SHANGHAI – Suzhou Creek was little more than an open sewer for decades as its murky water flowed through the heart of Shanghai. It is now teeming with life on green shores that stretch for 26 miles.
Joggers meander along burgundy-colored paths lined with azaleas, wisteria and osmanthus. Fishermen catch carp weighing up to 11 pounds. Children skip rope while elderly couples rest on benches by the water.
"In the past, we couldn't even get near Suzhou Creek because the water was stinky and black," said Zhang Guanghe, a 79-year-old former fertilizer factory foreman, when construction workers planted more trees along the water.
The Suzhou Creek redevelopment is part of a nationwide program to build parks across China that provides an escape from the concrete jungles that have long been typical of many major Chinese cities.
It's urban planning for the next stage of development as China becomes an industrialized, prosperous nation. An increasingly educated population demands not only rising wages, but also a better quality of life.
"Building parks is very similar to curbing pollution – while it's a money-losing business, it's still good for society," said Liu Jing, professor of accounting and finance at Beijing's Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business.
Parks offer a simple, if not cheap, way to meet some of these societal needs. As with other municipal programs in China, officials can quickly move entire neighborhoods to make room for green spaces – even if residents grumble.
According to the country's Ministry of Housing, Urban and Rural Development, China has nearly quintupled the acreage of public green spaces in its cities since 2001.
The construction of parks has grown in urgency during the pandemic. Many people were cautious when going to restaurants, cinemas, or other indoor spaces.
Suzhou, famous for its ancient canals, opened 20 new parks in the past year. Kaifeng, a former imperial capital, built 28.
Shanghai added 55 parks last year for a total of 406. The metropolis, one of the largest in the world, has announced plans to build nearly 600 more parks in the city over the next five years.
"I see a lot more trees and flowers than before – it's changing the structure of cities," said Wang Min, professor at the Beijing Central Academy of Fine Arts who was the design director for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
The average Chinese city now competes with New York in terms of publicly accessible green space per person. Thanks to the creation of Central Park, Prospect Park, and Pelham Bay Park in the 19th century, New York has long been a leader among densely populated American cities in park building.
However, the comparison is not exactly fair. American cities not only have parks, but also lots of private lawns. Chinese cities have very few lawns as local zoning rules generally prohibit them, as do most single-family homes. Instead, the country's rules favor checkerboard layouts of high-rise buildings and lush parks.
10-year-old Zhong Yueling lives in a cluster of high-rise buildings near Suzhou Creek. She now walks almost every afternoon to skip rope in a new playground next to the creek.
"I stayed home and didn't come out," she said. "I would watch TV."
China's latest five-year plan, passed by lawmakers on March 11, provides for a nationwide program to build city parks through 2025. Cities were instructed to “scientifically plan and design urban green rings, green corridors, green wedges and green passages. ”
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The plan also calls for 1,000 large parks to be built across the country to promote physical fitness – a concern as obesity has become a national problem. Previous five-year plans hardly mentioned parks.
"We can take faster steps over the next five years," said Hu Yonghong, director of the 500-acre Shanghai Chenshan Botanical Garden, who is helping pick trees and other plantings to expand green spaces across the city.
China has an advantage in building parks. Community officials can quickly seize and loot homes to clear land for new trees and pathways and offer compensation in return.
Few residents resist, although raids are occasional. One owner had a 10-month dispute with authorities in the southern Chinese city of Zhuhai, but his house was eventually flattened.
The cost of compensating homeowners has skyrocketed as property prices have risen. Residents of run-down neighborhoods with latrines were offered modern high-rise apartments with indoor installations.
Mr. Zhang, whose three-story house was recently leveled by the authorities, was given two apartments as replacements. But they were far away, one to the west of the city and the other to the east.
He rented both and moved downtown with his son's family, partly to be near a renovated park on Suzhou Creek.
"It's more convenient after the renovation," he said.
Compensation from homeowners is the biggest price to pay for new parks, but it's also expensive to build. The government-affiliated Chinese Academy of Urban Planning and Design estimated that the investment would cost 300 to 500 yuan for every square meter of new park in Beijing. That's the equivalent of $ 187,000 to $ 311,000 per acre.
If the lower cost were applied nationwide – the cost of most cities is cheaper than that of Beijing – new parks would amount to about $ 15 billion a year.
Unlike ports or railroad lines, parks do not make any obvious profits to reimburse their costs. In February, Beijing's Chaoyang Park, almost the size of Central Park in Manhattan, eliminated its unpopular entry fee of 77 cents and saw an immediate surge in visitor numbers. Shanghai has also cleared almost all of its parks.
Parks built in China bear little resemblance to those in the West. In the US and Western Europe, parks have increasingly returned to nature. Grass is not cut near the base of the tree to protect small creatures. There are few paved paths, and some are even torn open to allow more rain to reach the plant roots.
China's new city parks often follow the tradition of squares and lakes that dominate Beijing's Summer Palace and other imperial or temple gardens.
They have a lot of trees but usually not a lot of grass underneath. Instead, the focus is on expensive paved hiking trails, running paths and paved areas, which are popular with Tai Chi exercise enthusiasts and relays of “dancing grandmas”.
"They are built almost to function as a square in European cities – a place for socializing and public activities," said Wang.
The design also reflects China's preoccupation with social control. Dense tree planting usually divides Chinese parks into a number of separate clearings, preventing large crowds from forming.
For Pan Jun, the park on Suzhou Creek is a welcome change from his job as a truck driver. One final afternoon, Pan, 44, sat on a bench playing a video game while waiting for his next delivery in three hours.
When the area was all concrete, he said, "I used to sit in my truck."
Coral Yang contributed to the research.