Redefining: Dialogue between the new and the old

The Small Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi’An and its ruins have witnessed the cultural memory and historical changes of Chang’an City in the Tang Dynasty. However, the rapid development of its neighboring communities led to the uncoordinated urban encroachment in the original core of the prosperous capital of the Tang Dynasty Pagoda.

From overall planning to spatial design, AECOM chose to use a low-intervention approach with four key strategies in landscape design to redefine the spatial order and reconstruct the relationship between historical relics, the city, its people and nature.


Before the restoration, the Small Wild Goose Pagoda faced the dilemma of marginalization and decline due to urban development. Its function as a scenic spot lacked overall linkage with the surrounding urban context. The landscape was under-utilized and disordered, the historical spatial pattern was fragmented, and there was insufficient social infrastructure resulting in a deprived street walking experience.

Located in the historical protection area of Small Wild Goose Pagoda, the project aims to solve two key issues through renovation and upgrading: 1) How to balance the relationship between urban development and heritage protection of historical blocks, and 2) How to realize the modern reconstruction and revival of historical blocks to support people and nature. This is addressed using four key strategies.

Design Strategy

Strategy 1: Reconstruct the relationship with historical relics

The innovation of this project is the reconnection of cultural relics with the wider space, rather than being in a framed state. The overall style of the historic district coordinates with the spirit of the Small Wild Goose Pagoda culture, and the spatial sequence of the historic district is organized with a landscape humanistic approach. At the same time, the main tone of the landscape axis is controlled through characteristic planting, and species draw upon the existing natural planting style, which extends the artistic conception of planting in ancient times.

The existing Chinese Honey Locust trees were the most challenging issue of the project. Residents, designers and clients held many discussions regarding its protection and conservation. Through three design approaches, the project achieved the retention of the existing trees and added green to the street, extending the site memory.

The preserved acacia tree also enhances the scenic atmosphere of this historic district. The design optimizes the traditional big tree support structure, making the square space safer. The cultural spirit of history is also presented in the details, taking reference from the Small Wild Goose Pagoda’s dense eaves-style architectural language and Tang Sancai colors in landscape elements.

Strategy 2: Reconstruct the relationship with the city

Optimizing the urban interface walking experience is the focus of street renewal, taking multiple user needs into account, including the surrounding communities, schools and the cultural display of historical blocks. The design widened the original 1.5 m sidewalk to 3 m, adding flexible resting spaces to create a comfortable walking experience, and enhancing the sense of community and spatial belonging.

Strategy 3: Reconstruct the relationship with people

The project team designed a 14,849-sq. m activity plaza between Small Wild Goose Pagoda South Square and West Garden, which introduces three types of characteristic benches that promote social interaction, and one accessible ramp that runs through the South Square. The design has redefined the Small Wild Goose Pagoda’s relationship to the city and the people by converting a cultural scenic spot into a cultural civic and community space.

Strategy 4: Reconstruct the relationship with nature

The design team transformed the 0.5 km long hard edge around the existing lake into an ecological shoreline by planting native plant communities. The lake, combined with ecological wetland, not only provides a living environment for birds, amphibians and microorganisms to promote biodiversity gains, but also increases the rainwater runoff control rate to 90 percent by regulating the water volume of 924 sq. m and integrating a series of sponge-city facilities such as bioswale, permeable paving and rain gardens. In addition, the design retains 1 ha of existing trees and adds 3.5 ha of new trees, which are estimated to store 29 t/year of carbon. Meanwhile, the design also introduces a series of eco-friendly paving, such as permeable paving, ecological bamboo decking and permeable gravel paving.

To sum up, the project offers a broader vision for the modernization and renewal of historical blocks. In the collaborative dialogue between the new and the old, it has realized the modern reconstruction and revitalization and provided a forward-looking exemplary practice for the theory of urban organic renewal at historic districts in city centers.

Note: The construction drawing design was completed by CCTEG Chongqing Engineering (Group) Co., LTD and Xi’an Huaxi Urban Landscape Construction Co., LTD; photo credit: Chill Shine.