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

  • Dan Abramson    Assoc. Professor, Urban Design and Planning, University of Washington
  • Edwin Schmitt    Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Cultural Studies and Oriental Languages, U. Oslo

In the 2017 Portland conference,  this working group drew upon participants’ specific knowledge of their own native territories to investigate the potential for this new and expanded view of multifunctional productive green infrastructure in the city.  At HKU, the WG will look to build on these ideas and look for opportunities for specific action.

This Working Group was initiated by collaborative policy-oriented research beginning in 2010 between the Univ. of Washington (UW), Sichuan University (SCU) and Southwest Jiaotong Univ. (SWJTU).  The work focuses on the Sichuan Basin and the Dujiangyan Irrigation District, which has sustained a flourishing urban culture in the city of Chengdu for over 2000 years. Even today, the region has perhaps the highest per-hectare regional production of grain and is one of the most densely populated agricultural landscapes in China. Traditionally, the Chengdu Plain exhibited a spatially dispersed settlement pattern, a high degree of forest cover and biodiversity and a remarkably distributed multi-scaled system of water-use governance and flood management with significant local autonomy down to the household with minimal bureaucratic intervention. The irrigation and flood control district is China’s largest, 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 complex system dependent on a clearly defined act of design: the Dujiangyan headworks (currently protected under UNESCO World Heritage designation). 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. This includes 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.  During 2017 APRU, our working group produced an initial framework for conducting cross-cultural and cross-regional analysis of city-landscape sustainability by drawing on our knowledge of the Dujiangyan and the Chengdu Plain. During 2018 APRU, our goal is to establish a set of concrete indicators used to test the validity of our hypothetical definition of sustainability as it relates to complex city-landscape systems like the Chengdu Plain. We intend to produce an academic paper outlining our selection of indicators as well as a research proposal used to apply for a final round of data collection that will allow us to test the validity of our framework.