LSU Students Design for Giant Pandas in China

This fall LSU design students in assistant professor Brendan Harmon’s interdisciplinary “Giant Panda Studio” are designing a new national park for giant panda conservation and tourism in the wilds of Sichuan Province, China. The study area, the Fengtongzhai National Nature Reserve, is a biodiversity hotspot for giant pandas, golden snub-nosed monkeys, and red pandas. The students traveled to China to conduct fieldwork, and are working in partnership with Sichuan Agricultural University (SAU)’s College of Landscape Architecture to design the new park.

“After fieldwork in Fengtongzhai and geospatial data analysis, the students will model and design the spatial configuration of the new national park and its connections to a greater ecological network,” Harmon said. “They are learning how to analyze remote sensing data and model habitat corridors, urban growth, and land change.”

After applying computational methods for ecology to landscape planning, students use generative design to develop a system of landscape and architectural elements and structures for the national park that respond to the unique geomorphology, ecology, and cultural heritage of the reserve. They are designing a regional plan with habitat corridors, a master plan for the park, structures, trails, signage, furniture, and an adaptive management plan. The students are designing structures including a visitor center, breeding center, lodges, and ranger stations and a family of landscape elements including bridges, signage, and furniture. The work will be published in a report for the Chinese government.

panda on logThe landscape architecture students traveled to Sichuan Province, China for two weeks of on-site fieldwork. They participated in a collaborative studio at SAU in Chengdu, and traveled to sites including: the Chengdu Panda Breeding Research Center, Fengtongzhai, Jiuzhaigou, Huanglong Valley, Mount Emei, Mount Qingcheng, and Dujiangyan. While there they considered critical regionalism, landscape ecology, island biogeography, conservation corridors, systematic conservation planning, biodiversity hotspots, adaptive management, and climate change.

“Written stories and images can’t measure to the sensory experience of seeing, smelling, hearing, and connecting with a landscape and the people and animals that reside there,” MLA candidate Nguyệt Nguyễn said. “I noted social aspects of Chinese culture, and how built and natural environments are designed differently as compared to in America.”

The studio course is an introduction to computational methods for landscape ecology and planning, Harmon said. “We cover theory and computational methods for topics such as habitat fragmentation and conservation corridors. The students learn how to model ecological patterns and simulate ecological processes using Geographic Information Systems (GIS). Then they use landscape planning methods in GIS and visual programming to develop designs for a national park that respond to these ecological processes.”

young man viewing panda in wild

Conservation planning is a key aspect of the curriculum. As teams, students address one of the following topics: precedent studies, conservation corridors, terrain modeling, mapping, or regional planning. Then as a class they will draft a master plan design for the national park. They develop a schematic design for the park master plan, including a visitor center, breeding center, trail system, observation points, wildlife over/underpasses, or signage.

Nguyễn said the trip to China was a great learning experience. “I didn’t expect to experience a taste of what it must be like to be a college student in China. We lived on campus, had breakfast and lunch at the school canteen (cafeteria), and went to class in different buildings to learn Chinese language, about native plants, [and more.]

Some of the teachers and most of the students hosts are in landscape architecture. I never thought that I would meet landscape architecture students and teachers in a different country, and in Asia.”

Chinese drawings on table

During the trip the students also had the opportunity to practice traditional Chinese ink painting, attend the Sichuan opera, explore and sketch their surroundings, and observe the local markets and architecture.

“I enjoyed connecting with Sichuan Agricultural University students who hosted us,” Nguyễn said. “This trip was unique because the design of the fieldtrip – classes by professors and staying on SAU campus – created an environment for cross-cultural understanding. I also liked feeling more comfortable in speaking and understanding Chinese.”

The students thanked Professor Max Conrad and Bruce Sharky for spearheading the relationship between the LSU Robert Reich School of Landscape Architecture and Sichuan Agricultural University. “We are honored to build upon the five years of collaboration they started, with our professor Brendan Harmon,” Nguyễn said. “We’ll do our best with our design for a giant panda national park, for the animals and the people for Sichuan Province.”