Last weekend, Derek and I went to Chengdu, which is a two-hour trip (via bullet train) northwest from Chongqing. Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan province, and has a population of about 7.6 million people in the urban area alone. Since we only had about 36 hours in Chengdu, we didn’t get to see everything. For example, Chengdu is home to some 80% of the world’s panda population, but we did not have time to travel to the suburbs to visit the breeding grounds. (Here are some pandas to make up for not having any panda pictures from our trip.)
What we did see was a busy city whose residents are still trying to figure out the roadway (via car, moped, and bicycle). We also saw two beautiful temples and a sprawling estate/museum dedicated to the poet Du Fu.
What I’m going to talk about in this post is something else we saw: many examples of well-designed public spaces. These were places where people wanted to be and where there were a variety of activities going on. While we have a couple of nice parks in our district in Chongqing, I think there are a some lessons (Cheng-do’s, if you will) to be taken from Chengdu’s public spaces.
What makes good public space, and why is it important?
What do I look for in a public park? Places to sit and relax (or read or people-watch) is important. It’s usually nice to have busy streets or other built surroundings buffered by vegetation. A water feature is a nice addition for playing in and viewing, and also for creating white noise to allow for private conversations or a relaxing moment. Sports fields and nice walking paths encourage people to be active.
The parks that we visited in Chengdu provided a nice respite from an otherwise pretty crazy pedestrian environment. (Cars seemed much more willing to nearly hit us in Chengdu than in Chongqing, and motorists only obeyed the street lights about 3/4 of the time.) City life can be crazy no matter what country you are in and it is important to have safe public spaces for relaxing, socializing, and being active.
I’ll discuss three public spaces that we visited on our trip to Chengdu. They’re all circled in yellow in the map below. To give you a sense of scale, it’s about a 4.5 km (~2.75 miles) walk between Huanhuaxi Park and Tianfu Square. Our hostel was located about 1 km north of Tianfu Square.
Public Space #1: Tianfu Square 天府广场
Tianfu Square, located in the center of Chengdu, apparently used to be the site of the Imperial Palace, which was torn down during the Cultural Revolution. There is a Chengdu Metro train station underneath the Square, which will be a transfer station once the second line is finished later this year (followed by many other lines).
I think one of the defining characteristics of Tianfu Square is the presence of water features. It is interesting to see so many decorative fountains in an area of the country often plagued by drought, but it is clear that many people really enjoy watching the water, and they seem to be a big draw to the square.
At dusk, we (and many others) watched a water and music show. I’ll try to update the post with my own video at some point, but here is a short clip that I found (taken during what appears to be a rainy day and thus shows a much more-sparsely-attended show).
I’ve included a couple of panorama shots that I took at the park, but Derek tested out his new panorama app that gave a pretty good 360 degree view of the park (don’t worry, the people in the 360 did actually have faces): 360 panorama.
It seems that most people use the park as a pathway, and less as a destination (with the exception of people attending the fountain show and going to the subway stop). One thing I really liked about Tianfu Square was the feeling of enclosure, especially at night. I’d say that the only downside of Tianfu Square is that there really isn’t anywhere to sit besides the fountain ledges. Unless you want to be soaked, the ledges aren’t a good place from which to watch the water show, so most people just stood around. There were a couple of large grass areas, but they appeared to be cordoned off and guarded by police. Overall, the square is very central, easily accessible, and has some nice city views.
Public Space #2: Renmin (People’s) Park 人民公园
Renmin (People’s) Park was the site of a 1911 protest against the Qing government’s railway construction policies. Now it is a popular hub for activities of all sorts.
One of the activities we saw in the park was karaoke! We’ve yet to visit a KTV karaoke bar, but it is clear that karaoke is a popular pastime around here. (I fully intend to take part soon – I usually go for Fleetwood Mac, but feel free to give suggestions.) People’s Park contained several karaoke stands, from which rattly speaker systems were broadcasting the brave warblers.
There were plenty of places for people to gather to play games of all sorts, including carnival games and the ever-popular mahjong.
We saw many people fishing off of bridges during our time in Chengdu, and the park seems to be no exception to the trend – there were several people fishing along the shore of a pond.
People were also taking colorful rowboats out into the pond and under a stone arch.
On our way out of the park, we saw a boy sitting as his portrait was drawn, as a crowd looked on.
One thing I noticed in People’s Park that I hadn’t noticed in any parks in Chongqing was an explicit effort to be accessible.
Overall, there really seemed to be something for everyone in People’s Park. In addition to the activities shown in the pictures, there were also people meandering around the paths, dancing, and just lounging.
Before we move on to the final park, here’s a short Chinese character lesson: The first character in People’s Park’s name (the one that looks like an upside-down “V”) means “people” – it’s one of the only Chinese characters that I know. The others that I know include the characters for the numbers 1, 2, and 3, which are made up of 1, 2, and 3 horizontal lines, respectively. Needless to say, I’m not moving on to the advanced characters any time soon.
Public Space #3: Huanhuaxi Park 浣花溪公园
I’m not sure that we would have made our way over to Huanhuaxi Park if it wasn’t near to Du Fu’s Thatched Cottage, but I’m glad we did! It’s a very large (large enough to have a sightseeing tram), very green park that features a beautiful lake.
I think the best part of Huanhuaxi Park was how far removed you felt from the city once you ventured to the interior. It has several lush walking trails.
With such a large, forested park, there is bound to be some avian activity. Someone noticed this and put in a board that allows people to identify the species as they bird-watch.
Throughout the park, there were several areas where people could stop to feed the fish, which seem to be growing quite large from all of the grub.
The picture below shows an activity that I’d never seen before visiting this park – people were painting on the walkway with giant foam brushes and water. This was happening along a walkway that was inscribed with some poetry from the poet Du Fu, so I wonder if this man was writing some poetry of his own.
It’s worth mentioning that while you can do many things in Huanhuaxi Park, roller skating is not one of them.
Outside of all of the nice attributes I’ve already mentioned, nearly all of the signage in the parks was written in both Chinese and English, which I greatly appreciated. I felt quite welcomed – we had people approach us to help twice when we looked confused, and I didn’t notice many people staring or taking pictures as we made our way through the grounds.
Overall, I was impressed with all of the parks we visited – they provide comfortable space for a wide variety of activities for people of all ages. Though I definitely enjoyed visiting the other parts of Chengdu, I think these parks were a vital part of the Chengdu experience.