China Adds More Parks to Its Cities to Raise Quality of Life

SHANGHAI — Suzhou Creek was little more than an open sewer for decades as its murky waters coursed through the heart of Shanghai. Now, it teems with life along verdant banks that stretch for 26 miles.

Joggers wind along burgundy paths lined with azaleas, wisteria and osmanthus. Fishermen catch carp weighing up to 11 pounds. Children skip rope, while elderly couples rest on waterfront benches.

“In the past, we couldn’t even come near Suzhou Creek because the water reeked and was black,” said Zhang Guanghe, a 79-year-old retired fertilizer factory foreman, as construction crews planted more trees along the water.

The rehabilitation of Suzhou Creek is part of a nationwide program to build parks across China, offering an escape from the concrete jungles that have long typified many big Chinese cities.

“For the next five years, we can take steps more quickly,” said Hu Yonghong, the director of the 500-acre Shanghai Chenshan Botanical Garden, which is helping pick trees and other plantings for an expansion of green space across the city.

China has an advantage in building parks. Municipal officials can quickly seize and bulldoze homes to clear land for new trees and paths, offering compensation in return.

Few residents resist, although there are the occasional holdouts. One owner had a 10-month standoff with authorities in the southern Chinese city of Zhuhai, but his house was eventually flattened.

The cost to compensate homeowners has skyrocketed as real estate prices have risen. Residents of dilapidated downtown neighborhoods with communal latrines have been offered modern, high-rise apartments with indoor plumbing.

Mr. Zhang, whose three-story home was recently leveled by the authorities, was given two apartments as replacements. But they were far away, one on the western side of the city and the other on the east.

He rented both of them out and moved in with his son’s family downtown, partly to be close to a renovated park by Suzhou Creek.

“After the renovation, it’s more convenient,” he said.

Compensating homeowners is the biggest cost of new parks, but construction is also expensive. The government-affiliated China Academy of Urban Planning and Design estimated that the investment for each square meter of new park in Beijing costs 300 to 500 renminbi. That works out to $187,000 to $311,000 per acre.

If the lower-end cost was applied nationwide — most cities’ costs are cheaper than Beijing’s — it would amount to about $15 billion a year for new parks.

Unlike ports or rail lines, parks do not produce obvious profits to repay their costs. In February, Beijing’s Chaoyang Park, almost as big as Central Park in Manhattan, eliminated its unpopular 77-cent entrance fee and had an immediate surge in visitors. Shanghai has made almost all of its parks free as well.

Parks being built in China bear little resemblance to those in the West. In the United States and Western Europe, parks have increasingly been returned to nature. Grass is left unmown near the base of trees to provide shelter for small creatures. Paved paths are few, and some are even torn up to let more rain reach plant roots.

China’s new urban parks often follow the tradition of plazas and lakes that dominate Beijing’s Summer Palace and other imperial or temple gardens.

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