The Big-Foot Revolution

After almost a year, since I met Professor Mohsen Mostafavi (Dean of Design faculty of Harvard University) in Perugia during Festarch conference, and I bought his precious book called “Ecological Urbanism”, I recently read an article in it by Kongjian Yu (founder and Dean of the Graduate School of Landscape Architecture at Perking University) with this title : “The Big-Foot Revolution”.
   Indeed this title comes from a tradition, when young Chinese girls were forced to bind their feet to be able to marry urban elites. Healthy and natural “big” feet were considered rustic and rural. Unhealthy, deformed, and citified small feet, deprived of functionality and malodorous, were considered “beautiful”. Foot binding (along with many other cultures’ body-deforming practices) was appreciated as a rite of urbanity. Kongjian Yu utilizes this fact as a concept of his landscape projects, he says, just like the foot story, ugly, rough, rural, natural and “big” would be more efficient than beautiful, soft, citified, deformed and “little”.
   Here is the complete text”
Bound feet and little shoes
For more than a thousand years, young Chinese girls were forced to bind their feet to be able to marry citified elites. Healthy, natural “big” feet were considered rustic and rural. Unhealthy, deformed, and citified small feet, deprived of functionality and malodorous, were considered “beautiful.” Foot binding (along with many other cultures’ body-deforming practices) was appreciated as a rite of urbanity.
Urbanization therefore began with a highly privileged class that sacrificed function in exchange for ornamental and cosmetic values. This same “Little-Foot” value system has been used for thousands of years by the privileged urban minority to build cities and landscapes. By definition, “Little-Foot Urbanism” is the art of gentrification and cosmetics. Its superficial condition replaces the messy, fertile, and functional landscapes associated with healthy and productive people.
Today we bind natural feet in the city with fashionable tiny high-heeled shoes, and we build a 500-year flood-control dike made of concrete to surround the city and keep it distant from the water. We build a fully controlled storm-water management system that does not allow the reinfiltration of water to the aquifer before being flushed into the ocean; we replace native “messy” and productive shrubs and crops with fancy flowers that bear no fruit, support no other species, and serve no function other than pleasing human beings; and we uproot hardy wild grasses and replace them with smooth ornamental lawns that consume tons of water.
The little-foot girl and the big-foot girl
Urbanized landscapes are designed using ornamental criteria, making buildings such as the CCTV Tower and the National Opera House in Beijing the landmarks. Shanghai and Dubai offer other examples—almost all of the landmark buildings there are crowned with ornamental funny hats. Furthermore, the whole city becomes ornamental and cosmetic, with burdens of water shortage, air pollution, global warming, and a massive waste of land and natural resources, along with the loss of cultural identity. The landscapes, cities, and buildings under today’s “Little-Foot Urbanism” are like the “Little-Foot” girl: unhealthy, deformed, deprived of functionality, and malodorous. “Little-Foot Urbanism” is a path to death.
Shanghai: Little-foot urbanism, a city of cosmetics
The Little-Foot dream used to be limited to an upper-class urban minority of less than 10 percent before the last half of the twentieth century, but now is becoming common throughout the population. In China alone, 18 million people are urbanized each year, immigrating to the city from the countryside. These people strive to be “urbane,” to be gentrified, to move away from natural functionality and a healthy and productive rural life. When poor developing countries that follow “Little-Foot Urbanism” encounter the “American Jumbo Dream,” the scenario gets even worse. Witness China and India, which pursue the American dream of jumbo cars and houses, and whatever jumbo else. Thereafter the land can be seen as a little donkey with a heavy burden: China has only 7 percent of the world’s natural resources of arable land and fresh water, with the need to feed 22 percent of the world’s population.
It can be imagined where Little-Foot Urbanism with Jumbo Body will lead China: two- thirds of China’s 662 cities have a shortage of water; 75 percent of the nation’s surface water is polluted; and 64 percent of cities’ underground water is polluted; one-third of the national population is in danger of drinking polluted water; 50 percent of wetlands disappeared in the past thirty years. How can we survive in the future?
Little foot carrying the jumbo body: The crisis of urbanization in China
The “Big-Foot Revolution”: Ecological Urbanism
A painting commonly used on the street as propaganda during the Cultural Revolution, demonstrating revolution against Confucianism and little-foot culture
It’s time for a change. Ecological Urbanism is the art of survival. At this moment, two strategies have to be adopted to provide a guide for sustainable cities in the future.
Urban Development Based on Ecological Infrastructure across Scales
The crisis of survival: The degraded environment-flood, drought, pollution, and loss of habitat
This is the spatial strategy of urban development planning that requires planners to understand the land as a living system, to identify an ecological infrastructure (EI) that will guide urban development. EI is defined as the structural landscape network composed of critical landscape elements and spatial patterns. EI also has strategic significance in safeguarding the integrity and identity of the natural and cultural landscapes, which in turn secure sustainable ecosystem services.
A framework of urban planning based on ecological infrastructure, where SP means “Security Pattern,” the landscape configuration essential for safeguarding ecological or cultural processes
A spatial strategy for ecological urbanism: The building of ecological infrastructure in China across scales
Using a minimum of space, EI will safeguard the following four critical eco-services:
(1) Provide food production and clean water; (2) Regulate climate, disease, flood, and drought; (3) Support nutrient cycles and habitat for native plant and animal species; (4) Sponsor culture, associated with spiritual and recreational benefits.
As an ecological urbanism spatial strategy, ecological infrastructure should be planned across scales. The national and regional EI are to be planned through the identification of strategic landscape patterns (security patterns) to safeguard the critical ecological processes; this becomes a framework directing regional land-use planning and urban growth patterns. At a medium scale, structural elements of ecological infrastructure such as corridors and patches are clearly identified and drawn to guarantee the integrity of the regional scale. At a small scale, the ecosystem services provided by the regional ecological infrastructure will be extended into the urban fabric and guide urban design for individual sites.
“Big-Foot” Aesthetics: Five Projects, Five Principles
A new aesthetic is required to allow the operation and appreciation of ecological urbanism: the aesthetics of “Big Foot” as an alternative to “Little-Foot” aesthetics. The following five projects were designed and executed by the author and Turenscape over the past ten years, demonstrating some major principles that define “Big-Foot” aesthetics, based on ecological awareness and environmental ethics.
The Floating Gardens of Yongning Park:
Make Friends with Floods
The existing site of the Yongning River Park project
Big-foot aesthetics: Hardy native grasses replace concrete bank and are both beautiful and enjoyed by visitors
The Floating Gardens of Yongning River Park: The integration of art with ecology that turns messy nature into beautiful urban green space. Making friends with floods: The Floating Gardens of Yongning River Park apply the ecological approach to flood control and storm-water management
Modern cities that follow “Little-Foot Urbanism” are designed against natural forces, especially water. Nature’s services, provided by landscape, are impoverished and replaced with man-made services. As an alternative approach to conventional urban water management and flood-control engineering that uses concrete and pipes, the Yongning Park project demonstrates how we can live and design with the natural “Big Foot” of water. We let loose the bound of concrete on the urban water system and took an ecological approach to flood control and storm-water management, revealing the beauty of native vegetation and the ordinary landscape. The results have been remarkably successful: flood problems were successfully addressed, and “Big-Foot” native grass has been appreciated by local people as well as tourists.
The Rice Campus of Shenyang Architectural University:
Go Productive
The Rice Campus of Shenyang Architectural University that turns a rustic, productive rice paddy into an aesthetically attractive urban setting for multiple functions
The productive campus of Shenyang Architectural University

For centuries, universities have been places to gentrify the rustic young generation into the urbane, and the landscape as well. Hundreds and thousands of hectares of fertile land have been transformed into campuses of ornamental lawns and flowers in the past three decades in China. As an alternative, the Shenyang Architectural University Campus was designed to be productive. Storm water is collected to make a reflecting pond, which then becomes the reservoir to irrigate the rice paddy in front of the classrooms. Open study rooms are allocated in the middle of the rice fields. Frogs and fish are cultivated in the rice paddy to eat insect larvae, and once grown up, are harvested for the lunch table. This project demonstrates how agricultural landscapes can become part of the urbanized environment yet remain aesthetically enjoyable. This productive landscape is a clear example of the new “Big-Foot” aesthetic: unbounded, functional, and beautiful.
Zhongshan Shipyard Park:
Value the Ordinary and Recycle the Existing
Zhongshan Shipyard Park, where nature and an industrial heritage are integrated into beautiful places
For a long time, we have been proud of ourselves as human beings capable of building, destroying, and rebuilding. Because of this human instinct, both natural and man-made assets have been over-used, and we are on the brink of a survival crisis. As an alternate approach, the Zhongshan Shipyard Park demonstrates the principle of preserving, reusing, and recycling natural and man-made materials. The park is built on a brownfield site where an abandoned shipyard was erected in the 1950s. The shipyard went bankrupt in 1999, after a remarkable fifty-year history in socialist China. The original vegetation and natural habitats were preserved, and only native plants were used throughout the landscape design. Machines, docks, and other industrial structures were recycled for educational and functional purposes. This unconventional approach made this park
a favorite site for weddings, fashions shows, and daily use by local communities and tourists. It demonstrated how “messy” and “rustic” can be aesthetically attractive, and how environmental ethics and ecological awareness can be built into our urban landscape.
The Adaptation Palettes of Qiaoyuan Park, Tianjin City:
Let Nature Work
Let nature work: The adaptation palettes of Qiaoyuan Park, Tianjin City, that turns native vegetation into attractive landscape
From Versailles and historic Chinese gardens to the contemporary Olympic Park, we have seen great efforts made to create and maintain artificial ornamental landscapes. Instead of providing ecosystem services for the city, public spaces actually become a burden on cities in terms of energy and water consumption. The Qiaoyuan Park in Tianjin City alternatively exemplifies how natural processes originate and lets nature work, providing an environmental service for the city.
The site had been a shooting range. It then became a garbage dump and drainage sink for urban storm water, and was heavily polluted and deserted. The soil presented heavy saline and alkaline properties. Inspired by the adaptive vegetation communities that dot the regional flat coastal landscape, the designer developed a solution called the Adaptation Palettes: numerous pond cavities of different depths were dug, storm water retained, diverse habitats created, and seeds of mixed plant species sowed. A regenerative design process were introduced to evolve and adapt in time. The patchiness of the landscape reflects the regional water- and alkaline-sensitive vegetation. The beauty of the native landscape in the ecology-driven and low-maintenance Big-Foot aesthetic has become an attraction that lures thousands of visitors every day.
The Red Ribbon, Tanghe River Park, Qinhuangdao City, Hebei Province:
Minimally Intervene
The red ribbon: The minimal intervention necessary to turn nature into aesthetically attractive urban green space
In the process of urbanization, a natural landscape is usually replaced with overly designed and gentrified gardens and parks. The Red Ribbon Park in China’s Qinhuangdao City explored an alternative that integrated art with nature and dramatically transformed the landscape with minimal design. Against the background of natural terrain and vegetation, the landscape architect placed a 500-meter “red ribbon” bench integrating lighting, seating, environmental interpretation, and orientation. While preserving as much of the “messy” natural river corridor as possible, this project demonstrates how a minimal design solution can achieve dramatic improvements, turning a “messy,” natural Big-Foot landscape into a beautiful urban park, while preserving the natural processes and patterns.

4 Responses to “The Big-Foot Revolution”

  1. Amazing article..

  2. How very interesting.

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