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The history of landscape is a history of relationship between land and human beings. Purposes of creating gardens, boulevard, parks, and other landscape settings are not only to provide pleasant spaces for entertainment and recreational uses, but also to imply social hierarchies or statuses. By leading people to defined landscape settings and directing them to have activities properly, the landscape settings imbue citizens with morality or rules which always are based on the collective memories and shared ethics of the whole society.

However, landscapes tell their stories through subtle, even ulterior ways. During the long history of agricultural societies, gardens were very costful and rare properties which were unaffordable for the ordinary people. Emperors and nobilities invested huge money and conscribed thousands of skilled handicraftsmen to design and to construct gardens which were regarded as the physical symbols of their superiority of intelligence and powers (Figure 1 & 2).  Ostensibly, the main function of gardens in ancient societies was to please idle nobilities and sentimental young princes or princess.  However, its fundamental function was to set up a physical icon for a whole society.  That is, it was a symbol of authority and top-down society. By prohibiting ordinary people entering the gardens, the gardens illustrated the limited rights of ordinary people and absolute power of rulers without any supervision.  The gardens were also a theater to show the differences between male and female. For example, gardens were places where imperial women played games and wandering within.  The imperial women were not the masters, on the contrary, they only played as additional and replaceable landscape elements or ornaments of this garden. By watching his beautiful women playing in the garden, the male emperor gained a strong sense of controlling or superiority on the female.

Generally, there are two ways to demonstrate superiority and power:  First, separating ordinary people from rulers and other powerful social groups by constructing endocentric landscape settings, which has been  discussed in the previous paragraph;  Second, interruption or intrusion to public spaces by constructing high landmarks or buildings.  The big scale and super height of intrusive landscape elements or constructions dominant the public spaces and produce invisible, but significant, pressures on the citizens.  They can control people’s ideas and behaviors significantly.  Tiananmen Square in Beijing is a good case in point(Figure 3). The high Tiananmen gate tower and the people’s monument are two main landmarks which control the biggest square of the world.   People have rights to enter the square, however, they are watched by soldiers who standing on the tower and edges of the plaza and unaccountable live cameras.  In Ming and Qing Dynasties, Tiananmen Square was an entry plaza to the Forbidden City where was only available to nobilities and ministers. At 1949, Tiananmen Square was reconstructed to accommodate the passionate masses during the opening ceremony of the People’s Republic of China.  During fifty years of new Tiananmen Square, “Individuals” were meaningless and the “masses” was an only proper word to describe people who visited this square.  In eyes of rulers who once stood on the gate tower and accepted applaud and admiration from their “masses”, citizens was only an abstract word.  Essentially, the vast square was not designed for thousands of citizens, but for lonely rulers who are watching people from high gate tower.

The accessibility of nature is an important measure of democracy in the current societies. The definition of “nature” is green spaces which were supervised and managed by human beings to provide visitors safe, pleasant and healthy places for private or public activities and events.  During the federal ages and colonial ages, the well-maintained nature was mainly available to rulers, nobility and richness.  Ordinary people lived in miserable environments without infrastructures, utilities and green spaces.  Nature became a filter to separate grassroots and rulers.  Emperors, nobilities, monks and other privileged social groups controlled most beautiful natural resources in urban and suburban areas such as rivers, mountains, creeks, wetlands and ancient gardens (Figure 4).   In industrial and post-industrial ages, the equal accessibility to green spaces is still not accomplished entirely. Most of low-incoming American people cannot afford high cost of gasoline and houses at suburban green areas and have to live in barren, dense and unsafe downtown areas(Figure 7).  During recent years, more and more natural resources or spaces become commodities in China.  For example, many luxurious apartments or villas occupy natural lake edges or mountain edges and sacrifice ordinary people’s accesses to nature in China (Figure 5).   In South Asian countries, many public tropical forest or oceanfront preserves are changed into commercial resorts, restaurants or clubs. In my opinion, the commercialization and privatization of nature is a very shortsighted decision, which does not only deprive the living people’s rights to share natural resources, but also sacrifices the future generations’ opportunities to build more democratic societies.

Nevertheless, we shall keep optimistic attitude to the future.  If we look back history of landscape and urbanism, many farseeing landscape designers and police makers contributed great works to direct people to reach more democratic society through construction of green spaces for general public. Central Park in New York and Boston park system are two outstanding examples (Figure 6). As “the lungs of the city (PreGill and VolKman, 1944, p481)”, these parks present equal access to general public and have significant contribution to improve the public health, the social justice and equality, environmental qualities, and the civic life. More importantly, these parks guarantee democracy and preserve important properties for future generations (PreGill and VolKman, 1944).   More and more policy makers start to realize the importance of citizen participation in the processes of urban planning and landscape design. More and more public spaces emerge during last twenty years all over the world, especially in the developing countries.  “Design for public” or “preserve ordinary landscapes for citizens” have been accepted by many academic people and designers.

In my opinion, the age of designing for privileged social groups have gone. It is apparently, the influence of privileged social classes on civic life have reduced dramatically since the industrial revolution. In such a post-industrial society, most landscape designers’ responsibilities are not to design magnificent monuments for the minorities with great power, but to create living spaces for general public. The social structure has been much more flat than it was during the federal age. In current China, most of citizens have opportunities to visit the ancient emperors’ living rooms in the summer palace.  The Temple of Heaven is not a place for emperors to make a pray for his country, but a public green space for all citizens’ recreational activities. The powerful and strong axis of the Forbidden City, which is a symbol of emperors’ authority of the whole nation, has been blurred by a new public forest park- the Olympic forest park.  The vernacular landscape will be the main arena for landscape architectures.  It is a flat world where the differences among nations, social groups, and genders are becoming vague.  How to protect the ordinary landscape elements and settings is a crucial task to fulfill a democratic society which will serving for all citizens.

Why the vernacular landscapes are important for human beings’ future?

The vernacular landscapes are crucial to preserve the collective memory and the cultural identity for the future society.  During recent years, the urbanization took placed in many developing countries, especially in China.  The productions of new planning proposals always are directly copies of the most fashionable and profitable originated from the Western countries.  Until now, most of governments and ordinary people still have no clear sense about irreplaceable values of the vernacular landscapes.  Superficially, they only regard the magnificent royal landscapes or buildings as the cultural heritages.  The seemingly worthless and common vernacular landscapes are deconstructed easily by investors and contractors.

If you walk along the commercial streets in Shanghai, you will find it is very similar experience comparing with walking along the commercial streets in Chicago:  similar modern buildings, shopping windows, Fast-food restaurants (such as Subway, KFC, Mcdonald’s), and international fashion shops (such as Levis, Apple, Prada).  I felt I lost my memory of hometowns when I come back after a few years: Where is the lane where I spent my childhood with my friends?  Where is the small garden where I once dated with my first girlfriend?  Where is the courtyard where I watched stars and played soccer?   I believe many Chinese people have similar problems as I have.

The disappearance of these vernacular landscapes disconnected people with their land-where people live there for many generations.  A few years later, their memory of hometowns and native cultures will become vague and they will be spiritually homeless finally.  Without cultural identity and collective memory, how can people be united and fight for their beliefs?  How can human beings keep and develop the cultural diversity by communications and cooperation?  All the magnificent and diverse culture heritages we once created have danger of becoming “dead cultural fossils”.

In general, the modernization or globalization must not sacrifice the cultural diversity, social justice, and environmental sustainability.  The responsibility of landscape architecture is to preserve, design nature to support a more democratic world.  The age of superior power is gone. We need show enough respect to all human cultures, all people living or will live on the earth.