Australian Landscape Architecture in China

Landscape design and planning in china are evolving into a new and expanded field through the work of Australian practitioners.

While practice differences between Australia and China are numerous, it is critical to identify our common professional goals and future strategic directions in landscape architecture.

Urbanization of the Chinese landscape continues at a great pace. Although landscape architecture is a newly recognized profession here, in contemporary practice terms at least, our expertise is in great demand. However, only some Australian companies and a few Australian expats have managed to overcome the complexities of working in the Chinese context. In this article, some of these individuals reflect on working in China.

Australian practitioners have typically developed expertise in a full range of project services, from regional planning, masterplanning, detailed design and construction documentation to on-site implementation and assessment in Australia and other Western countries. In China, however, this practice continuum is often far more fractured and on-site outcomes far less predictable than in Australia. A great deal of work may be done to produce planning and design concept proposals for competition, tender or negotiation. Work may then cease for a considerable period of time before starting up again to meet very tight deadlines. The client may involve many disparate companies in unexpected ways and ask for many variations to the original concept throughout the entire process. Australians require a different cultural understanding of landscape planning, design and construction in the face of what may seem to be a very confusing and frustrating development process in China.

Beijing Olympic village by EADG.

Beijing Olympic village by EADG.

Highly acclaimed traditional garden design in China was largely undertaken in the private realm of wealthy families. James Brearley, principal at BAU International, suggests that today Chinese developers still favour design concepts with an inward-looking rather than outward-looking community focus. He believes that Australian designers, by contrast, favour the public realm and inclusiveness, particularly the street as an active space and the park as an equitable place for all. This is perhaps one reason for our enjoyment of the intensity of street life and park activities in older Chinese neighbourhoods. Chinese clients and peers are often mystified by this interest in the commonplace practices of ordinary folk, while they revere elite and rare forms of Chinese culture. According to Brearley, Australian ideas about inclusiveness combined with playfulness produces Australian design work that addresses the needs of a broad range of social groups in Chinese society, from children to retirees, shop owners to farmers, fitness fanatics to those with disabilities. Furthermore, he suggests that while Chinese urban parks are highly contained and manicured wherever possible, Australian designers bring with them a desire for wilder, random spaces in their design work. These two approaches are now often blended in Chinese public open spaces.

Some Australian companies established offices in China up to ten years ago. Many have disappeared, but some have remained and thrived. These firms bring Australian expertise to China but also contribute to the growing profession here. Mark Burgess, director of PLACE Design Group, believes that the Chinese market has changed a great deal over the past decade. Initially greater importance seemed to be given to the design work of foreigners and the marketability of foreign firms. However, with the huge expansion of Chinese cities and a wealthy middle class who travel extensively, the market has matured. There is a deeper appreciation of what good design and planning can bring to development projects and new urban communities. According to Burgess, our attitudes to public space and community focus are at the forefront of what Australian landscape architects bring to China. Foreign landscape architects generally are more focused on the function of a space, beyond its artistic value. They add to the quality of people’s lives by creating opportunity for recreation and interaction on all levels and scales.

The strongest connection between Australia and China is water-related landscape design and planning, particularly in terms of environmental challenges, cultural heritage and future development directions. Michael Erickson, managing principal at EADG, says our common ground will involve water. Our continental land masses cover similar climatic conditions. Our urban populations live near the coast or in fertile farming areas and our scarce water resources are essential to our economic livelihoods. Erickson says that significant changes in new waterfront landscapes are being led by regional cities in China. They are bound by a common desire for cities and new communities to rediscover their traditional dependency on their historical lifeblood - the river, lake or sea - and to celebrate this in a long-serving manner based on local culture and global experience.

Proposal by Hassell for Jing An Park in Shanghai.

Proposal by Hassell for Jing An Park in Shanghai.

While practice differences between Australia and China are numerous, it is critical to identify our common professional goals and future strategic directions in landscape architecture.

The diversity of projects undertaken in China and the relatively high status afforded to landscape architects in the planning and development cycle, often in the principal role, give our profession huge scope for innovation and expansion. Landscape architects in both countries can deal with extreme scale variations, from national park planning to courtyard gardens. Furthermore, Erickson suggests that we hold strongly shared aspirational goals, namely:

  • a growing passion for quality;
  • the importance of culture and leaving a memory; and
  • the promotion of innovation and creativity.

Landscape design and planning are evolving into a new and expanded field through Chinese projects. Australian landscape architects can engage collaboratively and help further the profession’s rapid development in China. Sustained attention to a strong common ground for Australian-Chinese collaboration may have important implications for both countries in the future.



Published online: 8 Apr 2016
Words: Gillian Lawson


Landscape Architecture Australia, May 2010

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