Busy in the park

Sunday Afternoon in Fuxing Park

China is a busy country, even when relaxing. Shanghai’s public open spaces are particularly well used in the glorious late summer weather, and the emphasis is on doing something, even if it’s only watching what other people are doing. The only restriction that I have seen is on accepting money for singing or playing an instrument, so people do these things anyway, for free, and often to an extremely high standard. This is Fuxing Park, laid out by the French in 1909, 10 ha big. I particularly like it, because the activities that people choose are so much more charming than the parks at home, where jogging, football and grilling are the diversions of choice.

12 thoughts on “Busy in the park

  1. Tom Turner

    Thank you for the photos. Fuxing Park was one of the firs parks I photographed in China. I was using a video camera and it broke after 30 seconds. Luckily, within 40 minutes I had managed to buy a later model of the same camera in Nanjing Road. Like you, I was interested by the wide range of activities. But in many other Chinese parks I did not see such a wide range. Do you think Fuxing Park benefitted from a French talent for park design?

  2. Lawrence Post author

    I don’t think that the layout of Fuxing Park (31°13’9.22″N 121°27’53.39″E) is particularly good (or French) in terms of its master plan, it looks like a series of fragments that don’t quite fit together. Maybe this is what it is, it was extensively renovated in 2007 and I suspect that many changes have been made since the original park – with no access to Chinese people – was opened. All of the leisure activities that one sees there can be found elsewhere in parks and urban plazas, and there are better places to go to see many of them, particularly kite flying and dancing, but not coexisting as here. So maybe the use fits the park planning perfectly, a bit of everything, jumbled together and somehow unique.

    1. Tom Turner

      I think I must have seen Fuxing Park just before it was renovated. As a crude generalisation I would say that MOST park designers give more attention to the abstract qualities of public open space than to the social use of public open space. I am not saying that they do particularly well on the abstract visual qualities, but this seems to be what they care most about. Perhaps we should blame the design schools for this. But I also think there has been a serious lack of research into the social use of outdoor space. One could, however, make this criticism of most aspects of landscape architecture. The people who are attracted to the subject mostly want to become designers or, like me, they get side-tracked into historical research. While happy to blame the design schools for this, I also think the landscape practices deserve criticism. They are too willing to rely on ‘gut feelings’ and ‘experience’ about what should be done and too little willing to make use of the, limited, about of good research which has been carried out.

  3. Lawrence Post author

    Landscape practices are easily criticised for not knowing everything, or doing insufficient research, or generally for anything that might go wrong. We can advise, but we cannot oblige our clients to listen to our advice. And we cannot provide a service for which we are not paid, such as social research. Clients are very different in how seriously they take their own responsibilities, and how much they are prepared to pay to formulate their briefs to the consultants that they commission. In theory, the offices that do in-house research that results in better products would have a market advantage, but in practice projects are judged on how they look on the day of completion, and not, for example, on how they are subsquently used. Whoever they commission, the client bears a large part of the responsibility for the end result and one of the most notable changes I can note over my career is the decreasing inclination of clients to accept this responsibilty in any way or form.

    The anglophone schools are obsessed with design. Whereas the north European tradition concentrates on producing engineers, most of whom can build, and some of whom can design, anglophone schools continue to turn out many students who can do neither because design, unlike building, can only be taught up to a certain point and not beyond. This is a pity, because the lion’s share of the fee cake goes to the work stages that follow or guide design – working drawings, specification writing, cost estimation and contract and site supervision, all of which the anglophone tradition is content to leave to civil engineers, quantity surveyors and project managers. Also a pity in that aspects concerning, for example, sustainability, are most effectively to be addressed in the later project stages.

    I suspect that the original designers of Fuxing Park would be disappointed with many of the changes that have been made to their design, but only because they were working within a strict colonial tradition. None of them could have foreseen, however, how their park would be so uniquely and successfully used in the present time. What research should they have undertaken?

  4. Tom Turner

    I believe in the value of criticism and therefore think it is good for practices to criticise teachers, and vice versa. But I also think it is valuable for practices and univesities to work together and I guess this is more common in China than in Europe, because the boundary between the two types of organization is often blurred.
    The UK landscape profession has many shortcomings. I find them difficult to explain but one of the possibilities may be that fees are competitive and practitioners do not have enough time to keep up with their reading, either in landscape architecture or related subjects. If they rely on the professional journal Landscape to keep them informed then they will not be well informed! I see landscape architecture as one of the world’s most important professions. We should therefore have a terrific thirst for new knowledge and information. Doing the same old things in the same old ways is not good enough, especially when knowledge of the old ways is also lacking.
    The point I meant to make however is not that practices should engage in research, though I am happy when they do. My point is that they should make more use of the research which has already been done. A lot of it is useless, not doubt, but some of it is very good and a great deal takes place. This can be seen with from a couple of Google Scholar searches eg on public parks and on public open space. A lot of material also appears in books and I wish I had time to keep up with the literature of the subject.

  5. Tian Yuan

    The photograph remind me my first visit in Beihai park in China. I was touched when I saw the different activities in the park: Singing happily, drawing on the ground, lying on the bench along the riverside, acting Chinese opera in the pavilion, boating in the lake…. My first feeling was that how wonderful life is! And I believe that it is the man-made landscape is amazing. Then I saw the mountain far away, which is like it is just in the park and the natural landscape connected with the man-made landscape! Then, I went into one small garden in the park( jingxinzhai), I feel that garden design may be more ‘ capable’, because it could connect the human soul and the outside landscape!Therefore, I believe a good landscape should have a ‘good outside and a good ‘inside’,people will love to use it time to time.

    1. Tom Turner

      Thank you for your comment, which is both poetic and wise. I think of designing a ‘good inside’ as the classic territory of garden design, and designing a ‘good outside’ as being landscape design. It would be interesting to draw up a list of the other differences between the two arts. I think gardens are (1) more for contemplation (2) closer to being a fine art (3) more personal (4) more private.
      A comparison can be made between two nineteenth century categories of art: Landsape Painting and Portrait Painting. It is an interesting fact that some painters (eg JMW Turner) were good at landscapes and bad at portraits and other artists (eg Henry Raeburn) were the other way about. I wonder if the same is true of landscape architects and garden designers? They both have skill with handling the materials of their art but perhaps it is difficult for them to be good in both fields of activity.
      I have noticed with buyilding archtiects that (1) despite their technical and design skills, only a few of them are good at designing the space outside buildings (2) even fewer architects are good at designing outdoor space which is not beside buildings. I think this is more a question of interests than of talents.

  6. christine

    Christopher Bradley-Hole may be the exception to this rule? He is an architecture who has achieved fame and repute in the discipline of landscape architecture.
    [ architecture.http://www.christopherbradley-hole.co.uk/practise/practice.htm ] and [ http://christianbarnardblog.blogspot.com/2009/02/20-avant-garden-makers-you-should-know.html ]

    Tom the illustrated project is adjacent to a building! So I can’t conclusively say if your observation is correct.

    It would be very interesting to view his work if he decided to practice in both disciplines.

  7. christine

    They say architects like to see their buildings in a pure state – and that people often ruin the effect(!).[ http://resources1.news.com.au/images/2009/08/15/1225761/907885-kelly-kahika.gif ] I find myself wanting to empty the park illustrated of people (or to come back when they have all gone home or before they arrive in the morning) so that I can fully appreciate the design of the park. [ http://www.gcparks.com.au/gallery/parks/main/8plldv.jpg ].

    I would hope that not all parks will be designed as active spaces (ie for activities) [ http://www.triathlon.org/news/article/gold_coast_world_champs_update_/ ] although there is considerable precedent for a focus on spaces designed purely for community recreation.
    [ http://www.goldcoast.com.au/article/2009/01/22/41655_gold-coast-news.html ] and [ http://bayjournal.com.au/joomla/bayjournal/environment/1996-parklands-grow-on-broadwater.html ]

  8. Tom Turner

    I think I might go so far as to say that of the architects who are good at gardens, the best of them tend to be better than the great majority of garden designers.
    Not sure what you mean by ‘the illustrated project’.
    All good points about parks. For the past century, London park planners have tended to think that ‘a park is a park is a park’ (ie they are functional places and should serve much the same range of functions). I think they should he highly diversified in terms of both character and function.

  9. Mace

    Thanks for your images and thoughts Lawrence,

    I particularly enjoyed seeing discussion that good landscape design must take into consideration the psychology of the users, sustainability and of course ‘good’ design. The description of the anglo/euro design schools was spot on. They can be incredibly hard to bring to an understanding (read: to care) of how their design ideas will/will not fit into Asia. This is disappointing because their detail understanding, sustainability practices, etc. are very advanced and would be advantageous to be used more in quickly developing regions.

    I’ve been working in China for a while now and have had many similar observations of activities and the jumbled nature of the green space here. It almost always seems largely activity driven rather than just green. Once you accept this though you can find ways to nudge it in the right direction

    As a designer on the client side I’ve been studying more and more the relationships between parks in major cities and the residents therein (Beijing – Chaoyang Park, Shanghai – Fuxing, London – Hyde, Berlin – Tiergarten, NYC – Central, Korea – ). The differences for such similarly sized spaces are incredibly vast – but one thing I have come to appreciate is there is no way a Western perspective of park use can imprint itself on an Far East ideal. Particularly in Beijing and Shanghai, the large number of lush green parks is simply far outweighed by the volume of city dwellers trying to escape to a moment of natural serenity so you will rarely find that broad open vista like in Hyde Park. Try to count how many brides-to-be are taking pictures on any given Saturday it’s amazing.

    My current battleground is all the spaces between the new-age commercial architecture sprouting up. Vitally important and quite challenging to achieve maximum effect in minimal space.

    Here’s to saving people’s mental health in the cities before they even realize they’ve lost it!


    1. Tom Turner

      Thank you for a very interesting comment. I would like to know:
      (1) what is the same or similar about the uses of public open space in Europe and China
      (2) what are the sharpest differeneces between the uses of public open space between Europe and China
      (3) what explains the differences: climate? laws? ownership patterns? culture?
      These are questions about the social use of outdoor space. One could ask similar questions about the visual character of public open space (and about planting, construction etc). But I think the social questions are the most interesting.


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