A Fine Red Line
Design tests the boundary between art and ecology.
By Mary G. Padua, ASLA
Courtesy of Mary G. Padua, ASLA
Riverside flood-control projects are one of the most common
forms of public landscape architecture in China. Shifting drainage patterns
created by urban expansion and development have become a major problem in many
Chinese cities. The parks created by these flood-control projects have a
predictable form: large areas of hardscape, a monumental plaza for national
holidays, and a linear concrete promenade. Flood control in these parks
typically is achieved by realigning and diverting the river’s natural course
into rectilinear concrete channels that have high vertical banks and carry a
larger volume of water than the original river. The natural river system is effectively
replaced by an inhospitable drainage channel.
The Red Ribbon–Tanghe River Park in the coastal city of
Qinhuangdao in Hebei Province, China, is an exciting departure from this
approach. The park breaks new ground by bringing forms of artistic design
previously unknown in China to landscape architecture. In the process, the
designers have created an ecologically sensitive park that stands as a symbol
of China’s contemporary connections to the world and evokes the nation’s
Red Ribbon Park occupies a 50-acre site along the banks of
the Tanghe River in Qinhuangdao, a metropolitan area of about 2.6 million
people less than four hours’ drive from Beijing. Completed in 2006, the park
was designed by Turenscape, China’s first private landscape architecture design
and consulting firm, and Peking University’s Graduate School of Landscape
Architecture (GSLA) working with Qinhuangdao’s Landscape Bureau.
The park was an experiment for Turenscape and Qinhuangdao;
it incorporated visually striking design elements such as a 1,500-foot
fiberglass red bench that has more in common with the work of landscape
architects such as Martha Schwartz, ASLA, and West 8 than the traditions of
landscape design in China. At the same time, the park had important ecological
objectives. It provided a means of preserving undeveloped areas of the
riverbank and restoring areas that had become derelict in the course of urban
The park also provides a very different approach to flood
control from the usual Chinese realignment and engineering of natural river
courses. When major floods happen at 50- to 100-year intervals, Turenscape’s
design allows the park to flood rather than carrying the water away in large
drainage channels. The red ribbon was entirely sited above the historical level
of the last major flood in the 1920s, and the greenway along the riverbank is a
floodable zone. Areas of the riverbank that have been subject to serious
erosion were consolidated with steel mesh-boxed rocks. Turenscape left the rest
of the bank untouched.
This combination of art and ecological sensitivity in park
design has helped to push the envelope of contemporary landscape architecture
The Design Process
The idea for Red Ribbon Park originated when the mayor of
Qinhuangdao contacted Kongjian Yu, International ASLA, who is president of
Turenscape and dean of GSLA, seeking help with the city’s efforts to revitalize
its riverfront. Mayor Qian had been introduced to Turenscape’s work when he
attended a lecture by Yu on ecologically sensitive landscape design for urban
areas at a conference of local municipal officials. The mayor was faced with a
riverfront in Qinhuangdao that had been damaged by unmanaged urban growth and
other segments that had been developed in ways that neglected the natural
qualities of the site. The mayor brought Turenscape into the project in the
hope that riverfront development could improve the quality of life in
Qinhuangdao and contribute to the economic development of the city, a resort
and retirement destination for government officials and Beijing residents near
the shores of the Bohai Sea. The population of the area has been expanding,
escalating pressure for development along the Tanghe River. The mayor saw a
pressing need to upgrade the riverfront to support this new growth.
The site was a linear riparian corridor. During the initial
site investigation, Turenscape found four discrete areas: a healthy stand of
poplar saplings that was part of a plant nursery, remnants of a village that
included a major irrigation ditch and brick water towers, an informal local
trash dump from urban expansion, and lush native vegetation along the river.
The design process involved a good deal of controversy.
Turenscape’s initial design, which incorporated an artificially constructed,
bright red, 1,500-foot-long bench, didn’t sit well with members of the local
design review board. The board was composed of officials trained in the
traditional Chinese garden design school. In their view, natural parks should be
modeled on the scholar gardens of the Ming Dynasty that peaked in popularity
during the 16th century.
The board’s attitude has been typical in China where, until
recently, virtually all university training in landscape design was based on an
idealized version of the Ming Dynasty aesthetic. Designers educated at GSLA and
similar programs are far more aware of global trends in the field and far more
willing to be experimental, but in China innovative approaches to landscape
design often meet with opposition. The majority of practicing landscape
designers still come from traditional garden design schools.
However, Turenscape had the strong support of the mayor, and
the project went ahead. It evolved as a cooperative process involving
Turenscape and the Qinhuangdao Landscape Bureau, whose director, Yang Li Na,
served as the mayor’s representative and client for the work. Yang was a strong
supporter of the red ribbon design but saw the red design element in Yu’s early
schemes as too rigid and too narrow in width. It lacked the fluidity associated
with Chinese calligraphy, considered the highest art form in China. In a
brainstorming session, Yu and Yang discussed materials that might be used to
create an element that could vary in width and shape.
Their solution was to use a molded fiberglass used locally
to fabricate boats. Yang knew the companies in the local boatbuilding industry
and put Yu in touch with them to investigate color and materials. This
collaboration turned out to be a vital part of the project: It allowed the
bench to be fabricated in the fluid shape chosen by the designers, and it
helped the project reach completion in only five months, while bringing local
industry into the process. Yu’s team worked closely with the fabricator during
construction and in the course of many on-site adjustments.
Yu approaches his projects with a focused design strategy.
He recognizes that landscape architecture in China faces major problems as a
young profession with an underdeveloped landscape construction industry. He
responds to these problems by turning his projects into experiments where the
challenge is to execute one “big idea.” The driving concept for Red Ribbon Park
was a democratic vision: the marriage of art and ecology in a simple,
economical design. The central design element—the red ribbon—had to be a strong
symbol of the differences between this approach and the traditional garden
school while giving coherence to the design.
The simplicity was meant to create a sharp point of contrast
to another park immediately upriver: a standard flood-control park consisting
of large expanses of paving, traditional Chinese rockery, a promenade, and a
concrete embankment along the realigned Tanghe River. Yu viewed this existing
stage-one flood-control project as something that violated the natural
environment by reengineering the river course, and his objective for the new
project was to create a different experience. Yu didn’t see the ecological side
of the design as independent from its artistic objectives. On the contrary, the
experience of a park, for Yu, is shaped both by its relationship to the ecology
of the site and its aesthetics.
Turenscape chose the color red for the central element
because red has traditionally been used as a symbol for good luck and success.
The inspiration for the ribbonlike form came from the former leader of China,
Mao Zedong, who was also a noted calligrapher. The Chinese character that
provided the formal inspiration for the design of the red ribbon is the
ideograph for “flow” when interpreted as a verb or “water” when interpreted as
a noun. Yu notes that as the red ribbon meanders through the revitalized
riparian corridor and creates its own harmonious force, it also acts as a
metaphor for a Taoist interpretation of nature.
I first visited Qinhuangdao on a late spring afternoon. I
started by looking at the adjacent flood-control project and park. Crossing the
avenue to Red Ribbon Park offered a striking contrast. I entered the park
through a small plaza that stepped down to two paths. One is a 12-foot-wide
path that leads to a higher elevation away from the river; the other path is a
six-foot-wide boardwalk that leads into the more ecologically sensitive areas
and ultimately to the red fiberglass bench.
Walking along the boardwalk, I was immediately immersed in a
lush green forest. The area is densely carpeted with local grasses and thickly
planted young poplars, remnants of a plant nursery that had once existed on the
site. An upscale residential community was visible from one side of the path.
Various sight lines along the path provided glimpses of the river through the
forest. The dappled light that passes through the poplar forest creates a
strong sense of enclosure when walking along the boardwalk.
Turenscape’s vegetation management plan is based on minimal
disturbance of existing foliage such as the stand of young poplars or the
mature riparian trees. Apart from the introduction of indigenous plants in
areas that had been damaged by prior development, the site has been left
largely in its original state. Turenscape envisions that natural succession
will take over and that the area’s vegetation will become more abundant with
This quiet woodland is suddenly broken by a clearing in the
forest and a series of steps that leads to a viewing platform at the
riverfront. The platform offers a view of the city across the river and open
views down the native riparian corridor. Interpretive signage introduces the
local plants, and a seating platform has been located here to help orient the
visitor. As the intimate-scale wood boardwalk threads its way through the
forested corridor, it is intersected by stone paths that lead from the upper
pathway and adjacent housing development. The river’s edge is in constant view.
I found one of the strongest elements of the project to be
the horizontal access paths from the adjacent residential development. The
experience of walking along these stone paths perpendicular to the red ribbon
bench and river was interesting and engaging. It was easy to make the
connection with Yu’s landscape metaphor for past, present, and future from the
vantage point of these paths. The past was represented by the walk from the
residential community through a meadow of wildflowers containing remnants of
the village’s old brick water tower. The present was represented by the new
residential community fronting the park. The future was represented by the new
riverfront park. The most striking feature of the project is the first sight of
the bench as it is revealed in the meadow at the edge of the forest.
After 15 to 20 minutes of walking through the poplar forest,
visitors follow the path into a meadowlike space where a white structure comes
into view (see photo in “Land Matters”). The visual disorder created by the
pavilion’s columns and the two-dimensional quality of its 20-foot-wide flat
roofline mark a radical change in the experience. The painted white steel
pavilion sits on an enlarged wooden deck that is oriented toward a stand of Salix manchuria that is rooted in the
river. Like the first wooden viewing platform, this one has interpretive
signage explaining the native plant species. The park’s main feature, the red
ribbon bench, is aligned with one edge of the pavilion’s wood platform.
The red ribbon bench is set back from the water’s edge, and
it wanders up and down, following the topography almost randomly. At points the
ribbon is broken to allow the intersection of a stone path from the upper edge
of the park and the adjacent residential community. Some of the breaks in the
wood boardwalk and the red ribbon bench are meant to allow animals to cross
from land to the water, though there was no interpretive signage explaining the
local animal species or their habitat. Some areas along the path have been
visually marred by security cameras that have been installed on top of large,
intrusive steel posts to monitor visitor behavior.
The bench proved to be a faded orange-red, not the saturated
Chinese red that I had anticipated. The faded red appears to have been caused
by exposure to sunlight and possibly by constant cleaning by maintenance
workers. Nevertheless, the ribbon defines a strong edge for the riparian
corridor, varying in width as it meanders along the corridor.
The impression of the orange-red fiberglass form as
calligraphy inserted onto the landscape is not very strong. I was also
concerned by the fact that the bench was undergoing maintenance when I visited
in the evening hoping to see it in its backlighted state. The project was less
than one year old at that time. Taken together with the apparent bleaching of
the bench, this suggests a real concern that the materials will not be durable
and the project may come to resemble a temporary art installation more than a
permanent landscape project.
Close up, the experience of the bench is less dramatic than
from a distance. It might have been stronger if the local fabricator could have
given a more curved, organic form to its horizontal and vertical surfaces. This
could have lent the bench a stronger calligraphic quality. As it has been
constructed, the bench is boxlike, with vertical sides and sharp angles.
The top surface is punctuated at intervals by translucent
circles containing lighting alternating with circular planters with native
grasses. The planters have been created as cutouts in the red ribbon bench but
seem unnecessary in light of the large massing of native grasses throughout the
Certain elements of the park construction do not seem to be
ideal choices for the objective of low-impact design. The boardwalk was built
very close to the natural surface, leaving little space for the native
plantings to thrive. The use of a wooden boardwalk also seems to be a
questionable choice of materials given its application primarily at grade.
Paving material such as local stone might have provided more interest and
helped keep the boardwalk from becoming monotonous.
There are indirect indications that the red bench is
succeeding in its objective of unifying the park. Informal unimproved paths to
the river’s edge have been created in the area before the red bench begins, but
I saw little evidence of similar paths in the area of the red ribbon. The bench
appears to be successful in keeping the pedestrians along its alignment and
away from the sensitive riparian habitat.
Viewed in the larger
context of Chinese landscape architecture, Red Ribbon Park offers an
alternative to the cold, paved landscape improvements that are typical of
flood-control projects that have been built in many areas of China. It also
illustrates the visual power of color in the landscape and the effectiveness of
Turenscape’s simple design intervention. The park offers a response to the
mandate given to local municipal officials to create low-budget, environmentally
sensitive solutions to the problem of providing recreational areas for the
rapidly expanding cities of China. In the relatively short period since its
construction, it already has been held up as a model for urban green
construction due to the way it meets the Chinese government’s call for a
“harmonious city and thrifty approach.” In the larger international context, it
is a valuable contribution to a growing body of landscape architecture that
integrates art and ecology in meeting everyday recreational needs.
Mary G. Padua, ASLA
(firstname.lastname@example.org), is associate
professor of landscape architecture at University of Florida and principal of
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