Each time architect Yanjing Chen takes a stroll on the San Antonio River Walk, she scans her surroundings for details she hasn’t noticed before. She hopes to spot something worthy of a photograph and inclusion in a project dear to her heart, but far from her current home.
Chen is a member of a team at San Antonio architecture firm Overland Partners that has been working in China during the past decade. But the firm’s most current project, one modeled after San Antonio’s River Walk, is bringing some of its roots to a place where it’s starting to establish a reputation. Overland Partners has been involved in 26 projects in China, including master plans for cities, a design for a hotel and an aquaculture museum, and environmental center rooted in one area’s deep history with crab farming.
Overland Partners’ River Walk-inspired project is in Nanjing, China. The firm is helping to design a 7-mile water loop connecting three rivers — the outer Qinhuai river, Xiangshui river, and Airport river — to a new central living district in a part of the area known as South New City. The water loop portion of the project is scheduled to be completed in 2020.
The entire project is being built around an old army base and airfield with one of the runways used as part of a central park.
Chen, who grew up within a short drive from Nanjing, a city of 9.5 million people, has taken numerous photos of elements of San Antonio’s River Walk that have been incorporated in the Nanjing project. Overland Partners also completed a 70-page research document looking at what is special about different canals around the world including Chicago, Amsterdam, Bruges, Belgium, Tongli, China and their hometown River Walk.
The project in Nanjing incorporates a touch of some of the best elements of each of those unique designs.
“I always wanted to work on a project in China because I had a degree in China and later I pursued my graduate degree in America,” Chen said. “I always wanted to practice what I learned from American experience and put it into a China project. So I work on a lot of China projects at Overland. This one is special.”
Sijie Dai, another member of the Overland team who works in San Antonio, also is a native of Nanjing, and has taken a special interest in the project because her parents still live there.
While the entire Nanjing project is five years in, it is scheduled to take 20 years to complete. However, in the past three months, Overland Partners has completed much of its work which included its initial research, determining where to locate 27 bridges across the river and how to get people on
varying-sized boats and canoes when they come to the river.
The firm also had to consider how to protect people from the sun. Nanjing and San Antonio have similar climates with extreme heat and humidity in the summer months, which made incorporating shading elements around the river vital.
“The thing that San Antonio does do extremely well is it creates a great sense of enclosure,” James Andrews, principal at Overland Partners said. “When you’re going down the river, you have the trees, which provide great shade in the summer and its a very narrow-minded blinkered view. So your mind is able to pick up things very quickly. You can spot something across in that restaurant. You can spot somebody on the bridge just there. The other thing we tell people about San Antonio is don’t be afraid of the narrowness. You can go down to the River Walk on a Wednesday night and you might only see 300 people, but it feels active.”
The Nanjing project originally was designed by two local Chinese architecture firms, but the government later brought in Overland Partners, which had previous experience with other river-related projects in China, to help improve the plan specifically with regard to connecting the city to the river.
One of Overland Partners’ core philosophies is making physical transformations lead to human ones. Andrews, who has been involved in much of the firm’s work in China, said it was an enormous challenge to jump into a massive project already under construction and begin making changes to elements that didn’t necessarily involve the river. Andrews said those elements were essential to activating the river by making it easily accessible for residents.
Andrews said the placement of streets and parks and other city elements were not part of what Overland Partners was asked to do, but they all had to be considered — and in some cases modified — because they fundamentally impact how people will get to the river and use it. Some of those cues were taken from how San Antonians access their River Walk.
“We wanted to make sure that the city connects to the river and that everybody has easy access to it,” Andrews said. “We had to get sign off on that very quickly because it was fundamental to us. It would describe how you could get down to the river and what you needed there at those nodes.”
The Overland Partners team also encouraged their Chinese collaborators to consider how different parts of the city could have unique connections to the river and encourage people to engage the natural environment. For instance, in one area where two schools were near the river, they proposed large interactive walls and abacuses that would attract children to come and play.
Where the river ran past a hospital, they encouraged a wellness garden where patients could leave the hospital to exercise or just get outside.
“The reason we are fascinated with these projects is hopefully we can bring a more sustainable approach, a more culturally relevant approach and create people spaces,” Andrews said. “We know when we choose to go on vacations, we usually choose to go to towns, cities, villages where we’re going to be comfortable, intellectually stimulated, feel a connection to culture, feel like we’re not going to get run over.
“So it isn’t just a bench and tree and a little further and another bench and tree and seven miles of that. …We’re taking the idea of a pedestrian water feature and connecting it to their parks. So you’re never far from water.”