Economic reforms in China over the last 30 years have generated significant and steady opportunities for growth in investment, consumption, and the standard of living there. Part of the growth is due to an increased state investment in infrastructure.
Yet, even though China has enjoyed a construction boom and economic development, it also has seen the erosion of something thousands of years in the making: its historic and cultural landscape.
"This construction boom in China is good for the economy," says Lu Ding. "However, it destroys a lot of culture and history. We can't only encourage new quality of living; we also need to keep and improve on our historical elements."
Ding is one of several Chinese students in the University of Idaho's master of landscape architecture program. He says erosion of history is detrimental to his own town, Zhenjiang, which is about two hours north of Shanghai.
"My town is important as a connection point between the northern and southern points of China because of the intersection of two main riversthe Yangtze and the Grand Canal," he says. "In ancient times, water transportation was important because there was no highway system. Every war or dispute affected my town, as people tried to control the water."
Now, he says, new state development is wiping out the town's cultural history. In one instance, he recalls how two city blocks in his town were bombed and demolished completely to clear space for new development. He would like to see the blending of both the new and the old.
"It's an emergency in our hometowns now," he says, and that's where his degree comes into play.
"Only in the last decade or so has China begun to realize the importance of the science and principles behind development and its impact on the landscape," he says. "People in China tend to think of landscape architecture as gardening. But landscape architecture is more than that: It's the connection between architecture, the environment, and urbanism."
When Ding came to the U.S., he sought out a degree offered by the UI College of Art and Architecture because it focuses on the roles of the bioregional and cultural landscape as determining factors in landscape architecture.
Zhenyu "Leo" Liu also is in his second year of the UI master's program. In China, he worked for five years as a designer in landscape architecture, but had no opportunity to study new things.
While he likes and plans to practice urban design, he believes China is developing too rapidly. "It's not the right way to develop; all the cities are similar. In America, all the cities are different, which is what makes them stand out," Liu says.
Stephen Drown, department chair and professor of landscape architecture, says, "Landscape architecture grows increasingly complex with new opportunities afforded through an increasing emphasis on science and technology. There are many wonderful opportunities and challenges for our students."
In addition to teaching the science and theory of design, the landscape-architecture master's program is a partner with the University of Idaho's Building Sustainable Communities Initiative, which provides hands-on community outreach and development opportunities for students, along with bioregional planning and design. Through this initiative, Ding and Liu have been involved in plan development for new waterfront areas in Priest River and Lewiston, as well as natural habitat restoration on Moscow's Paradise Creek.
The master's program also has a study-abroad requirement. "The benefit is that the practice of landscape architecture is increasingly diverse," says Drown. "Exposure and immersion in other cultures is critical.
"Furthermore," he says, "current economic conditions have shifted the nexus of professional practice to other parts of the world where landscape architects partner with international consultants on complex land and urban planning projects at various landscape scales."
From their first-hand experience, Ding and Liu believe the international component contributes to the depth and breadth of knowledge that will help them provide leadership at home.
The UI Chinese students all plan to put their professional degree to work in the U.S. before heading back to their home country, but each hopes to return there and share his knowledge with others, both professionally and as educators.
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