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American Society of Landscape Architects


March 2004 Issue

Teaching the River
On the banks of one of China's most polluted rivers, a city park demonstrates alternative methods of water purification.
By Mary Padua, ASLA

Teaching the River
Mary Padua

The meteoric growth of China's economy in the past two decades has taken a heavy toll on the environment. Rapid expansion of manufacturing has brought sharp increases in coal-fired power generation and a flood of industrial chemicals into the water and air—and growth continues to accelerate.

According to the World Resources Institute, by the late 1990s, China was home to seven of the ten most polluted cities on earth, and over 100 of its cities faced severe shortages of clean water. A popular saying about contemporary life in China captures the people's new consciousness about environmental issues: "The house is new, the money is enough, but the water is foul and life is short" (see "China's Health and Environment," World Resources Institute, 2001).

With increasing education and openness in the media, the Chinese public has become more aware of hazards posed by environmental degradation and more active in seeking environmental policies. The government of China is attempting to respond to these concerns, and the environment has become a top policy priority for Beijing, but civic action at the local level and environmental education will inevitably play a role in future efforts to stem environmental degradation.

The award-winning Living Water Garden, covering six acres along the banks of the Fu-Nan River near the center of the city of Chengdu in western China, is an elegant example of environmental education. The garden, an appealing urban park that grew out of a larger project to improve the water quality of the Fu-Nan River, is built around a water-cleaning system that draws 200 cubic meters of water from the Fu-Nan each day, removes bacterial pollutants and heavy metals, and returns the water to the river. People go to the Living Water Garden for the relief it offers from an intense urban setting, and the park seduces them into learning important lessons about the environment through its demonstration of natural processes of water purification.

The water-treatment system that forms the heart of the park is not meant to have an appreciable impact on the river's water quality. Major improvements in a body of water the size of the Fu-Nan can be achieved only by reducing emissions of pollutants. Instead, the impact of the Living Water Garden lies in its effects on the thinking of the people of Chengdu: their increased awareness of environmental issues and pride in the progress the city has made toward improvement of the river.

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