Planning People’s parks in China: the challenge of urban governance

While strolling around Chinese public gardens in the evening, foreign visitors may be intrigued by the sight of the intense leisure activities pursued there. Some people may be playing badminton, others practicing gymnastics. Parks seem to be essential to Chinese urban dwellers.  Because they live mostly in small apartments, the Chinese enjoy spending their leisure time in parks.  As a result of intense urbanisation, new parks are needed in Chinese cities.  Generally, local governments have adopted a very bureaucratic approach to planning, managing and designing these urban parks. Citizens (and park-users) have often been excluded from this process, because of the municipalities’ top-down methods.

Morning workout in a park in Shaoxing, Goulard Sébastien

In 2011, Shan Xi-Zhang (South China Normal University) published an article1 arguing that Chinese urban dwellers are willing to be involved in decision-making on matters concerning the infrastructures of green spaces. The author conducted surveys in the city of Guangzhou, and found that about 85% of interviewees supported the idea of public participation in urban park planning, management and design,  and three quarters showed an interest in being actively involved in this decision making process. However, a second observation was that the degree of willingness depended on different factors. Firstly, the study confirmed that the more educated people were the most willing to be involved in decision-making.  Secondly, however, elderly inhabitants, who were used to top-down governance, were more reticent. Thirdly, people living in suburban residential areas were more likely to be interested in public participation than city center residents.  

With these research results in mind, Shan Xi-Zhang listed some recommendations for municipal governments. Obviously, he called for more public participation in the management of green spaces, as well as an end to the bureaucratic approach of local governments. However, since the public’s willingness to participate varies according to age, education level and place of residence, municipalities should launch specific training programs for each social category.   With stronger public participation, civic support for local government would increase.

Although these results were predictable, Shan Xi-Zhang’s paper highlights the increasing demand for public involvement in urban affairs and the rise of a new urban class. 

By pointing out that Chinese urban dwellers are willing to participate in decision making on issues concerning green spaces, this article shows us that Chinese urban inhabitants have assumed their urban status; they have demonstrated their willingness to take possession of their cities. Clearly, Chinese municipalities should encourage this enthusiasm and listen to the city dwellers’ expectations, in order to strengthen relations with residents and improve city governance.  The involvement of inhabitants in decision making can reduce infrastructural costs, increase efficiency and also promote citizenship.

However, public participation in the management of green spaces is only a first step.  The new Chinese urban class will soon be eager to be involved in other issues relating to their city.  Lack of time or experience may mean that they will not be able to intervene on every matter, but they will still want the authorities to hear their opinion.   They will need to have their interests represented, and only grassroots organisations and local political representatives can fulfill this task.  The new generation of educated urban dwellers will undoubtedly break up the current top-down decision making process in Chinese cities.

  1. Shan Xi-Zhang (2012), Attitude and willingness toward participation in decision-making of urban green spaces in China, Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, Volume 11, issue 2, p. 211-217 []

Sebastien Goulard

Ph.D. in political science (EHESS, Paris); M.A. in social sciences (EHESS, Paris); M.A. in international relations (IRIS, Paris), B.A. (Hons) in international political studies (ESE - Nottingham Trent University)

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