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The Living Water Garden

In July 1998 at the final dinner celebrating the completion of the Living Water Garden in Chengdu, Sichuan, China, tears of laughter and relief rolled down my face. I was not the only one laughing and crying. For the Chinese, this was a rare display of emotion. In three years, we had designed and built the first Chinese inner-city ecological park, with water as its theme. The six-acre park contains a natural water purification system, an environmental education center, and recreation facilities.

I started Keepers of the Waters in 1990, while I was living in St. Paul, Minnesota. Our mission is to initiate collaborations among artists, scientists, and communities in order to build projects that develop local awareness and practical, inspirational, and educational solutions to local water-quality issues. My relationship with Chengdu began thanks to my son Jon, who was in Beijing learning Chinese. In 1995, in Chengdu, Keepers of the Waters brought together twenty artists from China, Tibet, and the US. In two weeks, in a nation where public art is officially forbidden, we created twenty-five public installations along the city's polluted Fu-Nan River. The project was televised nightly and captivated the imagination of the entire city.

Sichuan Province has 4,000 years of water knowledge with an impressive 2,500-year-old history of world-famous hydro-projects. During the riverside art project, I was introduced to Chengdu's visionary five-year plan to clean up the river. Just thirty years earlier, everyone could swim and fish in the Fu-Nan. Fifty-six different kinds of fish dwelled in its waters. During those thirty years the city's population grew from two million to nine million, with no infrastructure to support that growth. The five-year plan involved moving 100,000 citizens who were living in shacks along the river, building the infrastructure for wastewater treatment, cleaning the river, rebuilding the flood walls, and creating nineteen kilometers of parks along the riverfront. When I asked them how they had figured out the plan, they said, "We thought about how we want our city to look in 200 years." During our talks I happened to suggest that one of the proposed parks should help clean the river and teach citizens about the environment. They instantly asked if I could do such a thing. I said yes, not knowing for sure if I could, but knowing that it was what I had been dreaming of since I started my water work.

In March 1996 I returned to Chengdu with landscape designer Margie Ruddick and translator/ physicist (and son) Jon Otto to present ideas for the park. We were provided with housing, an office, and food. After a meeting with forty-five officials, we were given the largest piece of riverside parkland in the inner city. In three weeks Margie sketched a plan. Jon and I stayed for ten weeks more to finish the conceptual design and build teams with the Chinese. Back home in Minnesota we set up an office and began to promote the park and raise funds. In February 1997, the Chinese notified us that the park would be built, and we rushed back to complete the plans. We began a grueling fifteen months of work: five construction crews working seven days a week, battling impossible deadlines; weekly construction meetings in which many design problems had to be solved on the spot; bilingual assistants always on call; two Chinese sculptors helping me with the flow forms and artwork.

The Living Water Garden is particularly Chinese. Because the natural shape of the parkland resembles a fish, an important symbol of regeneration, we exploited this shape and designed the park in the pattern of a fish. At the head of the park we converted the river's vertical floodwall into steps, to make a "mouth." Water flow does not enter the mouth, but enters the park from pumps powered by waterwheels on the side of a teahouse. The diverted river flow goes up a hill into a settling pond (the fish eye). In the center of the pond (the eye's iris) sits a water fountain, a thirteen-foot-diameter green granite sculpture resembling a living water drop as it would look through a microscope. The water then burbles through an aeration system (the lungs) made from a series of sculptures called flow forms. Inspired by John Wilkes's work at Emerson College in England, I designed the flow forms with the help of Chinese sculptors. The forms make the water move like a mountain stream, aerating it efficiently (while captivating and educating the public). After that, the water flow reaches the reconstructed wetlands, designed to resemble a sacred mountain and planted with seven different water-purifying plants. Over the wetlands are built boardwalks for strolling. The water then flows through two more sets of flow forms into ponds; one set of ponds has been inspired by the ginkgo, the tree of Chengdu. The water meanders through the fish ponds (the fish's stomach), where it is aerated and sand and gravel filters clean it further. The tail of the fish contains a rose-marble sculpture shaped after a chambered nautilus. It is a fountain to celebrate the cleaned water, and supplies a splash pond for young people.

The Fu-Nan River's primary pollutants at Chengdu are agricultural runoff, urban street wash, and effluent (oil and grease and too many nutrients) from an upstream fertilizer plant. The Chinese, who have a less obsessive concern with public health and testing than does the US, tested the pond water for a year; after they found the ponds free of pollution, they stopped testing. In subtropical Chengdu, mosquitoes do erupt from the ponds but there is little concern about mosquito-carried disease, and, unlike in the US, no spraying with insecticides. Many of the plants die back in winter, but water purification continues on the roots (most likely by bacteria), and water quality does not significantly deteriorate.

Visitors walking through the park can actually observe the water becoming cleaner and cleaner before it returns to the river at the end of the park. Each step is explained by signs that, combined with displays at the environmental education center, enable people to understand the intricate and interdependent web of water that connects and sustains life. The various sculptures, which are an integral part of the system, articulate the function of water as a creator of life. This combination of art, science, and education awakens a reverence for water.

In addition to demonstrating artful water purification, the park has a car garage under it, an environmental education center, a circular stone amphitheater facing the river for concerts and other activities, and extensive forested areas made up of more than a hundred different plant species (some rare) to represent the biodiversity on Mt. Emei, a sacred Buddhist mountain located 160 kilometers outside Chengdu.

Within three months of our building and planting the Living Water Garden, biodiversity began to return to the parkland?butterflies, dragonflies, even a kingfisher. The Living Water Garden cleans only 250 cubic meters of water a day (66,000 gallons), not enough to affect the river's water quality, but the project serves in many ways: as a laboratory, as a beacon of what is possible, as an inspiration to clean up other waters. Within nine months of the completion of Chengdu's garden, many Chinese cities expressed interest in creating similar places, and Portland, Seattle, and Duluth in the United States initiated proposals for Living Water Gardens.

The total cost was the equivalent of about two million US dollars, and included Chinese funding for the teahouse and floodwall, the underground garage, constructed wetlands, and the education center. It's impossible to get an item-by-item breakdown, or even to know what various laborers were paid. But in my three years of working on this project, there was nothing more discouraging than facing the reality of global corporate policies. Building a park in China was not as difficult a challenge as winning over people working in top positions in multinational corporations. We approached more than eighty corporations, and each one had severe restrictions on giving to China, especially to the interior of China. Even when "local" representatives wanted to give small amounts of money, their parent offices forbade it. Grundfos donated four pumps, and American Standard provided free bathrooms and some additional funds. We were unable to raise more than $6,000 in the US for technical help. I watched Chinese try to bend impossible policies to build the water garden; but foreign help for the good of actual people, "low" technology, and the river, was impossible. It was a subtle affront to Chinese expertise and culture.

The water garden was ultimately successful because it involved many local experts and because we stayed in China and lived like the Chinese. Relationships were crucial. Zhang Jihai, director of the five-year plan for Chengdu, risked his career. The hydrologist threw himself into the project with no idea whether it would work or not. We were fortunate to have the only microbiologist in central China, Huang Zherda. His commitment ensured scientific integrity. He researched and designed the cleaning system by making concrete bins in his backyard and patiently testing the abilities of various plants to break down the pollutants. Artists, school-aged children, young people, and volunteers (local and from abroad) embraced this project as their own. Long-time friends, new friends, and strangers pitched in with their skills whenever asked.

As a mother and son, Jon and I were popular in China. That we worked independently, unsupported by a larger organization, contributed to our success. Not until our farewell banquet did I have a real picture of how meaningful it was that I had stayed, lived, eaten, and fought with the citizens of Chengdu. When the project started, I had not planned to stay long enough to see the park through to the end. I remained, though no one asked me to. At the end of the process, when the park was being evaluated, when Zhang Jihai was in danger of losing his job and many people started treating me like I was invisible, I still stayed.

In the end, Zhang Jihai received a large promotion, and was applauded by the mayor as a person who used his initiative for the public good. He was asked to tell the whole story to the members of the Communist Party, and the park was placed on the national tourist registry.

Few people in the US government or business industry can believe that a middle-aged, US female did this on her own. It is clear that what I was able to accomplish need not be so unique. The information is available; many people know what is right, and will readily work together. Projects such as the Living Water Garden could be an integral part of many infrastructure projects. In fact, they are imperative for real and multifunctional solutions to the more and more pressing issue of the planet's water quality.