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Open The Gates

Chinese cities struggle to imagine public parks with no walls


Imagine a park that has no barrier from the surrounding neighborhood, nothing to prevent you stepping right off the sidewalk into the park from any direction.


This is hardly a revolutionary concept in urban design, and you’d be forgiven for thinking it is, in fact, the dictionary definition of a public park. After all, 19th century architect Frederick Law Olmsted, legendary designer of that gold standard in urban parks, New York’s Central Park, once argued before a panel of American social scientists that the word “park” should only be used to describe a “simple, broad, open space of clean greensward”, to which “people can easily go” and would provide “the greatest possible contrast with the restraining and confining conditions of the town”.


A land developer in Shanghai’s Xuhui District, however, asked the readers of local political magazine, The Paper, to make just that leap of imagination last year. Their announcement of plans to make an open-access, fenceless green space on land donated by the local government in the district’s new CBD was enthusiastically received by local media, which promoted it as a centerpiece of modernized city planning and Xuhui’s own version of Central Park.


Back in 2009, the Guangzhou government’s “give the park back to the people” movement had the same bright idea, proposing to tear down the walls around three of their biggest urban parks. In their case, however, the plans were temporarily halted due to an outcry from local residents.


Ritan Park, a closed off park in downtown Beijing

Ritan Park, a closed off park in downtown Beijing



One elderly Guangzhou resident surnamed Chen complained to the Yangcheng Evening News: tear down the walls, and you can no longer call it a park. His argument was a linguistic one—the character 园, for garden, is the Chinese word for “public park” (公园, public garden) uses the 口 radical, which comes from the ancient ideographic representation for enclosure. Other citizens translated his concern into more practical terms: without walls, what was to prevent the park from becoming a “free hotel” for the homeless, or a wretched hive of criminals who could enter and escape at will?


Encouraged by official directives to add recreational areas and green spaces to the urban landscape, cities in China are increasingly building socalled “open-style parks” (开放式公 园). But the history of truly open-plan, public-access parks in China is short, and the learning curve they present is steep.


Until the early 2000s, most “public” parks in China—defined simply as parks not reserved for use by any danwei (单位), or work unit—not only had walls and fences but charged admission to enter. In 2002, Shanghai and the city of Zhuhai, Guangdong Province, began to offer free admission to a limited number of their parks. Beijing followed in 2006.


However, the terminology of “openstyle parks” is misleading; in most cases, even without a ticket office, the parks have retained guarded entrances, opening and closing hours, and enclosures all around the perimeter.



The Ming Dynasty City Wall Relics Park is a rare Beijing example of an open-style green space



Beijing’s Ming Dynasty City Wall Relics Park is a special case. By the standards common to Chinese landscaping, they’ve gone and put walls on the wrong side. Completed in 2006, the park consists of grassy knolls, winding paths, and flowering shrubs buttressed against one of the last remaining sections of Beijing’s ancient fortifications; on the other side, the grass runs straight up against the sidewalk beyond. In the mornings and afternoons, commuters like to take shortcuts through the park instead of battling crowds and car exhaust on the sidewalk.


“Strictly speaking, that makes us an open-style green space, not an openstyle park,” the manager of the park office, surnamed Shi, told TWOC. “The only part that ought to be called a park is the Southwest Corner Tower, where we have an entrance gate and a ticket booth for people who want to climb to the top or admire the ancient buildings.”


This October, when Shanghai’s Xiangyang Park was reopened by the Xuhui District government after renovations, which included the removal of the park’s outer walls, the response from the community was lukewarm. “They don’t understand that the wall itself is a part of landscaping, it’s architecture,” a long-time park visitor was reported to complain by a local news blog, Shanghai Guangcha. Chinese landscaping scholar Yang Han has also published papers that have been generally approving of the opening up of China’s urban parks, referring to the trend as the natural accompaniment of modern, urban society’s recreational needs; however, he has also argued that walls should not be “blindly removed”, because their long cultural and symbolic history, as well as architectural details, make them an invaluable “Chinese characteristic” in landscape architecture.



Much of the City Wall Park can be entered directly from the street



Walls have played an indispensable role in the two ancient styles that influenced the traditional Chinese landscaping, the “imperial garden” and “literati garden”. Imperial gardens originated from early imperial hunting grounds, which were walled off to all users except for the emperor. These later evolved into private retreats in which the emperor could relax and enjoy his diverse, often exotic collection of plants. As with City Wall Park’s corner tower, there is a sense the garden being a place to preserve and showcase objects of historical interest.


The “literati garden”, of which the private gardens of China’s Jiangnan region are the most famous example, favored a simpler aesthetic consisting of native plants and more naturalistic arrangements. Built with a philosophy of “high walls and deep courtyards”, they were meant to be secluded spaces for the scholar’s literary and spiritual contemplation, influenced by the so-called “hermit culture”(隐 逸文化) in the tumultuous Northern and Southern Dynasties (420 – 589) period. Under this culture, educated men were encouraged to retreat from political life and cultivate their moral qualities in nature.

“Open The Gates” is a story from our newest issue, “Climate Change”. To read the whole piece, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store

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