Decoding the landscape: Finding meaning in Northeast Asia’s urban green spaces

This piece was originally published in Asian Currents.  Access the original article here.

Through my academic interests in international environmental politics I have come to be fascinated by reading landscapes for insights into political and economic systems. I take my cue here from the work of Peter Atkins who has argued that culture, politics and economy are encoded into landscapes. Landscapes—urban built environments, rural agricultural settings and wilderness areas—can be a rich source of information about the political economy and culture of the country.

In Northeast Asia, it is possible to find urban green spaces that reflect a variety of different ideological and cultural codings, reflecting the prevailing social forces of the historical epochs in which each green space was built. In recent travels across Northeast Asia to China, South Korea and North Korea, I have been practicing reading the encoded landscape of various urban green spaces, an observation methodology I have also been refining as a permaculture practitioner. The following piece distils my observations from this landscape reading exercise.

Classical Chinese garden design

There are numerous green spaces across East Asia exhibiting the characteristics of classical Chinese garden design. These green spaces are variously inspired by imitation of nature inherent to Daoism and the Confucian idiom that man is an integral part of nature is the quest to find balance between the forces of man, heaven and earth. In the seminal 17th century work on classical garden design, Ji Cheng stated that “Skill in landscape design is shown in the ability to ‘follow’ and ‘borrow from’ the existing scenery and lie of the land.”

YiYuan Garden, Shanghai.
YiYuan Garden, Shanghai.

These design features are observable in many of the famous classical gardens I have encountered in my travels, including Běi Hǎi Gōng Yuán in Beijing with its many pavilions surrounding beautiful Beihai Lake, and the Yù Yuán garden in Shanghai. Royal palaces of various dynastic periods were designed according to these principles across East Asia which have become public recreational spaces in our contemporary period, including the Forbidden City and Yíhé Yuán (Summer Palace) in Beijing, and the complex of five palaces in Seoul, including Gyeongbokgung Palace which served as the main residence for rulers of Korea’s Yi Dynasty.

These are very much human-mediated environments designed as an escape for their users from the disturbances of everyday life, for the function of “emotional refinement and meditation.” They reflect the needs and desires of the rulers who commissioned them, as a space to separate themselves from the hoi polloi.

Communist model of land management

In the twentieth century, communism spread into Northeast Asia and its ideological tenants had a significant influence on the use of land space. The immense architectural scale of the wide boulevards of Beijing and Pyongyang and their various monuments to the revolution were all designed to convey power and awe as physical testament to the glory of their respective revolutions. Anyone walking through Tiananmen Square in Beijing or gazed upon the Juche Tower in Pyongyang is under no illusion about the ideological presupposition of the design of these spaces. Indeed the broad boulevards and large monuments of Pyongyang’s urban landscape are an ideological theme park coded with the power and personality of the Kim regime.

They also point to a specific interpretation of the human relationship with nature, of man as the master of his own destiny and capable of mastering and re-shaping nature for the good of the revolutionary society. As North Korean leader Kim Il Sung famously stated on numerous occasions, “man is the master of all things.” In the North Korean case, this principle was embodied in approaches to land management in agriculture such as ill-advised hillside terracing, chemical usage and cropping regimes that were disastrous for long-term soil fertility, land erosion and agricultural production.

Looking north along the Taedong River toward the Juche Tower, Pyongyang
Looking north along the Taedong River toward the Juche Tower, Pyongyang

Green shoots in the modernisation project

On the other side of the DMZ, South Korea embarked upon its own modernisation project in its ideological and economic competition with the North. South Korea’s bureaucratic corporatist development model eventually transformed the South from a developing country into a global economic power. What that meant for the urban landscape of Seoul was a proliferation of concrete and steel across the landscape in the form buildings, freeways, and factories.

The Seoul Metropolitan Government has done a good job over the last fifteen years of re-greening the city, which has had a noticeable impact on the air quality of the city and its general livability.  The most well-known example of Seoul’s recent urban greening is the Cheonggyecheon River is was formerly a drain covered by a freeway, which is now a beautiful rehabilitated creek and green strip running from downtown to the Jungnangcheon stream and ultimately the Han River.  It is now a functioning green corridor with mature ecosystems, a recreational corridor used by people for exercise, a place for cooling off in the summer, and an ambient retreat from the busy city streets.

Old freeway pillars on the Cheonggyecheon
Old freeway pillars on the Cheonggyecheon

Much of South Korea’s natural environment has been sacrificed at the altar of economic development since the Park Chung Hee era.  The re-greening of Seoul represents an acknowledgement, at least implicitly, that something valuable was lost in South Korea’s otherwise successful modernisation project.

Green space, food and economic production systems

Today Northeast Asia, like the rest of the world, is confronting converging crises of climate change and ecological degradation, energy insecurity, and global economic instability. The culture, politics and economics of this change are indeed coded into a small but growing number of urban green spaces in the region which have become grassroots laboratories for this broader change.

Seoul Forest, is an example of such an urban green space. Reclaimed from an old horse racing track at the, Seoul Forest features wooded areas, a wetland, community vegetable garden, apple orchard, play spaces for children, a deer reservation, art installations, education facilities, cafes and a community hub, among other things.  Seoul Green Trust administer Seoul Forest and maintain a number of other initiatives around the city, including a network of over fifty community garden sites, along with a regular organic food market.

Community garden at Seoul Forest.
Community garden at Seoul Forest.

In China, I also visited the Hangzhou Permaculture Education and Research Centre on the outskirts of Hangzhou. This entity is a small collective of Chinese and foreign permaculture design specialists who help people with small allotments of land to design these spaces according to permaculture principles to make those spaces multi-functional for food production, social interaction and ecological preservation. The site I visited had been purchased by a group of middle class families from Shanghai who wanted to grow their own organic food and have a green space for their children to play in.

In both cases, participants have re-negotiated their relationship to the economic systems in which they are enmeshed, providing them with greater autonomy over their sources of food. Self-sufficient local food production using ecologically sound design principles (such as permaculture and agro-ecology), if deployed with local-scale renewable energy technologies, could help people and communities re-establish sovereignty over their means of subsistence and become more resilient to ecological and economic shocks.

Members of my 'Environment and Sustainability in China 2015 Study Tour' group learning about raised garden beds at Hangzhou permaculture farm
Members of my ‘Environment and Sustainability in China 2015 Study Tour’ group learning about raised garden beds at Hangzhou permaculture farm


By practicing the observational methodology that culture, politics and economy are encoded into landscapes, I have seen during my travels in China and the Korean Peninsula that the human relationship with the natural world in these societies has been mediated by the dominant ideology and politics of the time. Our present moment demands that we adopt a politics, economy and culture that is ecologically sustainable, ethically fair and fully cognisant of the human inter-dependence with the natural world. An environmentally aware twenty-first century interpretation sees urban green space is more than just aesthetic, as they also have great social, economic and environmental value as food production systems, social hubs, centres of human health and recreation, biodiversity corridors within the cityscape, and water catchment.  There are many landscapes in Korea and China that tell a story of getting the human-nature relationship wrong, along with other sites that provide hope for the future.

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