2017 Working Group: The Chengdu Plain and Dujiangyan Irrigation District, Sichuan, China: A Case of City-Landscape Sustainability in Comparative Perspective

The Chengdu Plain and Dujiangyan Irrigation District, Sichuan, China: A Case of City-Landscape Sustainability in Comparative Perspective
Dan Abramson, Associate Professor of Urban Design and Planning, University of Washington

This proposed Working Group is based on collaborative, policy-oriented research since 2010 between the Univ. of Washington (UW), Sichuan University (SCU) and Southwest Jiaotong Univ. (SWJTU).[1]  The work focuses on the Chengdu Plain and the Dujiangyan Irrigation District, which has sustained over 2,000 years of both flourishing urban culture as well as probably the highest per-hectare regional production of grain and one of the most densely populated agricultural landscapes in China, especially considering its spatially dispersed settlement pattern; its high degree of forest cover and biodiversity; and its remarkably distributed multi-scaled system of governance and flood management with significant local autonomy down to the household, and minimal bureaucratic intervention. The irrigation and flood control district is China’s largest, and distinguished by its near absence of dikes.  Considering the size of its beneficiary population over so long an historical period, Dujiangyan and its associated anthropogenic landscape may be the world’s most important example of a sustainable human-natural coupled system dependent on a clearly defined act of design: the Dujiangyan headworks (currently protected under UNESCO World Heritage designation).[2] During the past decade, however, and likely for the first time in its history, urbanization and globalization have introduced radical transformations to the Plain’s settlement pattern, land cover, and productive functioning.  Our research includes spatial and social surveys of agricultural communities at Chengdu’s expanding periphery, focusing on changes in landscape morphology, metropolitan and local governance and finance, regional watershed management, and national policies of urban development and food security.  We have been discussing their significance with activist farmers and urban environmentalists as well as official municipal rural planners and local government leaders.  Our aim is to define and measure those aspects of the system and its changes that enhance or reduce resilience, in such a way as to inform both multi-level governmental policy and grassroots action, including the possible creation of an experimental landscape preservation zone that accounts for a wide range of ecosystem services, including: local/regional agriculture and food systems; floodplain management and climate change mitigation; biodiversity; water and soil quality; psycho-social health benefits and well-being; community-building; and multi-scaled long-term economic development opportunities. Comparative explorations include the trans-Pacific significance of this case given diverse cultural and ecological contexts, population densities, and governance structures.  Such explorations began with the UW UDP PhD program’s annual symposium in 2015, on “Scale and Resilience in Planning: from the Salish Sea to the Chengdu Plain” and the UW Center for Asian Urbanism’s workshop on “Resilience and Asian Urbanism” in 2016.  APRU presents a further opportunity to draw from this case a framework for cross-cultural and cross-regional understanding and pursuit of city-landscape sustainability.

[1] The group currently includes members in Anthropology (UW), Environment (UW and SCU), Geography (UW), History (SCU), Law (UW), Medicine (UW, SCU), Political Science (UW) and Urban Design & Planning (UW, SCU and SWJTU).  The Group is discussing further inclusion of Archaeology (WSU), Economics (SCU), Engineering (UW and SWJTU), Geology (WWU), Public Policy (SCU), and additional planning and design (UO), among others.

[2] We hypothetically and heuristically define sustainability for this case as the benefits gained by the intervention (productivity) multiplied by the number of beneficiaries (people and other species) multiplied by the number of effective years (time), divided by the accumulated social, ecological and economic costs.