Subscribe to our newsletter

     By signing up, you agree to our Terms Of Use.


    • About Us
    • |
    • Contribute
    • |
    • Contact Us
    • |
    • Sitemap

    For China’s Parks, How Open Is Too Open?

    A recent televised debate has sparked renewed interest in 24-hour parks.

    This January, local officials in the suburban Shanghai district of Minhang organized a curious event. Borrowing a model pioneered elsewhere, including nearby Yangpu District, they brought together more than 300 urban development stakeholders, from community officials to academics and planners, and asked them to debate a simple question: Should the district’s largest park be open to the public 24 hours a day?

    While the debate was tightly moderated, the resulting back-and-forth — which the district filmed and uploaded to its social media channels — got surprisingly heated. Last year, Shanghai ordered district officials to evaluate the necessity of all-night park access, but left the final decision to local officials, who were told to canvass public opinion. This gave the debate real stakes. Advocates pushed the benefits of openness, from better integration with nearby businesses to the positives late-night access would bring nearby residents, many of whom work long, stressful hours in the tech industry. Opponents complained about the heavy cost involved in staffing the park throughout the night or cited data from the city’s other parks with longer opening times showing that demand for after-hours access worked out to roughly three visitors a day. Some of the exchanges got personal: In response to one advocate who said increased access might help them deal with their insomnia, a critic replied that planning decisions couldn’t be made on the basis of “abnormal” people.

    Though this debate was focused on a specific park, the war of words reflects a larger divide in Chinese urbanism. City parks in China are generally publicly owned and managed by the municipal facilities department, but that doesn’t mean they are open to everyone all the time. Many parks are walled off; entrance is generally free, but opening and closing times are strictly enforced, with some cutting off admittance as early as 7:30 p.m. While a number of cities have extended those hours in recent years, it remains to be seen how much demand there is for all-night access.

    Given its large park system, decisions taken in Shanghai could have a national impact. In 2011, the city experimented with longer summer hours for 35 of its parks, eventually expanding the program to 369 parks — about 91% of all its parks — by 2021. Of those, 357 operate on extended hours throughout the year, with some opening as early as 5 a.m. and closing as late as 10 p.m.

    The public response to this initiative has been positive. In a 2019 study conducted by East China Normal University, almost 90% of respondents said they were “very satisfied” or “relatively satisfied” with the longer opening times. Park managers were more reserved — 98% said keeping parks open for longer would cause problems — but 70% still expressed support for the measure.

    The recent debate in the Minhang hearing came to a similar conclusion: The majority of participants saw 24-hour schedules as the right move; they simply disagreed over whether — and how — to prepare for the problems that might arise.

    In the East China Normal University survey, respondents pointed to several obstacles to extending parks’ hours of operation. Foremost were the issues of lighting and safety — both of which cost money. The study found that, since 2011, 81% of Shanghai parks have increased staffing in response to their longer opening times, adding an average of three janitors, four security staff, and two general management staffers per park. The increased costs associated with those changes were borne primarily by the agencies overseeing those parks. Roughly 70% of parks with extended hours saw increased expenditures; just 20% were given special funding to make up the gap.

    Similar problems plague other cities around the world. In response to security risks in large urban parks, both the United Kingdom and the United States created park police forces. The U.K. has the Royal Parks Constabulary, which reports to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and is funded by the Royal Parks Agency. Likewise, the U.S. Park Police — one of the oldest federal law enforcement agencies in the country — oversees management of many well-known monuments, in addition to preventing, investigating, and apprehending suspects of crimes committed on park grounds. Open parks in Singapore are protected by strict laws with clear penalties like the Parks and Trees Act.

    China has no equivalent bodies or regulations. But that doesn’t mean our parks will become hotbeds of crime. In “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” urbanist Jane Jacobs points out that healthy cities ensure safety by depending on “an intricate, almost unconscious, network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves, and enforced by the people themselves,” instead of constant surveillance. She argued that violent crime could be deterred simply by increasing park usage. If longer park hours lead to higher usage, rather than an increase in dimly lit and unoccupied areas, then that may help alleviate security risks in large cities.

    The key to realizing that vision is involving citizens in park governance. For example, New York’s Central Park fell into serious decline in the 1960s as the city deurbanized. In 1980, the Central Park Conservancy, a nonprofit organization, was established to manage day-to-day operations, promote broader public participation in rehabilitating the park, and lead the park out of crisis. There are signs that a model like this could work in China: The ECNU survey found that 57% of respondents were willing to volunteer in park management, and 80% of those indicated their willingness to do so on an unpaid basis.

    Minhang has announced plans for the park under discussion to extend its hours until midnight, with plans to operate it 24 hours a day from April. If the city is actually ready and willing to institute a bottom-up park governance model, including community input and participation from nonprofits and other social organizations, many of the obstacles to a truly open and public park system can be overcome.

    Translator: Katherine Tse; editor: Cai Yineng.

    (Header image: A boy takes photos of tulips at Minhang Cultural Park, Shanghai, March 2, 2024. The park has extended its opening times from 5 a.m. to 12 p.m. since March 1, and plans to open 24 hours a day starting from April. VCG)