Known both regionally and internationally as an economic experimental city, Shenzhen is a busy mix of sleek, modern development contrasted to the seemingly chaotic urban villages- the epitome of mixed-use space- full of multi-unit dwellings hovering over a plethora of commercial fronts: green grocers, bike repair shops, meat markets, electronics stores, restaurants…the list goes on. Regardless of the type of development, Shenzhen’s economic experiment has quickly put the city at odds in finding developable space and it is probably the last place where you might think to find a space for nature.
Western culture typically views nature as a coveted resource that must be protected and preserved. Think of any US National Park or Forest. Despite the Western reverence for these natural environments, there remains a tension with this perspective and the equally valued desire for recreational access to our national treasures. In contrast, the Chinese perspective of the relationship between humans and nature is one of harmony among all things, both organic and inorganic. This Confucian and Taoist outlook has informed the high degree of “urbanization” in many natural spaces. From paving concrete paths to building hotels and restaurants, all have been done in an effort to create accessibility and accommodation for more people to enjoy the beauty in nature. The 11th Century Chinese literary tradition, shan shui, says that humans can play a role to enhance nature in a way that acknowledges the sacredness of what is natural if the development is consistent with a valued heritage.
This perspective of nature has become much more visible to me after spending the last couple weeks here in Shenzhen. I have taken to early morning runs through a nearby park (as it is one of the only times during a Shenzhen summer day that is semi-tolerable for being physically active). Each morning, I am amazed by the number and array of people who fill the park, occupying the planned sections to cultivate their own sense of connection with nature.
I shuffle alongside many other runners/walkers/yoggers as we move around the path, circling the perimeter. It’s hard to not get lured in by all of the other side paths and outlets of activity I see as I pass by: people playing badminton around a temple; a group of color coordinated women practicing dance; and many clusters of people practicing meditative movement.
Despite my first (Western-oriented) impression of this park being a manicured and superimposed reality of nature, I now realize and observe people finding authentic connections to this form of nature and the people they share the space with.