Category: Critic

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Rapid- crazy-Urbanization.

Eer Duosi, Nei Menggu Province, China

Zhengzhou city, Henan Province. China


Two Architects

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Here is what will happen at New York and San Francisco if sea water level rises at 1,3, 5, or 7 meters. Data from NASA.

The icecap of Greenland is gradually melting which is one major reason of the rise of sea level. In addition, volume of ice on thousands of mountains is decreasing rapidly.

Some people say global warming is just a natural phenomena that caused by periodic activities of sun and has nothing to do with human’s behaviors. However, we cannot take that chance because Earth is our only home.


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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.

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Although great amount of literature support that contact with nature has positive effects on human health and well-being, several studies also indicated we need interpret influence of natural landscapes more carefully.

  Argument on relationship between green space and wellness


Green space can promote wellness is a widely accepted idea. To evaluate the mechanism and efficiency of green space, scientists from a host of disciplines have made much exploration for many decades. However, the causation of the green space and wellness is still ambiguous and debatable. In general, the green space can contribute the promotion to wellness according to findings. However, either green space or populations who have contact with green space always are discussed as general concepts. However, if we take the sub-divisional categories of green space, demographic characters of social groups, and other social, natural, cultural factors into consideration, it is possibly that there are many arguable issues about the causation of green space and promotion of wellness. In other words, green space doesn’t necessarily have significant effect on improvement of health under special circumstances. Furthermore, some typical green spaces have negative impact on people’ physical or psychological conditions.


To understand the relationship between green space and wellness, the concept of wellness or human health need be defined very clearly and carefully. The World health Organization defines human health as “ a state of complete physical, mental and social well beings and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” (WHO, 1948, see from Tzoulas et al. 2007, p.168). To completely understand and define the concept of health a general array of related factors should be taken into consideration, for example, amongst others, biological, social and cultural (Tzoulas et al., 2007). In terms of concept of ecosystem health, Tzoulas and associate pointed out that healthy ecosystem is “though of as one that is free from distress and degradation, maintains its organization and autonomy over time and is resilient to stress” (Tzoulas et al., 2007). The evolutionary of human beings have developed diverse cultural and social structures all over the world, which have cast important impact on people’s definitions on nature, values, social expectations, and aesthetic. Moreover, the specific characters of individuals can also influence their behaviors and perceptions including the age, gender, healthy condition and lifestyles, etc. From this angle, it is very important to gauge all the concepts, including sense of safety, perception of health, and other related issues, within the context of multiple cultural, social, natural and individual conditions.


In terms with safety, green space can provide people great space for get psychological wellness. It has been proved that some typical green landscape can release people’s stress and make them have mental energy again. However, some typical green spaces can not bring such sorts of benefit to people. There are some key points about this issue:  Too densely planted green space can reduce people’s sense of safety; Some sorts of geographical characters of green space can set specific groups into dangerous situation; People with diverse backgrounds hold different, even conflict perceptions on safety of green spaces, etc.


Actually, some scholars have findings on the negative impact of green space concerned with safety. Milligan and Bingley pointed out that people’s physical and psychological responses to trees are strongly influenced by their cultural experience and social beliefs (Milligan and Bingley, 2007). Their study shows that woods can provide a peaceful and remedial environment for some young adults, however, it also possibly offer anxiety and uncertainty for some other young adults (Milligan and Bingley, 2007). Specifically, woods with following characters will let people get claustrophobic, such as, lack of light, densely planted area, narrow paths and overhanging trees and so on. Gobster (2004) argued that too densely planted green space has potential to stimulate crime, provide unsafe space for young gangs and derelicts. Some researchers have found that too dense planting which block people’s distant view can reduce people’s sense of safety (Kuo et al, 1998). Maintaining view distances for safety was recommended by Kuo and associate (1998).


Green spaces with some specific characters have possibility to bring people feeling of unsafety, such as stress, uncertainty, scary to special groups. Kuo and associate pointed out that poor management of grass land and trees in inner-city neighborhood can bring sense of unsafety to local residents.  For those who live in the suburban neighborhoods with low-density design, wildlife-transmitted disease is a threat to people’s wellness (Jackson, 2003). Some green spaces such as dense woods and canal with heavy green buffer in greenway may create sense of isolation (Milligan and Bingley, 2007; Gobster and Westphal, 2004), where are very unsafe to vulnerable people, for example, children, women and elders. Gobster and associate also mentioned greenway should create safety that prevent children fall into the river, and prevent people contact with polluted water directly, avoid “deep, dirty and dangerous” and “unguarded areas” for children (Gobster and Westphal, 2004, p.158).  Moreover, population who are vulnerable to specific symptoms, such as allergies and pulmonary conditions, should avoid contact with planting which possibly stimulate symptoms (Vries et al, 2003).


Safety is not a rigid concept, which means different people have diverse criterions to judge green space is safe or not. The perception of certain green space is up to multiple factors, such as cultural experience, lifestyles, health conditions, collective memory or values of social groups and so on. In terms of spatial definition, some populations prefer landscape with greater levels of spatial definition (Herbert, 1981; Kaplan, 1985). However, different income groups and ethic groups have significant differences in choosing natural settings (Kuo et al, 1998). For example, Black residents dislike closed-in landscape more frequently than did Whites (Kaplan & Talbot, 1988, but see from Kuo et al, 1998). Kuo and associate also pointed out that trees have different impact on inner-city neighborhood and more wealthy urban areas. That is, the positive affect of trees on sense of safety may significantly outweigh the negative. As a contrast, negative impact of trees might outweigh the positive in wealthy urban areas ( Kuo et al, 1998). Milligan and Bingley pointed out that fears to forest may be relative to people’s social background (Milligan and Bingley, 2007). They also believe that people’s exposure to media, myth, fairy tales within specific cultural context has strong influence on increasing their fear to woods (Milligan and Bingley, 2007).


In terms of other perceptions of green space besides safety, there are many factors might influence people’s sense of nature.  Purpose of using green space is one important factor to influence promotion of wellness. As Hartig ( 1993 ) argued, understanding environmental perception need study people’s purposes and explorative behaviors. In other words, place is possibly realized by people in different ways which are up to specific purposes ( Hartig, 1993 ).   A person who walks through green space just for a shortcut to office has different perception to environment comparing with a person who is wandering in it only for relax purpose.  Difference of social-economic status cast important influence on people’s connection with green spaces, furthermore, have impact on people’s appreciation and frequency of using green space to promote wellness. A good case is walking, which is regarded as one of main human activities in green spaces. Although many people choose walking as a way to exercise appreciate nature and green space, Pinder and associate’s survey show that main purpose of walking is a mode of commute or transport for some people who live in deprived communites ( Pinder, et al. 2008).  As a result, the impacts of green space for walking people with different purposes might be different.


Lifestyle of different population is also an important factor.  Research shows that there is less healthy lifestyle in more urban areas ( Verheij, 1995 ).Jacksonshows that urban residents and low-income women generally have low engagement in exercise during spare time (Jackson, 2003). Vries and associate argued three groups have more time in their directly living spaces and contact with green spaces with longer time: children, housewives and elder population.  Consequently, they might have a stronger relationship between wellness and green space comparing with the general population ( Vries et al., 2003 ).  Moreover, the lower socio-ecomomic groups possibly spend more time on adjacent green space than wealthy population since rich people have more capability to travel for realizing healthy life styles ( Vries et al., 2003 ).  Maat and Vries pointed out that some household characteristics also play as important roles to influence how people spend their spare time, for example, number of children, richness of green space in the residential center, and so on (Maat and Vries, 2005).  Vries also pointed out there is “selection mechanism” driving healthy people to move to greener living environments, which cause majority of people who residents in greener areas is healthy people, even if there is no health-promoting effect of living in a green space as such ( Vries et al., 2003, p. 1718). Another point is that many people prefer urban entertainment and recreation to spend their leisure time in green space: shopping, watching movie, have fun in clubs etc.  As a result, their healthy conditions have less significant relationship with green spaces located in neighborhood and city where they live comparing to population in general.


Over-emphasize of contribution of green space without calculating negative impact of specific sort of green space or impact of pattern of development on green space is another misunderstanding on relationship of green space and wellness.  For example, many families in US choose lawn cover for homes, schools, businesses and public open spaces. However, lawn is neither sustainable nor healthy green space. The planting and management of lawn create huge cost of water, energy, toxic exposures and wildlife habitat (Jackson, 2003).  Sanda Steingraber (2002) pointed that lawn-care pesticides can lead to cancer in people and animals, exposing people for extended time when the pesticides are brought to interior space of family. Homogenous lawn also squeezes the living space for native planting and sacrifice the biological diversity and cultural identity of spaces.  Lyman (2000) finds that total emissions from lawn mowers (together with tractors) have exceeded pollutions produced by cars that cause problem of ozone layer.  Agricultural green spaces also have some negative impact on environment and human health.  For example, huge pollutant produced by fertilization in middle-westAmericahas been proved by researchers (Driscoll et al, 2007; Kovacic et al, 2000).  As Kovacic and associate (2000) pointed out, the agriculture altered the landscape dramatically into cropland without enough green buffer, the nutrient, heavy metal are directly load to pool and river through ditch.

In sum, the widely accepted concept that green space has effect of promotion of wellness is correct generally. However, it is not equal to all kinds of green space within all different context can have positive impact on human’s health.  People’s perceptions of safety about green space differ according to density of planting, individually physical and psychological characters, cultural experience and different socio-economic backgrounds.  Moreover, purposes of using green space, lifestyles of populations are also important factors to influence the effect of green space on promoting wellness.  In addition, some specific green spaces such as lawn, agricultural land also have negative impact on health to some extent.

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This summer, I led the project “Dose of Nature- Urban Forest and Human Health” funded by U.S. Forest Preservation, a prestigious national institution in the field of Landscape Architecture.

We traveled about 30 days in Middle-West region and visited more than 50 single-house communities, most of them are products of  Urban Sprawl.

They look not bad  if you just look at those photos, however, I believe you will change your idea if you really got a chance to walk in those communities, let alone living there.

There are several characteristics that really impede social life and human health:

  1. Heavily reliance on driving private vehicles.  A normal adult living in suburban community spends 1-2 hours on commute and they have much less time on family and community activities;
  2. Few destinations for recreation and entertainment in walking distance.  Lack of ” Third Space” in community decreases opportunity of creating strong social network, physical exercise, and casual social interaction with neighbors, which may elicit a series of health problems: depression, stress, use of drug, tobacco, and alcohol, obesity, etc.
  3. Children and teenage don’t have chance to learn from much role models other than their parents. They are “cul-de-sac” kids without experiencing enough social challenges before they biologically become adults.
  4. Lack of memorial spaces and attractions make it is impossible to create a strong “sense of place” for residents.
  5. Social Justice: The heavy investment on highway and other infrastructures to support urban sprawl has pushed socioeconomic-disadvantaged people living in inner-city areas into a more miserable situation.
  6. Elderly people have to move out to find a retirement community because suburban communities cannot provide appropriate places for them, which means a dramatic disconnection of social life that has been proved as an important reason of depression among elderly people.