Parks and Public Space in Chengdu 成都

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.

I’ll give an overview of three public spaces in Chengdu, each of which is circled on this map.

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 didn’t take this photo, but I thought it would be nice to show a view from above. For reference, the statue of Mao Zedong sits just off the left side of the picture. Click the picture to go to the image source.

Chairman Mao.

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.

People would run away if a breeze blew a mist their way, but I think everyone secretly liked it. It was hot out there!

The umbrellas are protecting from the sun, which was pretty brutal. Those girls have the right idea to cool off in the fountain, though I think it would have been frowned upon for me (as an adult) to hop in.

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 took this shot during the fountain show. The kids would wait until the water shot high up into the air and then run away screaming as the mist fell down on them.

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

Walking into People’s Park, we were immediately greeted by souvenir stands. Somehow, we refrained from buying any animal balloons.

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.

People’s Park has many well-cared-for paths guiding visitors to different activities throughout the park.

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.

Karaoke in the park.

There were plenty of places for people to gather to play games of all sorts, including carnival games and the ever-popular mahjong.

These kids were playing a fishing game. Not fishing for real fish, though, because those  koi are  probably big enough to eat the children, or at least to pull them into the water.

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.

Fishing among the rowboats.

People were also taking colorful rowboats out into the pond and under a stone arch.

This duo had some trouble with the reverse rowboat maneuver, but they eventually figured it out.

On our way out of the park, we saw a boy sitting as his portrait was drawn, as a crowd looked on.

Seeing this boy getting his portrait drawn reminded me of having my caricature drawn in my teens,  complete with people peering over the artist’s shoulder to check for accuracy.

The area near this rock/water feature was a popular place to lounge and chat.

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.

Accessibility!

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 paths like this, it is easy to forget you’re in the middle of a bustling city of 7.6 million people.

There were many flowers along the lake path.

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.

Avian identification station.

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.

Feeding the fish.

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.

Water-painting the sidewalk.

It’s worth mentioning that while you can do many things in Huanhuaxi Park, roller skating is not one of them.

Leave the skates at home.

Final Verdict

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.

Huanhuaxi seems to be an official five-star park, which is impressive (or so I assume – I tried to find more information on this park rating system, with no luck). I’d give all of the parks that we visited high marks!

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.

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4 thoughts on “Parks and Public Space in Chengdu 成都

  1. Yiping says:

    Interesting! Have been enjoying all your earlier post. Sorry for being able to comment so late.
    I am not sure whether you both have other trips planned for Chengdu. You should also go visit the Dujiangyan, a world heritage site for ancient irrigation infrastructure. Also, the Sanxingdui museum was also an exciting visit to me. You will find very ancient settlers sculptures there that they do not look like Chinese at all…
    Sichuan province is an overall quite laid-back place in China. It has good resources and good harvest due to its climate, but hard to access from other part of China. The famous saying, the road to Shu (Sichuan) is harder than the road to the sky. This has benefited people living there, who do not need to work too hard and with plenty to enjoy. This partly promoted its cuisines development, tea drinking and the majong culture. You should definitely try to play Majong once. There are several simple rules which is very easy to learn.
    Two correction, first about the sign on skate board. It was just a warning that the slope is rather steep, and it might be slippery. Skate board is not that popular in China yet. Second, the man was writing with a brush on the ground, is not painting. He was doing calligraphy, I believe. Someone think this is a way of exercise, like yoga.

  2. Connie says:

    Great photos, Jenny. Good use of public space is something I’ve appreciated in China, also. Your park tour shows many great examples of what other planners could learn!

  3. Greta says:

    Fascinating info and thoughts, Jenny! I’ve noticed water fountains and splash parks more and more in the States, but have only seen something in Disney World to rival the water and music display! On the topic of things to look for in a good park- have you seen any picnic tables or playground equipment?

    • Jennifer Koch says:

      I don’t think I’ve seen any playground equipment in parks (though we have seen some by schools and apartment buildings). There are a lot of sports areas, though – mostly basketball and badminton. No picnic tables per say, but quite a few tables with stools.

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