Graduate student team designs garden that cleans toxic waste in China

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Joe Schwartz

Five landscape architecture graduate students spent the 2010-11 academic year designing a garden with plants capable of cleaning up hazardous waste sites.

The garden design was one of over a hundred selected for the 2011 International Horticultural Exposition in Xi'an, China, which is expected to attract an estimated 12 million visitors between April 28 and Oct. 22. Unfortunately, construction constraints prevented expo organizers from planting the Cornell team's garden in time.

That didn't stop the students from continuing with plans to travel to China from May 9 to June 1 to engage in a cultural and academic exchange they called "invaluable," and in the future, the team plans to apply their design concepts to other real-world postindustrial sites.

In designing the garden for the expo, students Brett Schneiderman, Emily Bauer, Ran Bi, Yalin Lin and Hanzi Yang did extensive research on phytoremediation, studying plants that draw in, store and in some cases convert toxic materials into benign compounds. They designed a garden that included more than 50 plant species, with six separate plots each demonstrating plants that can neutralize a specific environmental waste endemic to China. For example:

"Phytoremediation has a lot of potential to shape how we approach landscape architecture in the urban environment and industrialized cities," Bauer said. "This is a growing field without a long history of real-world applications. A lot of the research we were using was based on studies done just in the last five years." With studies revealing how long specific plants may take to neutralize toxic waste, planners can schedule dates when a field might be clean enough for human use. "By using scientific research like this in design, there is potential for making postindustrial wastelands beautiful as well as functional," she added.

Although the garden did not make it to construction, the students made the most of their trip. "Once we learned our garden wouldn't be represented at the expo, we decided to go forward with the expedition. The itinerary was already planned, and we had full backing from our department, alumni and International Programs in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, all of whom supported us," said Schneiderman. "We shifted the purpose of our trip to an educational exchange," he added.

The students visited 20 of the most famous gardens in China, identified plant species, studied local architecture, visited five universities and discussed differences in landscape architecture between the United States and China with Chinese landscape architecture students. Bauer also blogged about the trip.

"We met with Chinese graduate students and talked about the future of our field," Schneiderman said. "It gave me a lot of ideas. It was an introduction to the tradition of Chinese gardens dating back thousands of years."


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Krishna Ramanujan