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In Shenyang, when an architecture school moved to the suburbs, Yu designed its campus to incorporate the rice paddies of the farms it had displaced. The rice became both a decorative element and a kind of literal food for thought—a reminder that landscaping needn't be expensive and that even agriculture can look modern. In Taizhou, Yu un-channeled a local river, removing cement barriers and letting it flood into a wetland through which he snaked bicycle paths, docks and terraces. In Zhongshan, Yu's shipyard park, which like the campus was honored by the American Society of Landscape Architects, has quickly become a local landmark. On a recent weekday afternoon, the park was full. Toddlers climbed happily over pebbled railroad tracks, men played chess on a platform surrounded by tall reeds, a bride posed for a portrait amid some (deliberately) unraked leaves, and two vanloads of officials on a study tour listened to a guide talk about environmental protection.
Despite his success as a designer, Yu sees himself primarily as an educator. In 2003 he founded—and personally funded—China's first graduate program in landscape architecture (at Peking University) and he serves as its dean. He writes prolifically and, again at his own expense, has mailed copies of his book, The Road to Urban Landscape: A Discussion with Mayors, to some 3,000 city officials. The book is a direct but gently mocking assault on monumentalism: its illustrations show absurdly massive plazas and people squatting on low fences designed to keep them off mosaics of hedges that can only be appreciated from the sky. Recently, Yu's ideas have gained new traction in high places. Environmental sustainability, green growth and resource conservation were major themes of last month's meeting of the National People's Congress. And Yu has been approved to help Shanghai rehabilitate a decrepit industrial stretch of its main river for its 2010 World Expo and to create a corridor of parkland along 1,700 m of the Grand Canal.
But it's the smaller victories that seem to excite him the most. The day after his visit, Changgou's leaders called to say they'd accept his plan. "I'm putting in islands and bike paths," says Yu. "The rice paddies are staying. They'll be beautiful."