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    Shanghai’s Pocket Parks: Flourishing Gems and Forgotten Gardens

    These micro landscapes dot the city, providing nooks of nature in urban neighborhoods. But while some thrive, others are struggling to survive.

    Editor’s note: For Shanghai citizens, pocket parks — micro public gardens created in dense urban areas — have become a charming part of city life. But why are some more successful than others? And how much work does it take to make them sustainable?

    It’s Christmas Day, 2023, and three groups of residents are enjoying a chilly afternoon in Jialanting, a popular pocket park in Shanghai’s upscale Xuhui District. While some elderly residents sit around a fold-out table sipping tea, other people frolic with their dogs or lounge on park benches, scrolling on their phones.

    Such harmonious scenes play out regularly at many of the city’s 265 pocket parks, especially on weekends, with residents often drawn to these landmarks by their rich history, culture, and natural beauty.

    Jialanting was opened in 2021 on a plot covering just over 700 square meters on Yongjia Road. The award-winning plaza was developed by the district government and the Tianping Road subdistrict office, and designed by architect Zhuang Shen. At the south end is the nonprofit café Pocket Coffee, whose employees help maintain the park.

    “Many people come here to drink coffee. We have a wall full of cups left by local residents,” says the café manager, Qi Ling. “The pleasant park atmosphere attracts crowds of people, and most of them become our customers.”

    To keep order at the park, the café has posted cute reminders in every corner for people to pick up after themselves and their dogs, and it provides free drinking water and pet supplies, such as waste collection bags. “If the place looks beautiful, people will be more inclined to look after it, rather than make a mess,” Qi says.

    The bigger issue in terms of maintenance, she says, are the sycamore trees surrounding the park, which dump multitudes of leaves every fall. Although popular with photographers looking to capture the autumnal atmosphere, her employees regularly need to spend time sweeping them into golden-orange mounds.

    To attract more people to the park, the café also organizes various events including markets, sports activities, and open-air theater performances. These bring diverse crowds to Jialanting. Lu Hua, who’s responsible for event planning, says that a market held on Dec. 8 themed “Dreams” that featured stalls selling original handicrafts, meditation and aromatherapy products, and more, attracted young and old residents alike.

    However, balancing a pocket park’s dual function as both a public and commercial space can sometimes be a challenge, Qi says. “It requires managers to assess activities from a more comprehensive perspective.”

    Dream Chaser Garden, a pocket park in the Xintiandi shopping area, features a prominent milk-white wooden house with shelves filled with blooming flowers of various colors. This is the home of the Huangpu Citizens’ Garden Center. In addition to selling flowers to raise funds for public welfare projects, it also provides advice and basic gardening services. It has become a hub of activity for local residents.

    The park’s Spring Open Day attracted about 10,000 people over three days last spring. Its exquisite floral displays proved a smash hit on social media — articles about the event on the Chinese lifestyle platform Xiaohongshu topped 2.2 million views — while visitors raved about the gardening classes led by green-fingered bloggers. By the end, the garden center had raked in more than 100,000 yuan ($13,900) in sales.

    Leshan Park, in Xuhui District, was also bustling on Dec. 24, despite the temperature dropping to just 4 degrees Celsius. Huang Si, an elderly woman who had just been shopping at a nearby market, placed her tote bag on a park bench and began using the public fitness equipment. “I live in Leshan New Village, and there’s too little public greenery in the neighborhood,” she says. “Ever since Leshan Park was built, I’ve come here almost every day to exercise. It’s become a habit.”

    The park’s sheltered rest area, called “Shared Happiness Corridor,” has become a relaxing hangout for many residents, not least because it provides hot-water facilities and air conditioning. During breaks in her workout, Huang dips inside to warm up. Pointing to a staff member patrolling the park in case of emergencies, she adds: “We feel safe exercising here.”

    ‘Unsustainable beauty’

    Some pocket parks have failed to stand the test of time, however. In 2021, an illegally built structure beside No. 359 Xinhua Road, Xuhui District, was transformed into an eye-catching pocket park. Stacked mirrors on both sides of the garden help create a bright space with natural lighting, while display boards provide information on the history of the area. The combination of futuristic and historical elements initially attracted many locals.

    Three years on, much of its beauty has vanished. All that can be seen now are the overgrown weeds and vines that are swallowing up its benches. Scraps of paper, plastic bottles, and other litter can be found everywhere among the unkempt bushes. The display boards carry the same information they did when the park opened, but the photos are now faded.

    The park was converted from an alley 22 meters long and less than 4.2 meters wide. To enter, pedestrians need to find a narrow gate between two buildings. Of the four people who passed by, three had no idea the micro garden was there. As a result, it rarely receives visitors.

    The park even fails as a basic thoroughfare. One end leads to the back entrance of the Subdistrict Citizen Service Center, but most residents prefer using another alley less than 10 meters away that conveniently leads to the center’s front door.

    Another overlooked pocket park is Silicon Lane Garden, nestled at the intersection of Dingxi Road and Anhua Road, Changning District. This newly built garden, which opened last year, features a technological aesthetic, with the “Silicon” theme clearly integrated into its design. For instance, the walkway has geometric patterns based on semiconductor elements, the green plant partitions are 3D-printed, and the seating is designed to resemble silicon crystal cubes.

    The garden is particularly stunning at night. The cubic seats emit a blue glow, which combined with the illuminated walkway create a mysterious atmosphere. However, few people stay that long.

    One local resident, Zhuang Yi, lives less than a 5-minute walk from Silicon Lane Garden, and says it’s empty almost every day. She had no idea what the patterns on the walkway represented and was more concerned about whether it was safe to exercise on. “The runway could have been marked with steps and meter markers to guide people,” she says.

    Other design elements also appear to present problems. The seats in Silicon Lane Garden, which are made of steel wire mesh and filled with blue silicon stones, easily get clogged with fallen leaves and garbage. The open trash cans also don’t have bags inside, meaning over time they have become odorous and grimy.

    The “unsustainable beauty” of pocket parks is a common problem. The reading corner at Huangpu District’s Tagore Garden once had a rich book collection, but now has only an empty bookcase.

    Room for improvement

    “A garden need not be large; it is the presence of people that makes it vibrant,” wrote one netizen recently in an online discussion about Shanghai’s pocket parks. However, attracting and retaining visitors to these micro landscapes is no easy feat.

    A research team led by Xu Peixian, a senior engineer at the Shanghai City Greening Management Guidance Center, conducted a series of surveys on the pocket parks that were built, renovated, and upgraded in Shanghai between 2018 and 2022. The study found that many of the locations had common issues including poor landscaping and maintenance, inappropriate plant selection, a lack of supporting facilities, and being unsuitable for hosting public activities. However, the researchers concluded that it would be difficult for the government to devise a set of universal regulations or standards for such projects.

    “Almost every pocket park in Shanghai is equipped with basic supporting facilities like seating and lighting, but only a few have sunshades, rain shelters, fitness equipment, and entertainment facilities,” Xu’s team said in its research report. “Citizens are especially concerned about whether pocket parks can serve their personal needs. What the public expects to see are complexes where entertainment, fitness equipment, toilets, express delivery stations, parking lots, and other amenities are readily available.”

    For Shanghai, pocket parks are an ongoing, evolving journey, requiring a long-term vision and continuous refinement of the operational strategy. Whether it’s in terms of artistic design or regulatory policies, it appears some pocket parks need more room to flourish.

    Reported by Xiao Yawen.

    (Due to privacy concerns, some interviewees have been given pseudonyms.)

    A version of this article originally appeared in the Shanghai Observer. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and is republished here with permission.

    Translator: Chen Yue and Strapko Nastassia; editors: Xue Ni and Hao Qibao.

    (Header image: People enjoy the sunshine at the Jialanting pocket park in Shanghai, 2021. Wang Gang/VCG)