For a city its size, Shanghai had been short on two things—green space and art.
–New York Times, 36 Hours in Shanghai, 2017
I have to agree with The Times that Shanghai is short on art relative to many large cities—artists have pesky habits like bucking authority—but green space? I simply disagree. Surprisingly dense canopies of leaves hover above many of Shanghai’s tree-lined streets, making some neighborhoods so verdant you can skip sunscreen in the summer, a feature difficult to notice if you’re driving on the Ya’an Elevated, confined to The Bund, or making reservations with celebrity chefs. Why would anyone with only 36 hours in Shanghai want to reproduce the cultural experiences of New York City, anyway? For those who care to look beyond the tourist scene, they’ll find that Shanghai’s green space, in the form of urban parks, is not only abundant, but also intentional, a vital part of city life. It’s not Central Park-sized green space, but it’s vibrant green space nonetheless.
Inside a one-mile radius of my home, five well-conceived parks are accessible. Some are larger, well-known parks like Jing’an, a respite from high-end shopping on West Nanjing, or the amazing Xujiahui Park on Hengshan, a mini-model of the city, built in 2000 on the site of the old Ta Chung Hua Rubber factory, complete with its own Huangpu river and a skybridge for an elevated view of the landscape. But many more are smaller, local parks, sandwiched between blocks in residential neighborhoods.
Stretch the radius to two miles from my home and Shanghai’s most famous urban park, The People’s Park, comes into view along with another five or six urban green spaces. And the very attributes that make these parks interesting—their philosophical and functional contrasts to America’s urban parks—are the same attributes that cause westerners to overlook them as worthy tourist attractions. But they are, in fact, the exact places where western tourists should go to find some real China.
In fact, in nearly all of the inner ring residential sections of Puxi, the historic center of Shanghai, residents are within walking distance of a park. This is especially important since so many of China’s residents are elderly. The myriad parks are thriving hubs of traditional community in the middle of the city. A Chinese friend recently told me that city parks are “for retirement,” and it’s mostly true. While I see plenty of young couples and mothers with strollers, the urban parks in China are primarily where the retired go to socialize, exercise, play cards, meditate, dance, sing, discuss, practice tai chi, listen to song birds, and generally participate and connect with other humans.
China’s parks function a lot like outdoor community centers, but they feel more organic than chair yoga for seniors. Isolation, a common scourge for the elderly in other cities appears to be less of a problem in Chinese cities, with parks providing a haven; for community, for activity, and for banishing the loneliness that comes from aging. While America searches for new ways to create villages to connect the elderly, China’s parks offer the elderly space for both organized activities and impromptu gatherings. They have become a symbol of health and longevity. The many small parks in Shanghai seem like testaments to the way traditional village life has naturally reorganized itself in one of the most densely populated urban centers in the world. Walking through an urban park in China will make you smile. A lot. It will make you laugh. The activity that flourishes in Chinese parks is culturally unique, vastly different from the way we use parks in the States.
In America, the ghosts of Thoreau and Emerson haunt urban parks. Our parks are about Nature with a capital N, and we imagine Nature as open space, not merely green space. The transcendentalist sees Nature as a place to escape the corrupting forces of civilization (the city), and our urban parks often exhibit characteristics that define parks as an escape from their surroundings rather than extensions of it. (What could symbolize escape more than jogging, an activity many Chinese find hilarious). If nature is inherently good and civilization is bad, then the two will never coexist peacefully. As a result, many urban parks in the US are open grassy patches that can feel isolated from surrounding streets, businesses, and homes, which also makes them attractive venues for criminals. But America’s grassy open spaces also avail themselves of another U.S. necessity, entertainment. We like concerts in the park, movies in the park, fireworks in the park, markets in the park. When we get together collectively, we are in mind of a goal! Maybe that’s a natural extension of the birth of parks in England, with its roots in that favorite pastime of the English Aristocracy, hunting.
By contrast, Confucius haunts China’s urban parks. Confucianism emphasizes harmony in human relationships. The individual achieves meaning only through her connection to humanity. People, not nature, are fundamentally good. Viewed in this light, China’s parks make a lot of sense. With thousands of years of meditative gardens in China’s past, its city parks were destined to communicate similar themes. Most boast intricate pathways and dense, varied plantings with separate “rooms”. Each room can be used for a different activity. Thick groves of trees characterize some Chinese parks and, at times, they can appear surprisingly jungly. Restaurants or cafes are often situated along the perimeter of parks, which connects the daily activity on the sidewalks to the green space and encourages interaction between natural areas and the hubbub of shoppers and diners. In every city I’ve visited in China—Hangzhou, Chengdu, Beijing, Shanghai—public parks feel intimately connected to the surrounding city. Safety is never a question.
Urban parks in China embody the life and feelings that urban parks are meant to create in communities. They are peaceful. They are alive (they are often loud). They are full of the magic of what happens when human beings come together to rejoice in the humaneness of the arts: to dance, to listen, to play music, to talk, to meditate, to enjoy the company of others.
For a contemporary examination of how an American transcendentalist would like to define American urban life, especially its park life, read Richard Louv’s excellent book, Last Child in the Woods. Such a thought (corridors for wildlife) would be mostly impossible in dense Chinese cities, though the Hangzhou park system may come closest.
“Preserving islands of wild land–parks and preserves– in urban areas is not enough, according to current ecological theory. Instead, a healthy urban environment requires natural corridors for movement and genetic diversity. One can imagine such theory applied to entire urban regions, with natural corridors for wildlife extending deep into urban territory and the urban psyche, creating an entirely different environment in which children would grow up and adults could grow old–where the nature deficit is replaced by natural abundance” (247).
Parks in Photos include: Xiangyang Park, Huashan Greenland, Jing’an, Fuxing, and Xujiahui Park, Puxi. Century Park in Pudong.