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Park Life

Local officials are rushing to build parks, hoping to see returns from creating a better environment. The problem is balancing the high immediate costs and the expected long-term gains

By Xu Dawei Updated Oct.16

Yangzhou, a city of 4.4 million in southern Jiangsu Province that relies on tourism, is in the throes of a green revolution. In the last five years, it has transformed into a park city, with 350 green spaces just an average 10 minutes’ cycling or walking distance from each other.  

Xie Zhengyi, the city’s Party Secretary, has recently published a book which gives insights into how this transformation was achieved. It happened not without controversy. The effort was supported by enormous input in construction, repairs and maintenance. Although officials believed that the parks would promote neighborhood economy and attract more businesses in the long run, they admitted that the construction often triggered controversies and they were trying to help the parks support themselves more.  

Such problems are shared by other cities that wish to become a park city. Many experts have urged local governments to think carefully about the inputs and outputs of parks and make rational detailed plans, or their desire for a green economic boom could end up wasting public funds and resources.  

What is a Park City? 
According to Xie’s book, Yangzhou’s initial park construction was triggered by a 2012 public protest against the demolition of a shabby old stadium. Surveys found that what the protesting residents cared about was not losing the stadium itself, but losing a public space for exercise and recreation. The local government spent one billion yuan (US$154m) to replace the stadium with Songjiacheng Park, a free park for sports and leisure.  

According to Liu Yuping, former chief planning officer of Yangzhou Municipal Bureau for Planning and Natural Resources and a member of the government’s think tank for park construction, Yangzhou has a complete park system consisting of large parks, community parks and pocket parks. He told NewsChina that Yangzhou did not rush into the endeavor by making impulsive decisions. Instead they made good use of existing resources. Large parks were constructed only in new residential areas as the city expanded, and in older communities, abandoned brownfield sites such as former landfill or industrial areas were used. Small pocket, or mini parks, were constructed in what they called “offcut” land. With those parks as nodes, the local government systematically connected other green spaces.  

It conforms to what many experts have agreed is a park city. This does not mean a city with many parks, but rather a park-like city.  

“A park city doesn’t mean parks plus a city or a city plus parks. It means a city in a big park,” said Cheng Yuning, a professor at the Architecture School of Southeast University in Nanjing, capital of Jiangsu. “So if we want to appraise a park city, we have to tailor the appraisal indexes for different cities, since they have different characteristics. A park city should be constructed based on such characteristics,” he added.  

Hu Jie, deputy director of Tsinghua University Tongheng Planning & Design Institute, who also served as chief designer of the Beijing-based Olympic Forest Park, agreed with Cheng’s definition.  

“Parks in a park city are not isolated islands. They should be connected into a big system that covers the whole city. Having a system of parks is definitely more advanced than just having isolated ones,” he told NewsChina, adding that a park city should both benefit the majority of the public and be based on the local ecology.  

“A park city means finding the balance between ecology and economic development,” he said.  

Not Easy Being Green 
According to Hu, the highlight and also the biggest difficulty of a park city is connecting the green spaces. This requires proper management of land and other resources, including woodlands, waterways and greenbelts. It spans many government departments and requires huge personnel and financial input.  

Authorities in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province, plan to build a 16,930 kilometer-long greenbelt that connects all the major parks, natural reserves, tourism spots, historical sites and residential communities in the covered areas. The city will be surrounded by the Tianfu Greenway, and residents will be able to see a park every 300 meters, media reported. Such a grand project will take decades to complete, with total costs expected in the trillions of yuan.  

Yangzhou’s park construction also cost an arm and a leg – according to media reports, the rebuilding of Songjiacheng Park alone cost 250 million yuan (US$36.2m) and another ecological park along the Sanwan canal cost 3.6 billion yuan (US$5.2b) in the preliminary phase.  

In his book, Xie Zhengyi admitted that for local officials, the biggest difficulty was finding a balance between different interest groups and between inputs and outputs. For example, if the land for Songjiacheng Park had been used for commercial purposes, the cost of the redevelopment would have been much lower and the government would have received returns far more quickly.  

“Controversies have never been absent throughout the park construction,” he wrote in the book. “The decision making is related to the interests and performance of an array of departments and we even had to suffer the pressure of [whether such costly construction would have the] impact on the local economy... The construction was always promoted from top to bottom, during which we had to constantly seek for common understanding among officials.”  

In Xie’s view, park construction, though costly, will bring Yangzhou long-term benefits, especially to the city’s image and ecology.“Different from Shanghai and New York, Yangzhou cannot be an international metropolis, but it can be a small city with strong local characteristics just as some European towns are,” Xie told media.  

“Yangzhou’s park construction is not directly to increase land values in neighboring areas, but to improve people’s lives,” Liu Yuping said.“But it is obvious that the parks have raised land values in neighboring areas.” 

The price of apartments in a residential community near Songjiacheng Park rose by 18.4 percent from 2014 to 2017, and another community in the suburbs saw its price double from 2013 to 2017, thanks to a new park nearby.  

Commercial Environment 
Yangzhou officials are confident that the city’s environment will help attract more people and concentrate industries, especially new, innovative ones that need fewer land resources. Chen Wei, deputy Party secretary of the management office of Songjiacheng Park told NewsChina that Yangzhou was trying out a “park+industry” model, building industrial or technical development zones around the parks. Many Yangzhou officials told NewsChina that they were willing to forego immediate gains in return for long-term benefits the parks will bring.  

Chengdu is also assured that its greenbelt plan will be a success, stating in its planning material that there is abundant potential in enhancing the local ecology and regional economy, especially as Chengdu is a hub for China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and the project will benefit future generations.  Many experts care more about whether the parks could be self-sustaining, since maintenance and operating costs are high, another heavy burden for governments.  

Hu Jie said that it costs 200 million yuan (US$29m) to maintain Beijing’s Olympic Forest Park, at least half of which comes from the local government. Official data shows that in Beijing, greenbelt generally costs 60,000-90,000 yuan (US$8,695-13,043) per square meter to maintain, which is unaffordable if parks are large with low visitor numbers, or have few commercial opportunities. Hu has suggested outsourcing some of the parks to private investors.  

Yangzhou is facing the same problem. According to Liu Liming, office director of Songjiacheng Park, it costs around 20 million yuan (US$2.9m) to manage the park annually, most of which is borne by the local government. According to interviewed officials, all of Yangzhou’s 350 parks are supported by government funds.  

Officials are trying to improve the revenue situation by charging for amusements and attractions, or allowing the parks to hold commercial expos and exhibitions. Chen Wei told NewsChina that Songjiacheng Park is planning to shift to a shopping-mall-like model and host sporting events. “We hope the environment will attract more visitors and the activities will turn the flow of people into consumers,” he said.  

Zhan Dongmei, an assistant researcher at the China Tourism Academy in Beijing, is concerned that commercialization will impair the public benefit. “Given that parks are a public good, I don’t think it’s necessary to care about whether they are self-supporting,” she told NewsChina.  

“As a public facility, I don’t think parks have to support themselves. The criteria to judge whether commercial services and facilities inside a park are proper or not is whether they are set up to meet what the public demands,” said Wei Xiao’an, chief analyst at the World Tourism Cities Federation.  

Planting for the Future 
According to Liu Yuping, officials should take the long view about whether a park is capable of covering its own costs.  

“I believe a park’s value will rise if we operate it well. We may explore this aspect gradually,” he told NewsChina.  

However, experts worry that not every local government can afford the extended timeframe it takes for parks to generate revenue. That is why many experts warned that Yangzhou’s success might not be reproducible.  

“Park construction is an in-advance, predicted project which can’t be finished in the short-term, so local governments shouldn’t bite off more than they can chew,” Gu Chaolin, an architecture professor at Tsinghua University, told NewsChina.  

Still, since 2000, many Chinese cities have eagerly participated in national and international competitions for park cities, making “park city” a very hot term among local officials. But just as experts cautioned, many failed to plan properly and some even triggered conflicts between the public and the government over demolitions. At findlaw.cn, a website for users to ask for legal help, NewsChina found several netizens were asking for legal opinions on local governments’ plans to requisition land for parks. One complained that he reclaimed a parcel of abandoned land near his home and has raised cattle on it for six years, only to find that the government is forcing him off for a park.  

According to experts, the central government actually holds a cautious attitude toward park cities, since no department has issued any national criteria or definition for a park city, nor have they launched appraisals, which experts believe could calm down local governments. “Parks and gardens will improve the quality of residents’ life, but it is not an overnight project and shouldn’t be followed like a fashion,” Hu said. “If some governments go to extremes, such as excessively planting trees and densely building greenbelts regardless of the local conditions, it will do more harm than good to the local environment and ecology,” he added.