Future Landscape Competition Winner - Zhuocheng Gu
University of Adelaide

15 November 2021


Zhuocheng Gu, has recently won the “Spectacle and Collapse” national landscape architecture competition held as part of the National Australian Institute of Landscape Architect’s annual festival. Gu’s entry was developed in the context of his graduating Master of Landscape Architecture Project he is currently completing at the University of Adelaide. The “Solar Nexus” graduating studio, led by landscape architect Dr Scott Hawken, encouraged students to engage with the sustainable transitions currently taking place in the regional town of Port Augusta which is undergoing a remarkable transformation from a landscape of fossil fuel powered electricity production to a renewable’s capital. There is both a bright side and a dark side to the renewables transition with a whole new set of social and environmental challenges to contend with. Zhuocheng Gu has captured this duality in his winning entry. Together with his Master of Landscape Architecture classmates, Zhuocheng Gu, travelled to Port Augusta to get a sense of the landscape and to hear about the hopes and aspirations of locals direct from local activists, workers, engineers, horticulturalists, and the government of Port Augusta itself. Students visited the extraordinary landscapes of Port Augusta including the Arid Lands Botanic Garden, the vast Bungala Solar Farm, the Port Augusta Renewable Energy Park, the Iron Triangle on the Spencer Gulf, and other hi-tech ruins and construction sites for energy and agriculture projects across the region. The AILA competition called for images and text to describe and contrast landscapes that capture “existing” conditions, landscapes that depict “spectacle” and landscapes that communicate “collapse”. 

Figure 0. Sundrop solar powered tomato farm, Port Augusta (Image Scott Hawken)

Zhuocheng Gu’s original images and text follows.

Title: Silicon Gulf: Transition from contaminated post-industrial land to regenerative Data Centre Park

Figure 1. Existing (2021): Post Industrial Wastelands and Possible Futures (image Zhuocheng Gu)

Caption for Image 1: Port Augusta has been described as a “renewables capital” of Australia with thirteen major solar and wind farms built and many more in the pipeline. It has abundant solar resources and sits at the intersection of excellent electrical transmission infrastructure. This design research investigates possible futures or “scenarios” for Port Augusta and tests possible landscape outcomes. In the “existing” the toxic legacy of Port Augusta’s coal burning past is depicted with a focus on the vast “ash dam” which stores the wastes of the now demolished coal-fired power plants. In the “spectacle” scenario the ash dam is remediated as a biologically and technologically rich platform for vast new energy hungry data centres powered by the abundant solar energy available in Port Augusta’s arid landscape. Landscape architects work with energy capitalists and tech entrepreneurs to link new forms of wealth to fund the regeneration of post-industrial landscapes and green infrastructures. In the “collapse” scenario Port Augusta’s economy remains marginal due to exclusion of Australia from new energy markets after its (hypothetical) failure to deliver on the 2015 Paris agreement. In the collapse scenario landscape architects must work with a more economically frugal process and adapt natural regeneration techniques to transform the toxic legacy of today’s carbon hungry economy. 
Since 1980s, two coal-burning plants in Port August power nearly half of the state, but we shut these down in 2016 since its time to take care of our planet. Although Port Augusta’s Northern Power Station is demolished, the toxic legacy of the power production processes cannot be easily removed and a giant “ash dam” remains unremediated. “Ash dam” is 273ha in size with a thickness of 4m to 8m. It contains bottom ash from coal burning, contamination from magnesium and boron, and it causes dust issues for the adjacent township of Port Augusta.

Figure 2: Spectacle (2050): Cloud City Transition (image Zhuocheng Gu)

Caption for Image 2: In 2050 digital information and renewable energy are the foundation of a new global economy. We are connected to internet, we access, generate, and exchange data with every move and decision we make. Data is stored and processed in the “cloud”, but the “cloud city” is actually very grounded, in data centres, that consume huge amounts of energy to operate, and to generate a rich economic return. Amazon has at least 28 operational data centres with typical sizes ranging from 1.4ha to 2ha for a single “data factory”. 
In this scenario, vast data centres are built upon the wastelands left by the coal-fired industry. Each data centre covers an area of 1.5ha and there are 30 of them – enough to power a company the size of Amazon. Unlike past industrial paradigms which are based on promises to remediate local ecology, in this scenario Port Augusta, doesn’t mortgage the environment or health of local communities for economic wealth. An energy tax is used to make Port Augusta’s industry biodiversity positive and to signal that the city is the gateway to one of the great wilderness areas of the world – the arid deserts of outback Australia.

Figure 3: Collapse (2050): Chenopod Recovery and Adaptation (image Zhuocheng Gu)
Caption for Image 3: In Collapse 2050 Australia becomes an economic backwater after failing to deliver on the Paris accords. In this scenario, the toxic and polluted landscapes are remediated by biological processes. This operation of land remediation is choreographed in space and time to allow some of Australia’s unique and remarkable plant communities to colonise the wastelands through a process of “natural” succession. 
In the long term, the arid adapted plants such as blue bush and eremophila, will establish anthropogenic ecosystems. They formed the traditional ecological communities but disappeared during the industrialization of the landscape. A range of geometric patterns are sculpted into the landscape terrain to allow wind, water, and seeds to interact with and slowly remediate the waste into a more biologically positive ecosystem. 
Casting shadows on the ground, slowing the near surface wind speed, reducing erosion, creating shelter, creating places for nesting, increasing humidity, preserving soil moisture, the sculpted forms crafted from coal ash help to adjust microclimate and accommodate returning flora and fauna. In this vision and scenario, we are standing in the middle of a new post-industrial “wildness” surrounded by chenopods, samphire and acacia.