Situated at the confluence of the Yangtze River and the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal, Yangzhou owes its 2,500-year-old urban patterns to its unique relationship to water. Once a hub for scholars, philosophers, craftsmen, and merchants, the banks of the river reflected little of their former glory. By the end of the twentieth century, neglect and isolation left the waterway economically atrophied, a backwater district disconnected from the city of Yangzhou. Through a series of interventions that addresses both cultural and ecological challenges, the new redevelopment plan brings vision and hope once again to this significant historic area.
What moved the design team most was the extensive public participation in the design process. The civic government considered wide input to ensure that current residents were as well served as the investment they sought to attract. Deciding what to renovate and what to demolish is a delicate matter in the best of situations, and the team did not approach it lightly. The narrow streets and small scale of the houses demanded particular sensitivity, and community input was vital as they sought to preserve the culture that remained.
Much of Yangzhou’s newer development reflected a European approach to urban design, so Overland seized the opportunity for the redesigned Minor Qinhuai canal to reflect the historical character of the area. “We envisioned three segments of the river, overall containing eight nodes of opportunity for public and private investment,” explained Samantha Schwarze, Senior Urban Designer.
Unique in program, scale, materiality, landscape, and relationship to water, each node introduces diverse activities intended to stimulate the mind, body, and spirit. The northern reach [Nodes 1–4], or Grace Lifestyle Zone, is intended to recall and celebrate the rich historical memory of the Minor Qinhuai River. The middle segment of the Slow Lifestyle Zone [Nodes 5–6] captures the local cultural traditions with craft exhibition and recreational activities that support locals and submerge tourists into the everyday life of Yangzhou. The southernmost reach, or LOHAS Zone [Nodes 7–8], promotes the impact that sustainable techniques tied to the city’s low-carbon pilot initiatives have on improving the quality of life in the city center.
The canal itself presented a unique challenge as well. Improving the quality of life along the waterway meant first cleaning and restoring the quality of the water itself. Working with the client, Overland developed a hybrid of isolation and connectivity to the other canals in Yangzhou. Their solution became a model for future canal restoration projects, providing value to the entire city.
Supported by amenities such as hotels, conference, and exhibition spaces, the project will transform this fallow waterway into a national asset—a new cultural landscape for the twenty-first century that fosters human connections between local residents and visitors. Ultimately, as Principal in Charge Tim Blonkvist stated, “It was an opportunity for us to come back, do the research, and give them back their story, give them back their history that they had forgotten.”