Guilin is a world-renowned scenic touristic city located in the north-eastern part of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. It has a southern subtropical monsoon climate, which contributed shape its particular landscape consisting on numerous caves, lakes and hills or karst (Li et al., 2018; Pei et al., 2013). But also, it allowed the city to be constructed around the water systems which nowadays, along with its beautiful landscape, are the main attraction of both national and international visitors to the region.
The last years the city and state-level administration had been focusing into the recuperation of water urban landscape which was overlooked during the Chinese rapid industrialisation and urbanisation. This rehabilitation of the city’s scenery has been proposed as a way to improve environmental sustainability, but further exploited by its economic revenue.
With this essay, a critical journey into Guilin’s water system functions will be provided, paying special attention to the plans of reconstruction of Guilin’s landscape, their economic usage and the next step into a more inclusive and environmental friendly urban configuration.
GUILIN AND ITS URBANISATION PROCESS
Guilin has a long history which set precedents as far as the Qin dynasty (秦朝). In its origins, Guilin flourished as a prefecture benefiting from the construction of the Lingqu Canal (灵渠) in 214 B.C., connecting the Xiang River (湘江) and the Li River (漓江). Its construction allowed the development of Guilin first as a small settlement along the banks of the Li River, which grew to finally being established as a modern city in 1940. Guilin is a rich historical, cultural and humanistic art reference city in China, whose culture has strong ties with its particular topography, geomorphology, hydrology and other natural conditions, which led to the existence of a particular natural landscape known as karst landscape (Li et al., 2018; Jin et al., 2019).
In the construction of Guilin’s landscape, the ancient period has first to be acknowledge. In those years, nature was worshiped by numerous poets and landscape painters traveling to the settlement. Especially during the Ming and Qing dynasties, when Guilin became the provincial capital of Guangxi (nowadays Nanning 南宁市) and attracted a large number of migrants and tourists. Artists arriving to the city contributed to a flourishing literary atmosphere, promoting the development of a landscape culture. Landscape paintings, scrolls and poems popularised all along the region. One famous example might be the one from Wang Zheng Gong’s (王正功, 1133 ~ 1203) poem about Guilin, which included the well-known sentence: “Guilin scenery is the best scenery in the world (桂林山水甲天下)” (Li et al., 2018; Jin et al., 2019). This particular revered relation with nature has its cultural ties with literati, due to the particular role reserved to nature in popular religions such as Daoism. Philosophical Daoism includes the utopian vision of an agricultural culture, one with a harmonic connection with nature, and which seeks to avoid any artificial values that might go against the natural way of things, in consonance with the concept of wu wei (无为), the act of not interfering (Laozi, 2000 trans.). However, this special consideration of nature was relieved to a secondary place by the modern times.
During Mao Zedong’s ruling, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) adopted a national urban policy of development which which discouraged the growth of large cities and to encouraged the development of medium and small cities. The aim under socialism was to eliminate the contradictions between cities and counties, by improving the countryside’s conditions. However, the city continued to play a leading role and large cities gained on population. This trend was a result of the undergoing industrial development, which favoured the economically more advanced city centres. And it contributed to enhance urban-rural differences (Ma, 1979).
After the Chinese economic reform or “opening up” (gaige kaifang 改革开) of Deng Xiaoping, an economic decentralisation was applied in order to correct this unequal distribution: to transform the country towards modernization, and to countermeasure previous extreme centralisation of the industrialisation process. The physical exemplification of these plans was the promotion of Special Economic Zones (SEZs) in the 1980s, from which Shenzhen represented the first of the Post-Mao economic revolution (Campanella, 2008; Ma, 1979). As for the urban development, it was a land-driven development which promoted urban expansion to link the peripheral areas and suburban counties into a unified metropolitan area. This process, known as city-regionalism, was a spatial development born from the collaboration of the centralised State and the urban space, which allowed large cities to expand into larger city-regions as a part of an accelerated economic development, industrialization and push to globalisation (Huang et al., 2016). Therefore, it transformed the relations between the central city and its suburbs, and its respective uses, by a Chinese urban administrative “city-leading-counties system stablished in the early 1980. The core city was upgraded for business use, while the suburban districts, which were traditionally rural areas providing food to the city, were transformed into into industrial satellite and mass residential relocation of migrants (Huang et al., 2016; Wu, 2017; Ng, 2019).
Then, with the modern times, urban construction has grown rapidly by a people-oriented landscape which is supposed to only satisfy sightseeing recreation, but to guarantee the economic development of Guilin, in this particular case, by its landscape transformation including an urban expansion and industry construction. And this urbanisation and industrialization had a direct effect to the ecological system (Li et al., 2018). Chinese economic development zones’ rapid conversion of agricultural land into urban and industrial areas contributed to air, noise, water and crop pollution, while diminishing biodiversity (Wu, 2017; Ng, 2019).
In the case of Guilin, water systems are vital elements of the city’s topography and identity, as well as key components of the urban context (see figure 1) (Li et al., 2018).
Originating in the Kitten Mountain (also Mao’er Mountains 猫儿山), the Li river (漓江), and its main confluent Peach River (桃花江), flow south through Guilin. Its beautiful scenery has granted it UNESCO’s rank of World Heritage Site (WHS) in 2014. However, the region’s water system, of both rivers and the many lakes on the area, suffered sever damages in the recent years. Due to lack of protection, before 1998 a total of 17% of wastewater were directly discharged into the lakes, which resulted in serious water pollution and also affected biodiversity, reducing aquatic and terrestrial diversity. As an example, it reduced its fish species to only a 20-30% of its previous total. This damaged ecosystem due to urbanisation and industrialisation’s physical destruction and chemical degradation, resulted into an impoverishment of the urban ecological system and an extreme biological deficiency in the lakes. In addition, severe environmental problems such as desertification and karst collapse, urged to solve a situation that was also negatively affecting the local economy and tourism (Li et al., 2018; Pei et al., 2013; Jin et al., 2019).
To correct this problem, Guilin had to develop a type of urban ecological landscape which returned to the ancient harmony with nature, while guaranteeing the economic development of Guilin as a scenic tourist city. Here is where “Two Rivers and Four Lakes” (两江四湖) Spatial Planning gains its relevance.
ECOLOGICAL LANDSCAPE RECONFIGURATION: “TWO RIVERS AND FOUR LAKES” SPATIAL PLANNING
The first Chinese urbanisation initiative was a push towards localism which seek inter-city collaboration to build a competitive region. Nevertheless, the lack of collaboration and coordination between regions had led to environmental degradation. Therefore, there was a need for spatial plans beyond individual cities to reduce regional inequalities. Here is were cluster plans such as the Jing-Jin-Ji (Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei) integration plan, the Yangtze River Delta urban cluster and the Pearl River Delta urban cluster coordination plan were developed, as a further integration into a cluster of city-regions. Also, the spatial plans were aimed ensure environmental sustainability. As explained, Chinese economic development zones’ rapid industrialisation to pollution, while diminishing biodiversity. This is why there has been an intention to integrate a greener urbanism with the development of green belts to separate different clusters (Wu, 2017; Campanella, 2008; Ng, 2019).
In the case of Guilin, the “Two Rivers and Four Lakes” (两江四湖) Spatial Plan was developed. By “Two Rivers” it englobes both rivers running through and shaping the city’s scenery, Li River (漓江) and Peach River (桃花江). And by “Four Lakes” it includes Guihu Lake (桂湖), Ronghu Lake (榕湖), Shanhu Lake (杉湖) and Mulong Lake (木龙湖) (see figure 2).
In 1999, Guilin there was an international planning competition for the project of “Two Rivers and Four Lakes”. The plan, which was focused on the rehabilitation of the water system, was conceived as a combination of improving the quality and image of the waterfront area and transforming the city scenery, while promoting water quality and greener landscape. Therefore, it was planned to improve the urban water environment, but also to regenerate the urban area and to provide a first step to change the economic system in Guilin, form the industrial to the tourism sector (Wang et al., 2010).
First step was to improve water quantity, water quality, aquatic ecology and water landscape, to ensure safe water supplies and an enhanced water landscape. Human activity had broken connections between the lakes and the rivers and it was necessary to reconstruct them in order to facilitate clean water supplies to the lakes. Also, a plan to reduce water pollution, by using urban hydraulic engineering, and to improve the lakeshore by replanting its aquatic vegetation, allowed its aquatic animals and amphibians to repopulate their habitats. And finally, a system of flood control and waterlog prevention was constructed to provide safety to the urban area (Pei et al., 2013).
However, particular interest also raised by this rehabilitation. The plan of renewal was part of the efforts to attract investment and tourism at the global and domestic level. There were various sub-projects under the “Two Rivers and Four Lakes” project, apart from greening and landscape project, such as pedestrian street restoration, lightening project, tourism boat system, waterfront commercial stores reallocation, restoration of building façade, water purification, to name some. All of them were pieces to ensure the final ecological, economic and social benefits to Guilin City. The project’s final aim was to abandon the previous industrial development in pursue of a local economic growth which mimic the ancient times by its power to attract visitors as a tourism city. Then, the water system rehabilitation has resulted in an economic profit, by the contribution of tourism to the local economy, specially in the form of water tours and visits to the historical site. Hence, those integrated projects while promoting the city image of Guilin, also generated large taxes in return. This variety of projects resulted in a boost of the underdeveloped Real State Market by its necessity of relocating many residents and business units. And this money was in turn providing more budget for the development of urban infrastructure (Pei et al., 2013; Wang et al., 2010).
Since 2001, the boating tourism has become a new tourism brand in Guilin. There are many tourist attractions related the “Two Rivers and Four Lakes” and to its numerous parks. For example, there is a boat tour to explore the lakes, which can be experienced at night thanks to Ms Luoxi Hao’s lightening project, conceived to boost Guilin’s night economy. Also, some infrastructure projects have contributed to the appearance of the city as well as its suitable environment for tourism activities, such as the rebuilt of eight old bridges located on the lakes too close to the surface to allow boats to pass through. Hence, intra-city collaboration within the region has improved due to tourism, and throughout the tourist season, river boats navigate the Li River connecting Guilin’s and Yangshuo’s docks. This enhancement of the tourism also contributed to the proliferation of all kind of tertiary sector-like business, such as hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops (Pei et al., 2013; Wang et al., 2010; Qun, 2012). As an example, Vector Architects have converted a Yangshuo’s old sugar mill (Alila Yangshuo) into a hotel complex in 2017. The tourism phenomena has grown so big than the “Two Rivers and Four Lakes” project of Guilin has become a typical example regarding to urban water system construction, and in Guangxi, many cities have launched similar projects to boost waterfront development, such as Yulin (玉林) 2004’s “One River Two Banks” eco-corridor along the Nanliu River (南流江) (Wang et al., 2010).
Then we have a city, Guilin, which is constructed around its landscape and it also takes a huge revenue from it. However, there are some problems about the construction of Guilin around the so called urban ecological landscape, which resemble the case of Singapore. Both Singapore and China’s development had a negative impact on its national environment. To overcome it, Singapore launched an environmental project named “City in a garden”, which was designed to improve the visual and liveable qualities of the city. However, it lacked from a pure environmentalist drive apart from an ornamental design and political objectives, such as the attraction of talented work-force (Wu, 2017; Chua, 2011; Ng, 2019). In the case of Guilin, urban landscape reconfiguration was developed for the sake of beauty, aimed to attract tourism. And it succeeded in creating green spaces concentrated in parks which now receive many visitors. However, there was not a consideration of building a comprehensive urban ecological landscape, missing on the green space around streets and residential areas, neglecting the cities cultural heritage and how to manage the city’s environmental pressures due to the rapid growth of tourism (Li et al., 2018; Mao et al., 2014). Therefore, a new plan is required to fulfil what its predecessor missed.
ECOLOGICAL INTEGRATION: THE CONCEPT OF SPONGE CITY
The “Sponge City” was proposed by Xi Jinping (习近平) in the 2003 Central Conference on Urbanization, and there is an official approval to development of sponge cities issued by the State, as a starting point to grasp the idea of garden city, to combine landscape ecology planning and ecosystem management, and developing ecological infrastructure. Since 2008, under the leadership of the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development (中华人民共和国住房和城乡建设部), the Guangming district (光明区) of Shenzhen (深圳市) has conducted a pilot project of low impact development, which has become a research and demonstration area of low impact development nationwide. In addition, Guilin has also been selected as one of the pilots for its application, in order to build a harmonious sustainable urban water environment (Li et al., 2018; Lu et al., 2018).
“Sponge city” uses the idea of a sponge that can absorb water. With the rapid urbanisation, a problem of urban rainwater has raised due to the increasing runoff coefficient of concrete and asphalt covering the road surfaces of the modern cities. These hardened roads can not conserve water as the woodland or the grassland, and contribute to cut off the natural water cycle. Rainwater rather than filling the ground water, is discharge as sewage. This system is build as green measures to improve the urban drainage system and the rainwater absorption and storage, to solve the problem of water shortage in cities, by promoting its natural accumulation, infiltration and purification. Its particular design advocates for a careful consideration of the hydrological characteristics of a region before the development of urban planning. Therefore, it assures its elasticity to cope with natural disasters in a monsoon region and its environmental sustainability, by a low impact development of the city (Di, 2017; Lu et al., 2018; Li et al., 2018)
Its plans include the water supply system planning, road system planning and green space system planning. Thus, for its application it is required to: construct systems for a correct drainage, water supply, water saving and water conservation; design permeable ground and drainage slope to prevent flood peaks; and create greenbelts to reduce heat island effect and to collect and drain rainwater (Lu et al., 2018; Di, 2017).
FINAL REFLECTION: URBANISM BEYOND TOURISM AND WATER SYSTEMS
Guilin’s rich historical and cultural landscape city has been reconfigured around the main aim of tourism with the “Two Rivers and Four Lakes” initiative. By this placing, the water landscape in the city acquired the central focus, as if it were the core of the city’s (Wang et al., 2010). That is so than the population and its cultural heritage had been relieved into a secondary role, or even as just a wheel spinning along the tourism market.
Many of the actual changes of the city, as previously explained, had been around the construction of a more likeable environment to attract economic renewal. This trend has its micro parallelism into the Chinese national macro economic development. Many historic towns and villages had endured considerable changes into the narrative of a market-oriented economy growth. And often, a successful transformation process has had a negative effect into the population.
On the macro stage, countries like Singapore and Mainland China had constructed a national rhetoric upon a shared objective of economic growth to survival, as national motivational and disciplinary ideology to culturally socialize the population into a productive workforce. Then, before the industrialization and the urbanism rapid development, the government urged to a national endurance of its negative effects in pro to an economic success to boost the nation into the global market (Chua, 2011; Campanella, 2008; Ng, 2019).
On the other hand, on the micro scale, this natural endurance is mirrored by the urban reconstruction which included the displacement of human settlements to favour economic activities, such as the capitalisation of the city’s beauty to tourism. In many aspects, China’s construction efforts have been giving priority to development, first by the industrialisation process, and now by the tourism and rural destination marketing (Qun, 2012; Mao, 2014; Zhou, 2014). However, its over exploitation have contributed to make invisible human-based urbanism. It made residential areas both difficult to notice while walking through the city as a tourist, and also while searching on urbanism for information in academia-related journals.
Guilin has a long relationship with its landscape and its attraction to people to the city. However, the capitalist modern era has provided an extra motivation to take its exploitation to the next level, by reconfiguration the whole city in pro to a change of the city’s economic system to the tertiary sector around tourism.
Even though Guilin’s investment has proved rather profitable in monetary terms, by acquiring the rank of a well-known destination for both national and international tourism, the city is paying the price for an environmental exploitation and it needs a more inclusive landscape development to solve its rapid urbanisation problems. By this means, Sponge city is an example of green measures which, might contribute to both improve the long-term habitability of the urban settlement and its inhabitant’s life standards, while providing a suitable ground for economic proposes.
Àngela Altisent Altisent, 2019
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 See Floornature Architecture & Surface’s website. https://www.floornature.com/vector-architects-alila-yangshuo-hotel-yangshuo-china-13635/ and Alila Group’s website https://www.alilahotels.com/yangshuo#top