China Adds More Parks to Its Cities to Raise Quality of Life

SHANGHAI — Suzhou Creek was little more than an open sewer for decades as its murky waters coursed through the heart of Shanghai. Now, i...


SHANGHAI — Suzhou Creek was little more than an open sewer for decades as its murky waters coursed through the heart of Shanghai. Now, it teems with life along verdant banks that stretch for 26 miles.

Joggers wind along burgundy paths lined with azaleas, wisteria and osmanthus. Fishermen catch carp weighing up to 11 pounds. Children skip rope, while elderly couples rest on waterfront benches.

“In the past, we couldn’t even come near Suzhou Creek because the water reeked and was black,” said Zhang Guanghe, a 79-year-old retired fertilizer factory foreman, as construction crews planted more trees along the water.

The rehabilitation of Suzhou Creek is part of a nationwide program to build parks across China, offering an escape from the concrete jungles that have long typified many big Chinese cities.

It’s urban planning for the next stage of development, as China evolves into an industrialized, affluent nation. An increasingly educated populace is demanding not just rising pay but also a better quality of life.

“Building parks is very much similar to curbing pollution — though it looks like a money-losing proposition, it is nonetheless good for the society,” said Liu Jing, an accounting and finance professor at Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business in Beijing.

Parks offer an easy, albeit not cheap, way to satisfy some of those societal needs. As with other municipal programs in China, officials can quickly move entire neighborhoods to make way for green spaces — even when there is grumbling from residents.

Since 2001, China has nearly quintupled the acreage of public green space in its cities, according to data from the country’s Ministry of Housing, Urban and Rural Development.

Park construction has taken on greater urgency during the pandemic. Many people have been cautious about going to restaurants, cinemas and other indoor locations.

Suzhou, famous for its ancient canals, has opened 20 new parks in the past year. Kaifeng, a former imperial capital, built 28.

Shanghai added 55 parks last year, bringing its total to 406. The metropolis, one of the world’s largest, has announced plans to build nearly 600 more parks in the city in the next five years.

“I see a lot more trees and flowers than before — it is changing the cities’ texture,” said Wang Min, a professor at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing who was a design director for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

The average Chinese city now rivals New York in publicly accessible green space per person. New York has long been a leader among densely populated American cities in building parks, thanks to the creation of Central Park, Prospect Park and Pelham Bay Park in the 19th century.

The comparison, though, isn’t exactly fair. American cities have not only parks but also many private lawns. Chinese cities have very few lawns, because municipal zoning rules generally prohibit them, as well as most single-family homes. The country’s rules instead favor checkerboard layouts of high-rise apartment buildings and lavishly landscaped parks.

Zhong Yueling, 10, lives in a clump of high-rises near Suzhou Creek. She now goes for a walk almost every afternoon to skip rope at a new playground next to the creek.

“I used to stay at home and not come out,” she said. “I would watch TV.”

China’s latest five-year plan, approved by the legislature on March 11, calls for a nationwide program of urban park construction through 2025. Cities were ordered to “scientifically plan and lay out urban green rings, green corridors, green wedges and green passages.”

The plan also calls for building 1,000 large parks around the country to encourage physical fitness — a worry as obesity has become a national problem. Previous five-year plans barely mentioned parks.

“For the next five years, we can take steps more quickly,” said Hu Yonghong, the director of the 500-acre Shanghai Chenshan Botanical Garden, which is helping pick trees and other plantings for an expansion of green space across the city.

China has an advantage in building parks. Municipal officials can quickly seize and bulldoze homes to clear land for new trees and paths, offering compensation in return.

Few residents resist, although there are the occasional holdouts. One owner had a 10-month standoff with authorities in the southern Chinese city of Zhuhai, but his house was eventually flattened.

The cost to compensate homeowners has skyrocketed as real estate prices have risen. Residents of dilapidated downtown neighborhoods with communal latrines have been offered modern, high-rise apartments with indoor plumbing.

Mr. Zhang, whose three-story home was recently leveled by the authorities, was given two apartments as replacements. But they were far away, one on the western side of the city and the other on the east.

He rented both of them out and moved in with his son’s family downtown, partly to be close to a renovated park by Suzhou Creek.

“After the renovation, it’s more convenient,” he said.

Compensating homeowners is the biggest cost of new parks, but construction is also expensive. The government-affiliated China Academy of Urban Planning and Design estimated that the investment for each square meter of new park in Beijing costs 300 to 500 renminbi. That works out to $187,000 to $311,000 per acre.

If the lower-end cost was applied nationwide — most cities’ costs are cheaper than Beijing’s — it would amount to about $15 billion a year for new parks.

Unlike ports or rail lines, parks do not produce obvious profits to repay their costs. In February, Beijing’s Chaoyang Park, almost as big as Central Park in Manhattan, eliminated its unpopular 77-cent entrance fee and had an immediate surge in visitors. Shanghai has made almost all of its parks free as well.

Parks being built in China bear little resemblance to those in the West. In the United States and Western Europe, parks have increasingly been returned to nature. Grass is left unmown near the base of trees to provide shelter for small creatures. Paved paths are few, and some are even torn up to let more rain reach plant roots.

China’s new urban parks often follow the tradition of plazas and lakes that dominate Beijing’s Summer Palace and other imperial or temple gardens.

They feature lots of trees but usually not much grass underneath. The emphasis instead is on expensively paved walking paths, running trails and paved plazas, which are popular with tai chi exercise enthusiasts and squadrons of “dancing grannies.”

“They’re built almost to serve the function of a square in European cities — a square for socializing and public activities,” Mr. Wang said.

The design also reflects China’s preoccupation with social control. Dense plantings of trees typically divide Chinese parks into a series of separate clearings, preventing large crowds from forming.

For Pan Jun, the park along Suzhou Creek is a welcome respite from his work as a truck driver. On a recent afternoon, Mr. Pan, 44, sat on a bench and played a video game as he waited for his next delivery in three hours.

When the area was nothing but concrete, he said, “I used to sit in my truck.”

Coral Yang contributed research.

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