples of designers and artists in China embedding this traditional line of thinking into their creations.

For example, the composition of buildings in Shan Shui City by MAD lead architect Ma Yansong mimics China’s natural landscape of mountain and water, blurring boundaries and responding to the increasing appreciation of nature in large Chinese cities.

Shan Shui City by Ma Yansong, MAD Architects (photography: Laurian Ghinitoiu)

Artist Yang Yongliang has taken this idea to an unprecedented scale. He portrays the Chinese landscape using photographs of buildings.

In his work, artificiality and nature do not have a clear boundary, and the human-made elements actually look like natural landscapes. This results in the creation of similar spatial experiences and the kind of tranquility that a natural landscape would bring.

'Sleepless Wonderland', Yang Yongliang

Ubiquitous nature – and cities of the future

‘Ubiquitous’ implies a scale in which the law of nature influences our lives and every decision we make. With that in mind, we could say that the future of city making is to find a balance between people, space and organisation.

It’s about allowing nature to exist on a ubiquitous scale – in the most surprising places and in the most creative ways. It’s an interesting perspective considering the plans so many cities around the world have to increase their green coverage.

In the coming decades, Shanghai will strive to achieve their ambition to be a global leader in urban development. But will the current crop of strategic urban projects go far enough to fulfill this ambition?

And what of the many global examples from other cities? Will they be able to fulfill their goals? How can these cities increase their resilience and attractiveness? And how can these projects become catalysts for ‘more of the same’ and a greater engagement with nature?

The ancient Doctrine of the Mean suggests that humans should ‘join in nature’ to create better places by understanding the laws of nature and working together with them. This lesson from our distant past could improve our cities of the future.

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