To restate the obvious cliché, the Asia-Pacific region is the region of the future in terms of economic vibrancy, spearheaded by the inevitable leading economies of China and India. This growth will manifest in small and large cities in the region, providing endless opportunities to shape and reshape, for better and for worse, the urban future for the design and planning professions. What is landscape architecture’s role in this trajectory? Another cliché comes to mind – to steer this trajectory towards a more “sustainable” future, hoping that societal values shift to our perceived strengths.
Evidence from contemporary practice seems to suggest that “landscape urbanism” still remains a virtual experiment: a landscape utopia. On the other hand, presentations at the 2011 IFLA APR Congress in Bangkok suggest that this is not necessarily the case. As a landscape architecture academic living discursively and spatially in a developed economy, where cities have highly entrenched and regulated growth patterns, it is easy to assume that the developing realm’s historically unprecedented urban growth is either uncontrolled free-for-all or Western-inspired impositions. While this is certainly not without truth, the phenomenon by default also creates conditions ripe for local urban experimentations.
Through foreign practitioners and communication technologies, local planners and designers have access to the latest ideas and technologies and have interpreted and applied them with vigour and increasing self-assurance. This can be sensed from the presentations of both Chinese academics and practitioners, roles which are often not as separated as in Australia. Many lessons are quickly learnt and more confidently synthesized into new, increasingly ambitious “green” cities. These are new models for others to quickly follow and supersede, particularly in China, where this model is not easily replicable in other political cultures. In this rush to modernize, many developments are poorly conceived. Others with “green” credentials are debatable and even controversial, as one can argue that good cities only emerge over a long period of time – a crucial ingredient that is treated as palimpsest. Should cities also be responsive to local traditions and people’s preferences – not heavy-handed impositions of Western-inspired, middle-class lifestyles and quality of life? Should they be absent in the conceived grids of modern towers set in spectacular and increasingly ecologically responsive urban landscapes, efficiently linked by the latest in communication and transportation technologies, where the Chinese have leapfrogged their Western counterparts?
In this rapid growth, there’s also a parallel phenomenon of cultural loss and displacement acutely felt by many in a region with a long, rich history of landscape traditions. This is the other side of the coin of aggressive development. Many landscape architects in the region use this opportunity to experiment with ways to reconcile traditions with modern development. There are also social concerns about the widening economic gap between winners and losers in the modernization process. This year’s IFLA APR Student Charette, which preceded the conference at the century-old, water-based Amphawa settlement in south-west Bangkok, clearly manifested this sentiment.
In Bangkok’s fast-paced development, preceding China’s by a decade or so and physically characterized by the shift to modern urban typologies associated with roads, the canal-side settlement typology became antiquated. It lost its economic vibrancy and many of its inhabitants, particularly the young, who emigrated to Bangkok. Through almost a decade of a broad-based participatory process, individual advocating, collaborations between educational institutions and local government, Amphawa has significantly transformed, introducing tourism as a new economic driver. Interestingly, such intense, nonprofit “place rebuilding” projects have little participation from landscape practitioners, with landscape architecture academics and those from other design disciplines taking prominent roles.
The IFLA APR Congress showcased the richness, diversity and even the boldness of landscape cultures in the Asia-Pacific region both in itself and in response to the process of modernization. There’s depth in practice, from planning and designing future-oriented new settlements to the resuscitation and rejuvenation of the old. If there’s any critique, it may be the lack of cross-cultural, cross-spatial and cross-scalar reflections and debates as each country busily chases its developmental goals, while practitioners advocate for and are engulfed by their particular urban landscapes and scales. The speed of change seems to have rendered reflection impossible and futile – the emerging and pressing challenges of climate change may provide both an incentive and a coherent framework to reflect and debate. A colleague noted that ten years ago there was no landscape architecture profession in China to speak of. Today they are designing cities.