If you are planning a park and you design a path, people will walk down the path. If you provide benches and places to sit, people will sit. But if you create a bit of open, undefined space, the people of the community can fill it with their own purposes and use it in ways that exceed anything planners can dictate through design. Purple Bamboo Park in Beijing is a great place to see what people will do when given the opportunity to create purpose for space.
It’s a gem of a park. Though it is surrounded on all sides by screaming, multi-lane arterials, the space within its walls is tranquil and green. It is crisscrossed by countless stone-lined paths that round curves, split off into sidewinders and small trails that disappear behind tall bamboo hedges and long-needled pines. Willow-lined lagoons and canals meander through the park and ornate boats paddle through channels in thickets of pink lotus flowers and broad umbrella leaves. It is a masterpiece of design and landscape architecture, and every morning and evening sees a steady parade of visitors seeking a little escape from the city.
But while the park itself is certainly beautiful, it is the small plazas sprinkled throughout the park that bring out the beauty of Beijingers. The plazas are generally small in size – maybe 30×30 ft – and thanks to the overhanging cottonwoods and pine trees, have a nice sense of enclosure without being cut off from view of the nearby paths. There are benches or large rocks along the perimeter for spectators and people watching and wide, flat stones to host action of any sort.
Every morning and evening, groups of people assemble at these little spaces. People of all ages do tai chi together. Groups of grandparents wave ribbon wands in colorful swirls while their grandchildren chase after the tails. Middle-aged ladies assemble around a dance leader, who has wheeled speakers to the plaza in a shopping cart, and do group line dances together. Choirs practice multi-part harmonies and waltzing couples practice their steps. Big families set up karaoke equipment and instruments to sing songs together.
As far as an attentive spectator can tell, these gatherings are somewhat impromptu and permit-free, occurring wherever the group organizer first finds an available plaza. And although each area of activity seems spearheaded by a motivated individual or couple of people with some devoted followers, the dancing, singing, and exercises are free of charge and open to any passerby who’d like to join in.
Over time it has become neighborhood knowledge that if you want to go for an evening walk with the option of waltzing or singing as the mood suits you, this park is the place that you go. The human activity of these public spaces provide welcome social opportunities not just for the families and couples that arrive together, but also for the single visitors, the elderly, and anyone else who may otherwise find themselves alone in the city. The plazas have evolved into their own social safety net, creating a sense of inclusiveness and connection to society that can be lacking when gathering spaces exist only in private backyards.
Public space is the element within a city that lets a population both express and create its culture. Creating beautiful places that bring the entire community together should be a goal of any city planner concerned with quality of life, and open-ended spaces like those of Zizhuyuan Park should be considered of the utmost importance.