Public Parks in Dense Urban Cores

As cities see more and more skyward growth, from highrises over single-family detached homes, the value of space also experiences astronomical escalation. Like São Paulo and Buenos Aires, China’s megacities are comprised of towers, where people live in high density. With much less private space at home, the realm of public space and community centers — whether covered or open air — becomes really important.

towering highrises with huge balconies
In Chengdu, one of many clusters of highrise units that fill the city.

Public parks become requirements in a city, as means of promoting physical and mental health, and as sites for cultivating community and individual happiness.

From what I have seen of Chinese parks or 公园, there are similarities but also differences in how people use them. Exercise is definitely a major reason for people to use the park but the types we see are different, between Chinese and American parks. For one, soccer and basketball are activities reserved for the 球场 or sports fields. Exercises you’d find at Chinese parks include Tai Qi and martial arts, ballroom-dancing, bird-walking, calligraphy practice with broom-sized brushes, poetry reciting and singing, and fashion catwalking practice.

Loci of Activity & Fitness

If I think about what I do in my house in California, I cook, garden, do laundry, eat with family and friends, and hang out and chat. If you live in a compact high-rise apartment, these activities become more challenging. Gardening and exercise may become impossible unless you have a balcony and extra space, and not all apartments have them. Ideas about communal laundry (the laundromat as a community center) and about communal gardening (like in many cities in the US) suddenly become really relevant. Open space itself is a meditative and therapeutic resource that appeal to our basic urges.

In fact, the design of the Chinese public parks lend themselves to these activities, with clusters of trees demarcating zones. Hardscaped (concrete and stone mosaic) pathways and plazas provide the surface. Surrounding tall foliage create walls or transition zones between open spaces. The parks themselves are usually free to the public and have multiple entry gates. The park space itself is quite large, like all infrastructure in China.

Dad sitting on bench in park
My dad taking a break at South Park, 南园,in Taicang, 太仓, a city one hour from Shanghai. Many former estates, such as this one, are converted into public parks. A classical Chinese bridge with its steep stairs and generous clearance for boats is visible in the background.

Tertiary zones are characterized by benches and pavilions nestled in the foliage, creating smaller, private spaces for drinking tea, casual conversation, and the occasional smooching. Often times, the park features one or more artificial lakes with a bridge arching high over its narrowest part, offering a view and opportunities to take selfies with friends.

A Social Hub for Passive & Active Participation

The park is never desolate, even on the weekdays. It is a social locus, providing both distance and respite from the bustle and chaos of city life while ensuring some level of safety and society amidst the presence of others also usually in a state of enjoyment.

The buildings now house exhibitions and artwork.
People practicing slow-motion combat, a kind of Tai Qi, where you harness the strength and force of your opponent to protect yourself. Here, men and women of all ages show up and practice together. It is pretty informal and still quite popular.
Offline dating. Here, parents and elders advertise their single adult children to other parents or single people. The flyers atop the umbrellas give general information about the individual: Gender, profession, interests, and personality. At the bottom is contact information. Of course, you are welcome to inquire further with the presiding relative.
Sunday morning in the walkways at People’s Park in Shanghai. Parents helping their adult children with matchmaking. Generations sharing ideas of what comprises a promising partnership.

Gehl ArchitectsOne of the biggest challenges that Chinese cities face is in the reclamation, renewal and retrofit of its cities’ public space, streets and existing urban fabric. The speed, scale and sprawl of Chinese urbanisation has void many citizens their right to quality public space beyond the immediate street layout. To achieve the sustainable transition we’ve talked about here, cities will have to ask themselves – what do we want from our urban realm? And how can our planning systems deliver that against traditional interpretations of urban scale, mass and historical and cultural nuances? Cities need to be evaluated based on other indicators than just GDP growth. We see this change happening now.

Park-like Shopping Centers that Support Historic Monuments

The park as a concept is more important than its literal designation. As an idea, it seems to be a place that provides proximity to nature (plants and animals), contact with open air and earth, and organic social interaction through a flexibility of activities. To this end, I saw many spaces that operate as parks but may not be parks, per se.

In Chengdu, Taikooli ,太古里 outdoor mall features both very contemporary and very old architecture. The balanced proportion of indoor and outdoor space make it a popular gathering spot for all ages. Owned by a private investor, it shares similar usage to state-run public parks.
At the very center of Taikooli is the ancient Daci Temple 大慈寺, the Temple of Infinite Compassion and Mercy. This Buddhist temple has been around for nearly 1,600 years

For example, an interesting trend I spotted was the integration of historic landmark, shopping center, and park all rolled into one. These outdoor malls feature austere architectural design, vast open spaces for social activities such as those practiced in parks, porous access, and mature landscaping. The business rationale behind such a set-up could be economic viability. Landmarks are expensive to maintain and admission fees are too low to make a dent in these costs. However, retail rental income can provide a stronger source of revenue, with shops increasing incentive for visits. Inviting the kind of hanging out that also occurs in parks encourages discretionary spending; however, the full suite of typical activities in public parks may be beyond the physical scope of these commercial gathering areas.

After a day of shopping, you can light a candle at the temple and make a prayer to repent and enrich your spiritual self too.

Medians as Parks

Other atypical park spaces include the generous medians and lush pedestrian walkways in the city. The non-car zones are often canopied with trees and lined intermittently with benches with nestled in abundant greenery. These adjacent, liminal spaces are used for resting, hanging out, reading, and other low-impact park exercises. Their physical and sensorial distinction from the built environment provides mental sanctuary.

verdant medians
The greenery surrounds the bike and pedestrian lanes, creating a park-like travel experience. The dockless bikes collect in a leafy alcove. In the distance to the right, cars along the street are visible. The amount of garden foliage and number of trees are generous.

Public dancing occurs in plazas, on sidewalks that are extra broad and in parks. These kinds of natural, serendipitous social gatherings are more of a cultural ritual than a designed program. They attract spectators and participants in equally, creating vibrancy and free-of-charge entertainment. They also provide a glimpse of local culture unchained to commerce and to politics. These benefits can counter-balance the limitations of high-rise apartment living and strengthen the fabric of communities.

Urban planners can think about creating park-like locales and experiences in interstitial and liminal zones as space becomes scarcer in urban settings. Not every neighborhood can afford the extravagant space needed to establish a formal park. Plus, such numerous and smaller dispersions encourage accessibility for a greater number of residents. This may also be a more “human-scale” approach, rendering the urban layout to be more diverse and reduce impact on the transportation system.

Unabashed dancing takes place in parks and on sidewalks that are large enough to allow. Shyness is not an issue. Informal gatherings with those who are in the mood to dance.

Shanghai Museums

The Bund (外滩 or Waitan), Shanghai.

With only one full day in Shanghai, my parents and I sated our urge for instant gratification at a couple exceptional museums.

Shanghai Urban Planning Museum (上海城市规划展示馆)

We were traversing the People’s Park (人民公园)when we stumbled upon a staircase with a sign that said “Step back to Shanghai of the 1930s.“ Peering down the stairs, we caught a glimpse of people snapping shots of themselves beside a vintage streetcar and imitation old gas streetlamps. Turns out that the underground passage was an abbreviated recreation of yesteryear’s Shanghai!

Smacks a bit of the Bellagio in Las Vegas, as a stage-set reminder. Merchants have yet to take up shop in the themed storefronts.

As curiosity led us to discover that this historic display connected to the nearby subway station and the Shanghai Urban Planning Museum. Is this museum for nerds or what? On second thought, I thought, this is brilliant! People need to know more how cities come to be — between commerce, history, culture and pro-active government action. They don’t just make themselves; everyone has a role to play in them. And honestly, it wasn’t that nerdy, as we soon saw large groups of European tourists buying tickets. Apparently it has some level of notoriety among foreign tours of China as a cultural magnet.

This golden socialist constructivist megalith greets you upon entry into the museum.

The Shanghai Urban Planning Museum, which opened in the 90s, is a prominently large building at six floors tall and explains the past, present, and future of Shanghai through urban design, sewage and environmental impact mitigation programs, water and energy supply systems, transportation, and homes for future growth. For a citadine, this is everything you don’t see but count on to work.

One of many old photos of past Shanghai life on display. Not sure if this was staged, and not surprised if it is.

(AN ASIDE: The first time that I discovered my fascination with the invisible mechanisms essential to the health of a city was when I was 18 years old. My friend Ashleigh and I got stuck in downtown San Francisco after the last BART left and decided to wait out the two hours before the arrival of the first train in the morning. During those hours, as we huddled on a park bench at Powell Station, I recall witnessing city crew emptying all of the street trash cans on Market Street, power-washing the sidewalks, illuminating burned out streetlights, and patrolling the streets for irreverent activity. It was then that I realized that a great army of silent, assiduous keepers tend to the health of the city, whose existence, until that moment, was oblivious to me.)

Multi-media, Multi-disciplinary Content

Never having set foot in an urban planning museum before, moreover encountering one, my parents and I ran on curiosity. The museum encompasses the arc of recent Shanghai history, emphasizing the Qing Dynasty and the European Concessions post-WWI. The media is diverse — from blown-up black and white photos, recordings, dioramas, 3-D wall graphics, and video. For example, we saw miniature layouts of the estates of the governor — in particular, Yu Garden ( or Yu Yuan) as a miniature with mechanical figurines, lights, and sound. Originally an estate of the Pan family during the Ming Dynasty (late 1500s), the sprawling collection of pavilions and interstitial gardens passed hands over the centuries to caretakers of varying levels of conscientiousness and neglectfulness. At present, it has transformed into a grandiose network of shops, restaurants and galleries. So many of China’s former esteemed and exclusive estates and neighborhoods find resurrection from dereliction through new incarnations as outdoor malls. Considering the amount of artisanal and material support necessary to fund the maintenance and access to these historical treasures, the funding must come from somewhere if not public coffers. The money comes from consumerism and capitalist stewardship.

Yu Yuan is now a shopping destination.
There’s a ton to taste in Yu Yuan, from affordable snacks to extravagant, full-fledged banquets.

As the pre-eminent Chinese cosmopolitan, Shanghai embraces a magnitude of dynamism and drama of which this large museum only captures a small fragment. And its attempt is remarkable. The third floor features an all-consuming hand-made model of the city, updated every year to account for its constant change. It is just incredible.

The Huangpu River (黄浦江) separates The Bund (外滩, Waitan) on the west bank from Pudong (浦东)on the east bank.
A ramp encircles the intricate model, for your viewing pleasure.
Lit in blue light is the downtown area. Concentric rings of roads and freeway provide access. Ultimately the subway and bus system prove to be how most get around town.

The Transportation Floor

My personal favorite floor is the fourth, dedicated to the Shanghai transportation. Systematically, it accounts for all modes of movement, from pedestrian to bike to bus & rail to taxi to private vehicles to ferries to ships to airplanes. The lighting takes the form of its subway line map. Its position in “the sky” is homage to its value in society, “illuminating” all that people can see and do in the city. The graphics are colorful and the facts practical and delivered in a friendly manner, conveying with clarity a system that is meant to reach quantifiable benchmarks of service. The visual language of the transit system is borrowed, to guide the viewer through the exhibition.

The Shanghai bus system is swift, with high frequency, arriving every 5 minutes during peak travel times in the downtown areas. They move in and out of bus-only lanes. Onboard announcements of key bus stops are in Mandarin, Shanghainese, and English.
Exhibition detailing the growth of public transportation use in Shanghai
Drawing the relationship between population and the supply of road space and the options of modes of transportation from 1940 to 1917.
Aside from human movement, freight is a huge part of the transportation system and consideration.

Everyone’s a Seasoned Transit Rider

The Shanghai mass transit system not only is the backbone of getting around town for everyone, it also helps people map the city in their minds, even in this phone-addicted era. The average Shanghainese’s awareness of the mass transport system is enough to give rescue to a lost tourist. In fact, while at Yu Yuan, we asked a man how to get to the neighborhood of our hotel by bus, and the location of its nearest stop. He told us without hesitation: the 93 or the 209 buses up the street through three intersections and hang a right. Another notable commentary is the average Chinese person’s idea of “walkable distance.” Often, they’ve described a destination as a “short jaunt away” which, in real terms, was 1 to 1.5 miles away. Your average Angeleno would freak out at this interpretation.

Transportation as Part & Parcel of the Larger Urban Design

The exhibitions demonstrated that the boundaries between transportation, commerce, private vs. public space, natural resources, and population are porous, illustrating a compelling complexity of the inter-dependencies. In fact, the information seemed to settle on the fact that population is the main driver of infrastructure development in Shanghai. According to the exhibition, the population of official residents will be capped at 2,500,000 which should be reached by 2035. The birthplace of the One-Child policy, China would naturally carry out such a population containment mandate in its biggest cities. Nonetheless, it aims to ensure a certain quality of life for both individual and city.

I can appreciate that the urban planners and government of Shanghai invested in exhibition design and curation to declare these bold goals and plans, and make the effort to endow the public with this knowledge. Again, back to that fateful night in San Francisco, I think it is important to make visible the invisible workings of the city so that people know what it takes, can appreciate the quiet and constant effort, and ultimately, pitch in when their participation is needed.

Designations of minimal urban amenities per resident

Fosun Foundation (复星中心)

Fosun is an international corporation based in Hong Kong. Like so many lucrative, large companies, they set up foundations for public benefit. Here in Shanghai, the Fosun Foundation is a museum featuring rotating art and culture exhibitions, such as the Tiffany’s show which we caught.

Fosun Foundation, which is located on the southern stretch of the Bund, in the Design Center.

I’m not even a fan of jewels and diamonds. At first, I was disappointed to find out this subject of the show but my dad is ticket trigger-happy so before I could protest, he had already purchased admission. I’m glad he did! My disappointment quickly dissipated when I saw the stellar quality of the exhibition design. It was sublime and received international rave reviews. Every room is uniquely designed with attention detail, right down to the tiny, pin-prick lights that preside over each piece of jewelry in their cases.

The star of the show was the yellow diamond. A giant thumb-sized rock enchained with more diamonds.

My favorite exhibition hall, this room featured deep, Tibetan chants with electronic percussion, like sounds from the center of the earth where diamonds are forged. The display cases undulated. They were not flat. At either ends the cases contact perpendicularly walls of mirrored glass, so the perception is that the waves extend to infinite on either end, like the looping music. Even the matte black walls of the room are faceted and not flat.
The jeweled artwork rests on shards of black carbon. Overhead, motion graphics of chrystalline facets float slowly and ceaselessly, forming new configurations.

I will forever remember this show for its craft, thought, and beauty — all exuding with generosity. The exhibition captures what I believe design is at its best: a multi-sensorial aesthetic experience in which communication, education, and pleasure emulsify into one cohesive delivery.

Ancient city of Dujiangyan (都江堰)

I’m on vacation with my parents Sichuan Province, China. They love marauding for tales of the past and for delicious eats. I tag along for the surprise, and this visit to Dujiangyan definitely qualifies. We arrived from Sichuan’s main metropolis, Chengdu, via long-distance bus in less than an hour’s time. (You can actually also get there by subway but there are few scheduled runs.)

Though nearby, the environment feels totally different here. For one, nature abounds! The rivers that run through it are turbulent, alive, and the color of creamy jade. The bridges are richly adorned, oft bedecked with carved halls and terraces — clearly the residents’ ode to their relationship with the waters below.

View near the entrance of the Dujiangyan historical irrigation site.

Everyone here is super chill and nice: Smiles and patient advice are delivered generously. It is said that the taming of this river blessed all of the residents with a more relaxed outlook on life. The people here openly welcome domestic and international tourists who come alone or in caravans of tour buses to see Dujiangyan, this UNESCO World Heritage site. How did folks here turn out to be so exceptionally nice and knowledgeable?

It is said that this region had a significant transformation 2,250 years ago. Established before 250 BC, when China, was just getting consolidated into one empire (the Warring States Period), a notable example of irrigation infrastructure was brought into being by the then governor of the region, Li Bing (李冰), and his son.

map of Dujianyan site
Foldout of the tourist brochure, showing the entire irrigation system site.

The river that ran through this farming village would swell ferociously every year, wiping out everything beyond its banks. The floods hampered the village’s ability to grow into a productive agricultural and economic center, and stressed out everyone.

As the largest tributary of the Yangtze River, the Min River brought lots of silt and sediment each time it swelled, exacerbating its magnitude of damage in future occurrences. Attempts to mitigate it failed until finally, the Qin Dynasty King at the time, 秦昭襄王, awarded Governor Li this task of figuring out a way to control the floods. He also gave him a huge budget.

Li could’ve perfunctorily built a dam, which may or may not have worked, and, in fact, several unsuccessful dam designs preceded him. Having an engineering background, he conducted a thorough study of the local snowmelt phenomenon, which led him design a different solution: splicing the river and creating channels in specific locations that diverted the floodwater to other parts when they accumulate above a certain level. This way, the water was kept within its banks and the excess was used for irrigation. Creating this system was a monumental task because tools were pretty basic back then. There was only manual strength as gunpowder had not yet been invented. The river water is fresh snowmelt and therefore freezing cold. No one in China had ever created a flood control/irrigation system like this before.

But before he could even embark on the engineering, some “community outreach and engagement” issues had to be addressed. The Shu tribe who resided in the area saw the river as an omnipotent deity and lived in fear of it, even drowning two Shu girls in the river each year as human sacrifices. They would never dare to support an intervention of altering this sacred river. Such an attempt would not only be crushed by the river deity but would rile its immense and deadly rage.

Governor Li and his staff figured out a creative mythical performance and stunt to subdue this fear and earn the Shu people’s conviction that he was a sort of Chosen One. Steven Mithen, in his book, Thirst: For Water and Power in the Ancient World tells the full story.

Once the public confidence was earned and the crucial human workforce promised, innovative engineering methods had to be devised in order to realize this masterplan design. For example, a channel had to be carved out of the side of a mountain which was entirely of rock. How did they do it without dynamite? By exposing them to extreme heat and cold over and over again, they were able split these boulders and rocks. They would burn wood and grass into every crevice to heat up these big rocks, then subject them to the icy water, in repetitive succession. They fissured and the workers chiseled away the debris. It worked!

An artificial island needed to be built in the middle of the river with a pointed tip that would split the oncoming flow in two. At first, rocks thrown into the middle of the river, no matter how large, would just get washed away. Finally, they devised a successful means: tubes of river rocks bundled together with woven bamboo strips.

At the confronting tip is a massive concrete and stone protuberance named Fish head or Yutou (鱼头) and is quite the tourist site today at Dujiangyan. It is magnificent to see in action.

The Yutou is visible on the right from this view, taken from the tower balcony.

To prepare the secondary “alternate route” for the river, Li’s team had to create dykes and levees to block and contain the water during this process. Again, the invented river stone bundles were implemented and held in place by three-legged bamboo “easels.” Some are on display today.

an image of the bamboo tripods and stone bundles
Example of the structures actually used for dyke and levee construction.
They were installed by the hundreds.

To allow foot-traffic access to and from the island, a rope bridge connected it to north and south banks. The suspension bridge has been reconstructed numerous times over hundreds of years. Walking across the clacking wooden planks held together by thick rope, you’d think it was the original but this one is only the latest rendition of a few decades ago. True to spirit, crossing it feels ancient and unlike any modern bridge.

The moist fog and the dense forest setting made the setting so pleasant and the scenery so atmospheric and romantic. You can see nearly the entire levee system. Only the irrigation channel that was dug into the facing mountains was nestled out of sight. I wanted to see this too but the Anlan Bridge access to that side has not been restored, preventing pedestrian access.

On the other hand, once onto the south bank, you can hike to several temples, towers, and monuments, including the stately Erwong Taoist Temple.

One of two major temples at Dujiangyan.
A field of marigolds with temple in the distance.
We only reached Qinyan Tower.

Being that my parents are both in their 70s, we didn’t venture all the way to the temples. Instead, we zigzagged our way up steep stone stairs for 20 minutes to the Qinyan Tower and contented ourselves with this feat by admiring the views from its balconies.

To this day, Governor Li remains the hero of Dujiangyan. My parents and I strolled across the South Bridge (南桥) to the Old Town streets chock full of eateries and shops and graced with distinctive water channels.

The entrance to the South Bridge (南桥 or “Nan Qiao”), completed in 1878, severely damaged in the Wenchuan earthquake of 2008, and subsequently restored.
The South Bridge is an arcade structure with brush paintings and poetry in calligraphy written on the ceilings and walls inside. At night, colored lights transform its appearance.
Here I am, on the bridge. Famous traditional poems, paintings, and motifs are on the interior surfaces. The flooring is hard dense wood.

On the other side of the bridge is a historical shopping center. Roads, sidewalks and buildings remain largely true to the past.

exposed gutter system of riverwater overflow looks beautiful
When the rivers rise to a certain point, water is siphoned off in a myriad ways, including through exposed channels along streets. They are beautiful to see. The channel beds are of sand and stone, allowing for irrigation and permeability into the soil below.

The city has installed wall etchings of old photos of this same street 100 years ago. They were mesmerizing to stumble upon.

Illustrated walls like this one are hidden and scattered throughout the old town, ready to surprise and intrigue pedestrians. In this one, you see the Tibetan trader with his yaks coming into town (on the left) and merchants conducting trade on the right. Everyone looks so thin! Life must’ve been harder back then.

Among these surprise visual accounts of history were reliefs, carved narratives, depicting Li Bing and his teams subduing the Min River.

carved stone relief of men digging into the water.
The throwing of numerous bundles of rock into the water to create an island.
The throwing of numerous bundles of rock into the water to create an island.
Carved stone relief of men digging into the water

I noticed the stain of grid on the artwork and suspected that it was the result of being boarded up for its protection during the Chairman Mao years. At that time, citizens and Red Guard destroyed as much evidence as they could of ancient and imperial China as part of the Cultural Revolution. This beautiful stonework record would’ve fallen victim to the rash tempers of history had not earnest hands swiftly shielded them. Today, the blemishes only augment impressions of past dramas and triumphs that have swept through Dujiangyan, with promises of more to come.

After much walking and hiking, we took advantage of the eateries in the nearby Old Town. Condiments (such as Sichuan peppercorn and all kinds of mushrooms and root vegetables preserved with it) as well as ready-to-eat foods abounded. It was both a tourist and local hotspot. A great way to refuel.

Different foods but all spicy.
Steamed buns made from various coarse grains, fresh hard-boiled eggs, and steamed dumplings.
Steamed buns, corn cobs, sweet potato, and sausage links.
My parents enjoying Dan Dan Noodles, a local classic.
Fresh tofu being made right before your eyes.
Chicken wrapped and fired in clay. The clay also keeps it warm until you are ready to eat it by cracking it open with a metal spoon. Very juicy.
foggy view of Dujiangyan
Mysterious and exciting, as I will remember Dujiangyan.