AIA Awards


November 20, 2003

China creates a park with environmental appeal

  • Local firm helps turn farmland into lakefront city

    Jinji Lake Waterfront
    Photo by Dixi Carrillo
    An ivory and charcoal-colored granite rock surface was chosen to echo the traditional dark tile roofs and white buildings of nearby Shanghai.

    The Jinji Lake Waterfront District, located in the Suzhou District of China just west of Shanghai, is one of five national projects undertaken by the Chinese government to attract Fortune 500 companies as the country's economy shifts from agriculture to technology.

    In 1998, the Suzhou Industrial Park Administrative Committee (SIPAC), which was in charge of developing the waterfront area, hired EDAW to master plan a waterfront community that meets international standards. The Jinji Lake Landscape Master Plan will transform a rural farming community into a modern urban development with multi-cultural appeal and a variety of uses.

    The waterfront district covers 520 hectares of land surrounding Jinji Lake, the most arresting natural feature of the Suzhou District. Because of the lake's natural beauty, undeveloped resources and opportunities for an open space system, the Chinese government saw the area as prime property to create a world-class, environmentally responsible community.

    wading pools
    Photo by David Jung
    Wading pools invite interaction at a variety of levels, from the passive to the active. The wood trellis beyond leads park users to the edge of the lake from deep in the camphor forest.

    Prior to the Jinji Lake project, EDAW collaborated with the New York-based Pei Group on design guidelines for the historic canal district of Old Suzhou. This led to EDAW being considered for the Jinji Lake project.

    The EDAW design team began working from a master plan originally conceived in 1994, prior to the country's decision to create a city with international appeal. It quickly became apparent, however, that the previous plan did not capitalize on the natural beauty and features of Jinji Lake.

    Some of EDAW's top designers and planners from the Seattle, San Francisco and Hong Kong offices have contributed to the Jinji Lake project, including Michael Cannon, who holds a master's degree of urban planning from the University of Washington and served as one of the project managers.

    water garden
    Photo by David Jung
    This water garden is a contemporary version of the traditional Chinese landscape notion of “borrowed landscape.” Boulders mark the original lake shoreline.

    “It was a long process, but worth all the effort we put in. To see the locals embrace the new public open spaces was very rewarding,” Cannon said. “Prior to this project, many of the residents had never really experienced public parks, except in a very controlled way.”

    The team examined successful waterfront districts around the world, including those in Boston, Singapore and Sydney, to compile a list of design principles for Jinji Lake. This included integration between architecture and open space, minimizing the automobile, protecting water quality and the natural environment, creating identities for surrounding neighborhoods, and developing a hierarchy of open spaces.

    The team also had to be sensitive to the history and culture of the ancient city of Suzhou. SIPAC expected the district to reflect the area's evolution, from traditional intimate garden spaces to grand plazas.

    “Garden design has been practiced in the city of Suzhou for 1,000 years, including many other arts such as silk weaving, painting and sculpture. It was important to us to integrate these culturally significant aspects of Suzhou's past into our designs,” Cannon said.

    Grand Promenade
    Photo by Dixi Carrillo
    The broad, curving Grand Promenade is designed to complement the scale of the 3-square-kilometer Jinji Lake, allowing residents and visitors to experience the expanse at the water’s edge.

    The plan divides the area into two primary zones containing eight neighborhoods. The upper, northwestern half of the lake would contain more active, public areas with a higher population density, while the southeastern half of Jinji would focus on passive, private recreation areas and lower density housing.

    The active/public neighborhoods include an arts and entertainment village, a marina, and promenades and walkways that lead the public to the lake's edge to encourage boating, swimming and other water-related activities. High-density housing such as apartment complexes will facilitate an active lifestyle.

    The passive/private half of Jinji Lake — Reflection Point Park and Reflection Gardens — has two neighborhoods with a series of natural canals, waterways, trails and low-density housing. Reflection Point Park features a bird sanctuary and an educational area.

    neighborhood plaza
    Photo by Dixi Carrillo
    Reflecting a more playful approach, a neighborhood plaza has a symbolic version of the solar system, with over-scaled planets carved out of solid granite. Beyond, granite columns mark the location of a neighborhood gathering space overlooking the lake.

    While each neighborhood has its identity, the district is unified by a series of paths for walking, jogging and biking, which encircle the 14.5-kilometer perimeter of the lake. A trip around the lake would illustrate a number of common themes laid out by the master plan, including plentiful open space (from constructed promenades and gardens to natural wetlands and wildlife habitats), simple automobile flow patterns and views of the lake.

    Another key element of the plan is maintaining the water quality of Jinji Lake, one of the cleanest lakes in China. Until recently, Jinji Lake had only been subjected to the low levels of pollution associated with rural agricultural communities, but with development, water pollution could increase dramatically. EDAW's master plan tries to prevent pollution before it happens. The lake edge and storm water system were designed to minimize runoff into Jinji Lake. The plan also includes recommendations on how to clean up existing pollution.

    The Jinji Lake Waterfront District is the prime recreational zone in a new community expected one day to house more than 600,000 people. While the district will include retail and offices, the primary objective is to develop superior housing and recreation opportunities. SIPAC also expects that Jinji Lake will become the open space/recreation center for all residents of New Suzhou.

    Work on the Jinji Lake Waterfront District is under way. The first neighborhood began construction in 1999 and a second was started soon after.

     camphor trees
    Photo by Dixi Carrillo
    A forest of camphor trees was created to provide a backdrop to the main plaza, where visitors can wander on informal winding paths with occasional views of the lake through the trees. The forest provides a more enclosed and intimate experience in contrast to the open park grounds.

    “It was a great honor to be a part of this significant project,” Cannon said. “Seeing it come together on site was an eye-opening experience; they literally built the mile-long waterfront promenade by hand, with everyone helping out to ensure its success.”

    EDAW was recently asked by the United Nations to give a presentation on Jinji Lake at the UN Commission on Sustainable Development session next April.

    The firm won a National Design Merit Award from the American Society of Landscape Architects for the Jinji Lake Landscape Master Plan.

    Daryl Sela is production coordinator at EDAW. He holds a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Montana. He has lived in Seattle for the past three years, after having spent two and a half years living in New Zealand where he worked in publishing.

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