Sustaining China

College of Architecture working
with China's Tsinghua University
to promote healthy, livable cities

The faculty at Texas A&M’s College of Architecture have a great deal in common with their academic counterparts at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China — especially their desire to positively transform beleaguered urban environments, and to design and construct modern, healthy cities with promising, sustainable futures.

Building on this common ground, the two institutions recently entered into a collaborative agreement aimed at advancing mutually beneficial educational and research initiatives in the areas of sustainability and health-care architecture.

“With one quarter of the world’s population and the fastest growing economy in the history of the world, China is facing unprecedented conditions and challenges,” said J. Thomas Regan, dean of the College of Architecture. His comments, simulcast in both English and Chinese, were delivered last summer in Beijing, at a conference on healthy cities co-sponsored by the Texas A&M College of Architecture and the Architecture Design & Research Institute of Tsinghua University.

“Because the world has become totally interdependent, China’s challenges become challenges for the rest of us,” Regan continued in his opening remarks at the event which was attended by Chinese government leaders, design professionals and faculty from Tsinghua and Texas A&M universities. “We welcome the opportunity to share our knowledge with you and to begin a dialogue and working relationship as you undertake, with imagination and commitment, the formidable task of transforming your cities from their historic nobility into modern healthy communities.”

Joining Regan at the Beijing event, and a related tour of Chinese cities that included Shenzhen and Shanghai, was a delegation of College of Architecture faculty who also presented at the conference.

The gathering, originally slated for the previous summer, was postponed by a nationwide outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS. According to the conference organizer, Chang-Shan Huang, associate professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning at Texas A&M, the epidemic, while unfortunate, went far to raise awareness of the importance of many of the topics, like health-care architecture, that were eventually explored at last summer’s conference.

The event also attracted a great deal of attention from the Chinese news media which reported on the proceedings in newspapers and on television newscasts. Additionally, details of the conference were featured in a special edition of the Chinese magazine, Healthy Communities, the third co-sponsor of the event.

“The faculty presentations were very well received,” said Huang. “The conference,” he added, “was the largest ever sponsored by Tsinghua’s Architecture Design & Research Institute and it attracted a record number of Chinese government officials, including the vice minister of construction and many of his associates.”

The Healthy Cities in China Conference was the first of many such exchanges called for in the new collaborative agreement between the two universities. Other areas of cooperation include a faculty exchange program, joint research and publication initiatives, and design team partnerships on projects maximizing the strengths of both institutions. The agreement specifically outlines five areas for collaboration: evidenced-based design methodology, landscape architecture, the planning and design of healthy cities and communities, health-care architecture and critical regionalism in architecture and landscape architecture.

According to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s World Fact Book Web site, the economic output of China has more than quadrupled since economic reforms were initiated in 1978 by former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. “Measured on a purchasing power parity basis,” the Web site says, “China in 2003 stood as the second-largest economy in the world after the United States.”

This unprecedented growth has not been without consequence. At an international conference examining U.S. China relations held last year at Texas A&M University, a roundtable discussion on sustainable community planning, design and construction identified challenges facing China in these fields. It was this conversation that identified potential areas for collaboration that were later adopted in the agreement between the College of Architecture at Texas A&M and the Architecture Design & Research Institute at Tsinghua University.

According to a white paper summarizing the roundtable discussion, “the pressures inherent in accommodating such rapid urbanization raise concerns over [China’s] long-term sustainability and pose substantial challenges in infrastructure and transportation planning, affordable housing, engineering and construction standards and management, appropriate community design and social and economic equity issues.”

As Regan reported in his opening statements in Beijing, the College of Architecture at Texas A&M is uniquely suited to tackle many of these pressing concerns.

“We are able to research and analyze the impact and future of growth in key areas, such as population growth, increased urbanization, industrialization and balanced economic growth, quality of life, and environmental challenges — all areas of current concern to China,” said the dean. “Our college has experts who research issues that address healthy cities from many perspectives, ranging from present conditions to future needs: medical facilities and hospital design, homes for the aged, environments that promote healing and wellness; gardens and pedestrian pathways that encourage physical, mental, and spiritual health, urban and community planning by both the public and private sectors, and balancing the pressures of large urban populations with environmental sustainability.”

In orchestrating the healthy cities conference, Huang called upon faculty whose research reflected the broad range of topics related to sustainable urbanization and health-care architecture:
  • George Mann, the Ronald L. Skaggs professor of Health Facilities Design, discussed the architecture-for health program at the College of Architecture, one of the top two programs of its kind in the United States;

  • Don Sweeny, associate professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning, made a presentation on the history and concepts of healthy city/healthy communities movements in North American and Europe;

  • Roger Ulrich, professor of architecture, discussed his groundbreaking research on the health impacts of urban nature;

  • Ron Skaggs, an adjunct professor of architecture and CEO of HKS, one of the leading design and construction firms in the United States, discussed current trends in and the future of health-care facility design in the United States;

  • Chang-Shan Huang’s presentation focused on the evidence-based design approach to healthy communities, using recent projects in the U.S. and China as examples;

  • Atef Sharkawy, a professor and coordinator of the of the Master of Science in Land Development program in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning, presented case studies demonstrating the economic rewards inherent in designing and building healthy communities;

  • Jody Naderi, an assistant professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning, showed how well designed pedestrian environments can enhance spiritual and mental health; and

  • George Rogers, a professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning, discussed sustainable decision processes related to planning healthy communities.

At the conclusion of the Beijing conference, the A&M delegation agreed that continued Sino-U.S. collaboration in the areas of sustainable community planning, design, and construction promises to benefit both countries by enhancing academic research and education and better informing governmental policy-making.

“The brilliance of their faculty was outstanding,” noted Naderi. “I think, with greater exchange, much more depth could be achieved in the healthy community and healing design arena. The scholarship in Beijing is exemplary, and I will be honored to work with their faculty in the future.”

“From its ancient culture to its present place on the world stage, China has always had a resilience and inventive richness,” Regan said. “With its history and tradition, its order, its evolution, its opportunity, its lasting vitality, China is a paradigm of life. With great enthusiasm, the College of Architecture looks forward to a productive partnership with Tsinghua University, as together we address the crucial challenges of the 21st Century.”

— The End —

January 10, 2005

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