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Micro Urban Renewal - Community Gardens in High-density Central City Shanghai

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With the rapid urbanisation of Chinese cities, improving urban living quality is a shared priority of Chinese citizens and their government. For cities like Shanghai, its green area in the high-density central city area has seen near zero growth during the past years (Liu,Yin, et al 2017). Innovations across different sectors and professions are needed to build more sustainable and liveable urban environments. The following two case studies showcase how community gardens are used as a catalyst for intergenerational interaction, public participation and community empowerment, and benefit its local residents including children, in the Chinese context. The analysis will take the perspective of orgware to illustrate the procedures and outcomes of building community gardens. Although Chinese community gardens are fairly young, their implementation procedures and enforcement mechanisms differ from the western community gardens developed earlier (Liu 2016). Through interaction between young and old within the neighborhoods, child participation and child-friendliness are a central feature in the practice of community gardens.    

Planting seeds in public spaces

KIC Garden, claimed as Shanghai’s first community garden (Liu, 2016), was built in 2014 with a floor area of 2,200 m2. It is located in a relatively newly built High-tech industry cluster featuring information technology. The area is a mixture of residence, offices, commercials and universities with a modern urban structure, developed by the renowned Hongkong developer Shui On Properties. As the local government’s ambition of building a demo open neighbourhoods (in comparison to the previous prevailing gated communities), plus the site of KIC Garden located right on the “green axis” of the district master plan, it has received great attention to be regenerated as a convivial public space. The developer has financed the upgrading of the design and implementation. A Chinese NGO – CNS (Clover Nature School), specialised in environmental education and experience with focus on children and youth, was chosen to implement the project. A permaculture design approach is noticeable across different parts of the KIC Garden. The garden provides indoor and outdoor services such as café/tea house, library, playgrounds, edible garden, and community farm which invite residents to participate, share and exchange experiences, plants and vegetation. The architecture hosting indoor activities reuses the shipping containers, furnished with flexible furniture which can be organised respectively for different activities’ needs. Both professional agencies and local residents’ work co-exist in the garden. The case has been appreciated mostly from the local children and families. It builds up a model of a child-friendly community through public participation as well as community empowerment. Due to the scale of the garden, its management and maintenance still rely on the developer at the daily base. Social organizations work closely with the local residents and set up events, activities and public education programs during weekends and holidays. All stakeholders continuously invest in the community garden with the vision to help it develop into a self-organising and self-sufficient community garden.

Herb Garden is built upon the green field of a relatively older community from the 60s, with an area of 200 m2. Most of the residents have been living here for decades. The neighbourhood has a stable population structure, strong housing association and notable social gardening organisations. The local authority – “Siping Jiedao” has collaborated with the landscape department of Tongji University: the previous provided the core funding, and the latter has been committed to designing and implementing the project. The garden is designed with children and local residents as the design team who have helped to set up a communication platform between the local residents, the authority and the designers from the very beginning. Quantitative and qualitative interviews have been applied in the field study, design and decision making processes. Children and residents’ voices have been heard by the designers and decision makers. Up to date, the Herb Garden’s daily operations and maintenance are run by the local residents’ social organisations, and other communities have been invited to visit and learn.

In both case studies, children’s participation is used as a common approach. Although the two cases are both in Yangpu district of Shanghai city, different enforcement mechanisms were applied respectively. The KIC Garden was mainly financed by a private developer while the local authority provided core funding to the Herb Garden. Sophisticated and well-trained design teams led the approaches used for urban regeneration. Public participation and processes were emphasised throughout the building of the community garden.  

In Conclusion

The Shanghai community gardens began only a couple of years ago as initiatives by the collaborations among governmental agencies, private enterprises, socials organizations and residents.  Opening neighbourhoods and focusing on public space can be a new wave of Chinese urban planning and fundamentally influence quality of life in cities in the country. This goes hand in hand with opening doors for all professions to improve the urban built environment through innovative thinking and approaches at different scales. In the practice of building community gardens, motivating public participation and mobilising the knowledge across residents of different ages are the keys to success. Accounting for residents’ – and including children’s voices is highly appreciated and impactful at large. To both build and maintain the community gardens, empowering the local residents to become the leaders, is crucial. 

Lessons learned 

  1. Multi-collaboration among government, professional agencies and social organisations is a win-win strategy for urban renewal projects. 
  2. Community garden is a way to empower and bring communities together to improve urban living environment. 
  3. Children are one of the most interested groups to participate to build the community garden, while elderlies have the most time to participate among all interested groups.
  4. Three key elements for realising community gardens are: clarification of land ownership; confirmation of budget; allocation of professional agencies.
  5. For successful implementation: public participation is the core, technology the means, policy the guidance, education the foundation. 
  6. The best community garden design is that designers position themselves behind the residents whom participate in the process of building the community garden.


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