Turning over a new leaf

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Beneath a worn cowboy hat, an elderly man sits at the edge of a murky, olive lake. He taps a cigarette to his knee as he waits for a tug on his fishing line. The sounds from a duo of amateur trumpeters can be heard floating through the sycamore trees. Families relax in bright polyester tents scattered along the grass. A businessman sleeps on a park bench resting his heavy head on a folded coat jacket. Behind, a group of elderly dancers weave around each other to the broken sounds of an old karaoke machine.

Tranquil Huangxing park shows few signs it is in the centre of a metropolis home to 24 million residents and counting. For the people of Shanghai, pockets of green space scattered amongst the futuristic high rises and densely packed apartments provide an escape from the congestion of one of the world’s largest cities. American economic research group, The McKinsey Global Institute says that if current trends persist 1 billion people will be living in Chinese cities by 2030 – a level of rural to urban migration not yet seen anywhere else in the world. As Shanghai’s concrete jungle stretches to accommodate this wave, places for new communities to take shape are needed more than ever. Shanghai’s leaders are now recognising the integral role green spaces such as parks and rooftops play in sustainable cities.

Locals play mah-jong in People’s Park. Photo: Sarah Makse

For decades Shanghai’s sustainability has not a been priority as businesses and the government worked to expand the city in every direction. Despite the reliance on parks as a place for community, wellbeing and relaxation, the ways for the cosmopolitan population to catch a daily dose of green were limited. Now, as the population swells and development slows, the city is looking to turn over a new leaf of sustainable urban development. Last year, in a bid to push the liveability of Shanghai to the heights of global cities such as London, Paris and New York, the Shanghai Municipal Government introduced the Master Plan of 2035. According to the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall, the plan proposed that 23 per cent of Shanghai’s land was to be covered in green space by 2035. This would see an increase from 7.8 to 13 square metres of green space per person, according to Shanghai Daily. To achieve these goals Shanghai is embracing new ways to cultivate nature in a city of unstoppable growth.

Sasaki Shanghai director Dou Zhang. Photo: Sarah Makse

According to the World Cities Culture Forum  a global network for research on international cultures, in 2014 Shanghai had 2.8 per cent public green space in the city. It was one of the worst performing cities compared to leaders such as Singapore and Sydney which had more than 46 per cent. Yet, landscape architects are questioning whether creating more green space is truly the answer. In the vine-covered offices of international landscape architecture firm Sasaki, director of the Shanghai office Dou Zhang details the importance of focusing on rejuvenating the spaces that already exist in the city. With the pressures of political agendas, projects can become oversimplified and the longevity of the park, streetscape or rooftop is affected. “There’s this sort of urgency to do everything very fast,” she says as the sound of morning traffic wafts through the window. “It’s like when the trees are planted today, they are expected to mature tomorrow, but the ecosystem is like people, it has life. It takes time to grow, to mature, to go through its life cycle. I think that kind of depth in research, thinking and application in projects are very much lacking in Shanghai and probably all cities in China.”

A butterfly rests in the rooftop garden. Photo: Sarah Makse

Looking outside of the city is not a solution to Shanghai’s green space problem. With half of Shanghai’s population occupying an area of only five per cent of the province’s total land surface, according to the LSE Cities centre at the London School of Economics and Political Science, giving the city a green face lift is the most viable option. By optimising space on rooftops, existing parks or streets via rejuvenation projects, nature will become a normal part of modern city life offering a space for real world connection in a society increasingly reliant on technology. “The city needs a certain density in order to concentrate their energy together. If it’s too spread out, it’s actually hard to form a core for people to get together,” Zhang says.

Surrounded by tired apartment complexes covered in flaking scales of paint, a rooftop garden provides a place for volunteers to meet and get their hands dirty away from the pressures of city life. Young professional Julianne Wu has been frequenting the garden for three years. Joining a wine importer from New Zealand and a French university student the trio attend to their snow peas, lettuce and tomatoes by watering the cracked soil hardened by Shanghai’s relentless summer heat. “People maybe just 10 years ago enjoyed the concrete things, but now we deeply need green things,” Wu says wiping soil from her fingertips onto her red t-shirt. “We are very modern people. We enjoy modern things. But inwards deep in our hearts, we like to get in touch with something natural.”

Julianne Wu attends to the rooftop garden. Photo: Sarah Makse

A survey by urban planning architecture firm Hassell Studio and field research agency, Flamingo, backs this up. Of the Shanghai residents surveyed, 87 per cent said Shanghai was not green enough. More than 60 per cent wanted better access to nature inside the city. Wu is the youngest of three generations to grow up in the city. Unlike Australia, apartment living is the norm for Shanghai families. In a city smaller than Perth, Shanghai has a population density in urban areas of 3854 people per square kilometre compared to 320 per square kilometre in Perth, according to World Population Review. The luxury of a garden must be sacrificed for efficiency. This was a loss strongly felt by Julianne’s family who instead took holidays at farm stays on the edge of the city so her father could fulfil his dream of owning a garden. “It’s really amazing to observe how things grow. But in Shanghai, if you want to have your own garden it’s so expensive. The housing price is so high. It is a dream and maybe it will come true,” she says as she picks pieces of mint.

Shanghai has been a city founded on progress, power and prestige for decades. Since the economic reforms of the late 1970s, Shanghai has become a powerhouse of China’s economy. The establishment of financial districts such as Pudong and a number of waterfront shipping ports funded the city’s rapid growth. In 1949, Shanghai’s overall land covered just 632sqkm with a population of 5.2 million, notes Hungarian research centre the Pageo Geopolitical Institute. Today, it covers more than 6340sqkm with a population five times the size. In a café on bustling University Street in the Yangpu district, assistant dean of the College of Architecture and Urban Planning at Tongji University Dr Dong Nannan recounts the speed of Shanghai’s urban sprawl since his arrival at the University in the 1990s. The campus location, now considered  inner city, was at the time surrounded by farmlands. “Ten years ago, when we talk about the city’s relationship, it’s more about the competition as the city competed for investment. But very quickly, the city realised that maybe the very big cities are not all about investment but also the environment.”

Shanghai’s rapid growth pictured from 1984 to 2016. Photo: NASA Earth Observatory.

Green spaces are vital for the large elderly population and children living in Shanghai to experience interaction with nature that is not always available within the home. For Shanghai’s elderly population parks are an integral part of their daily routine. A space for exercise or to spend the morning playing games like mah-jong. Nannan says spaces where individuals can take time away from the stress of daily life, regardless of the city, only create positive results. “It doesn’t matter that the city is poor or rich. If you have greenery you can enjoy your life,” he says. “We are not asking for more amount of green ratio but looking for better quality of such a green space. So that’s a better quality as a social service, cultural service and ecological service.”

Dean of Social Development Jun Wen. Photo: Sarah Makse

East China Normal University dean of School of Social Development Professor Jun Wen says in the past Shanghai’s green spaces have been insufficient to account for the the changing population. For quality of life to flourish the physical environment must also adapt to changes in the city’s demographics. Overall, the urban environment in Shanghai has been improving with spaces such as rooftops providing increased opportunities for each resident to escape the concrete jungle. “In recent years, the Chinese federal government has been upping the ante in overhauling the environment, and in conjunction with changes in the natural environment, the space for social activities has been continuously freed up. This has allowed city dwellers to enjoy more space for organising activities and socialising. Hence, I think that natural and cultural environments have improved significantly,” he says.

It is not just the government focusing on bringing more green space to everyday life. Rooftops are allowing companies to improve the wellbeing of their employees by creating innovative green spaces that break up the grey. In 2016, news site China Dialogue reported that two million square metres of greenery were to be added to Shanghai’s buildings by 2020. In a quiet greenhouse on the roof of the Guen Sheng offices, a 700sqm greenhouse is flourishing. Inside, 300 planters are brimming with vibrant greens. Peering down onto the plots are cameras in which virtual farmers can watch their plants grow via an app with sunlight and water just a tap away.

Sky Farm staff member Ke Fangfang attends to her plants. Photo: Sarah Makse

Sky Farm is an innovation recognising the changing priorities of city dwellers. By using the culture’s reliance on smartphones, locals can stretch their virtual green thumb to grow real plants. For office workers, the space provides a vessel for mental escape from the pressures of work; for children, an opportunity to touch, taste and smell the plants. Sky Farm staff member Ke FangFang says in her busy work life she has limited time to spend in nature: “Although there are trees and plants in the parks, the fact is that you can’t step on the lawn and touch the plants. So by having farms you can touch the plants, pick the fruits, get close to them and even allowing some childhood stories to happen here,” she says pouring water from a blue watering can.

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With the boundaries between the city and natural environment becoming more concrete, innovative spaces such as the Sky Farm are a way to create new social interactions for younger generations that may not have the time or opportunity to use park spaces in the city. With more than 10 billion square metres of exposed roof space across Chinese cities in 2011, according to the Ministry of Housing and Urban Rural Development, there is ample opportunity for more initiatives to sprout atop Shanghai’s skyline. “I heard one of the kids, after sewing a seed, say to another kid, ‘This is medicine that I have formulated for you and it can rescue you from the evil dragon’,” Fangfang says with a warm smile. “They put together ideas arising from their amazing imagination and their childhood happiness into this context. I think there is a need for such space to keep their creativity going. I felt very touched by this.” Over the trickle of a fountain, the sounds of screeching traffic from the street below fade away.

As new generations grow up in Shanghai the ways that locals access nature are changing. With the government focused on creating a green mega city, small scale initiatives provide an opportunity for everyone to satisfy their human curiosity and the remedies of nature that have been enjoyed for centuries. As the sun begins to drop behind the endless Shanghai skyline, the regular visitors to Huangxing Park retreat to their homes. But they will be back.

The 2018 Curtin Journalism Shanghai Study Tour was funded under the federal government’s New Colombo Plan scheme.