Enjoying a Green Getaway in Pocket Parks
Beijing is now home to numerous pocket parks, which are havens of tranquillity in the bustling city and allow residents to enjoy some respite from the pressure of work. In the future, more parks will mushroom across the city to improve its living environment.
Flowers and trees cover my courtyard, which is surrounded by pretty pathways; you can visit here throughout the year, and we can make paper-cuttings to decorate the windows on sunny days.” The scene described in this poem has become a reality in Shichahai, Xicheng District due to the development of pocket parks.
Pocket parks are small urban spaces open to the public, often found scattered across cities as places for their residents to relax. Small green spaces, miniparks, street gardens and community playgrounds are all forms of pocket parks. Over the past two years, six of these areas have been developed in Shichahai, allowing locals to visit parks near their homes and see green spaces by simply opening their windows. Residents can enjoy all kinds of leisure activities at these locations.
Green Spaces Within 500 Metres
Heavy traffic and crowded streets are common scenes in busy, fast-paced cities. A slow pace of life has long been relegated to the memory of the cities' residents—no longer can neighbours find the opportunity to sit around outside their homes and chat with each other like they once did. Apart from
supplying the necessary resources for its social and economic development, a city can often only provide limited leisure and recreational spaces for its residents in the areas where they live.
A few years ago, Xicheng District began “greening” the hutong (alleys) in Shichahai. An elderly resident once complained to Guo Yu, an official from a government agency responsible for gardening and greening, that he had not taken a walk in the hutong for years because of the constant traffic and parked vehicles, nor had he chatted with his neighbours for a long time because of the lack of space in the alleys.
His feeling of distress is a reality for many residents in their daily lives. In Shichahai there are very few large leisure spaces near their houses, besides Beihai and Houhai parks, which contain space for nearby residents to partake in leisure activities. That elderly resident's remarks left an impression on Guo Yu, who has been engaged in the agency's gardening and greening for nearly 30 years. However, Guo realised that he had to face reality. Developing large parks like Beihai and Houhai parks with a wide-range of services and amenities is nearly impossible in Xicheng because it belongs to one of Beijing's oldest and most central districts.
In recent years, with the implementation of special actions to relieve Beijing of functions nonessential to its role as the capital, improving the city's environment and optimising its urban spatial layout by adjusting measures to local conditions have become major government commitments. Vacant plots and idle land has been made available for use as pocket parks to expand urban green spaces after the implementation of the special actions. Guo said with a smile: “Making use of small green spaces can supplement large parks in providing places for residents to carry out their leisure activities near their homes. The residents say they're very happy with this form of implementation.”
The Xicheng District Bureau of Afforestation of Beijing Municipality, Xicheng's sub- district offices and other government agencies worked together to develop a number of urban forest parks and pocket parks, small green spaces and roof gardens to improve the environment of its communities. Five hundred-metre (m) green space service coverage areas for its residents have gradually been achieved, enabling them to “visit parks around their houses and see green spaces by opening their windows.” Over the past three years, Xicheng has developed 6 new urban forest parks, 54 pocket parks, 127 small green spaces and 36 roof gardens; created a total of 26.58 hectares (ha) of green spaces; improved 10 old communities' green spaces that cover a total area of 5.15 ha; and achieved the greening of a total of 1.85 ha for special purposes.
In response to the district government's call to expand green spaces for its residents, the Shichahai Sub-district Office has developed pocket parks on Xishiku Dajie (Street), Dahongluochang Jie (Street), and in Dongfushouli, Huoshenmiao, Donggongfang and Longtoujing communities. The 2,188-square-metre (sq.m) Longtoujing Pocket Park is the largest of the six, whilst the other five are classed as small pocket parks, of which the 360-sq.m Donggongfang Pocket Park is the smallest and the 870sq.m Dongfushouli Pocket Park is the largest. In terms of their design, the parks all feature traditional Chinese gardening and native plants from the city. The designers combined their own styles with the surrounding environments to highlight the cultural features of Shichahai whilst adhering to protection requirements.
These pocket parks are small in size, but they meet the local residents' needs to “be able to see green spaces within 500 metres of their dwellings.” For example, from the northeast exit of Beihai North Station on Subway Line 6, one can see Longtoujing Park; from the station's northwest exit, one can access Dongfushouli and Donggongfang pocket parks; and after a five-minutes walk from there one will arrive at Xishiku Pocket Park, after which, walking south another seven or eight minutes, one will reach Dahongluochang Pocket Park. These small parks are not far from each other and form a scenic route in Shichahai.
An Outdoor Living Room
Around the northwest exit of Beihai North Station of Subway Line 6 are the two adjacent Dongfushouli and Donggongfang pocket parks. According to Liang Fei, an official from the Shichahai Sub-district Office, Dongfushouli Pocket Park was formerly a construction site for Subway Line 6 and had been left idle after the line opened. The area was later included as land to be developed for expanding green spaces for Xicheng residents. In March 2018, the Xicheng District Bureau of Afforestation of Beijing Municipality started greening the area, and Dongfushouli Pocket Park was completed less than two months later.
Dongfushouli Pocket Park might be small, but it is also a beautiful, hidden spot filled with a sense of history. The park contains a traditional Chinese pavilion with long corridors and benches, which serves as its main building. The green pavilion is set off by the red benches and half of the park is walled. There are walls surrounding the pavilion next to which are grey-brick buildings nestling amidst bamboos. The other side of the park features a small square with magnolias, pomegranates, begonias and other plants creating a vibrant environment for nearby residents to get close to nature. The park attracts throngs of visitors, especially in the summer when the magnolias and pomegranates provide welcome shade for passers-by and nearby locals.
One highlight of the park is a brass statue of a young boy absorbed in reading a book, besides which is a statue of a coal stove with an old kettle for boiling water. Guo Yu explained: “These statues mark the city's ‘coal to electricity' project (replacing coal with clean energy). In the past, the hutong residents always used coal stoves to boil water and heat their homes in the
winter. After the completion of the project, coal consumption was cut and replaced by electricity and natural gas, with coal stoves having now become memories of the residents' daily lives.”
Although Dongfushouli Pocket Park is small, it benefits around 1,900 families living around it. The neighbouring Donggongfang Pocket Park was previously a supplementary site for developing the Beijing Subway. In 2017, the Shichahai Sub-district Office cooperated with other government agencies and companies to develop Donggongfang Pocket Park. Plants in the park include Chinese scholar trees, Prunus mumes and irises as well as a trellis of Chinese wisteria. Next to the park, small courtyards belonging to residents can be found. By simply opening their gates or windows, they can enter the park or see its attractions. Therefore, as described by several journalists, the park has become
“an outdoor living room” for the surrounding residents.
A Place for Inner Peace
Like Dongfushouli Pocket Park, Xishiku Pocket Park was also completed in Shichahai in 2018. The park is triangular and covers an area of about 869 sq.m. Its north side is bordered by traditional siheyuan (courtyard dwellings), to its east is Peking University First Hospital and to its west is Xishiku Dajie, which is close to Beihai Park. Apart from providing a leisure space for surrounding residents, Xishiku Pocket Park has been well received by the hospital and its patients.
According to Liang Fei, the Xishiku Pocket Park was previously a car park serving the nearby Peking University First Hospital. The area had been plagued by heavy traffic for many years because of patients and family members constantly going in and out of the hospital, plus the busy car park. The issue led to endless complaints from nearby residents and passersby, so the hospital planned to change the situation. In 2018, the Shichahai Sub-district Office started making improvements to the environment around the hospital. One change involved turning the car park into a green space, as well as optimising the hospital's transportation routes and enhancing parking management.
The sub-district office worked closely with other government agencies in Xicheng, including the district's transport law enforcement team and its office for gardening and greening management, to formulate a plan to improve the environment around the hospital. At the beginning of 2018, the sub-district office launched its plan. The car park was redeveloped into a quiet pocket park in the noisy neighbourhood; and bus stops with crowded passengers around the gate of the hospital were rearranged and moved eastwards. Other measures included adding safety barriers along the nearby roads, requiring private cars to park in the hospital's underground car park and changing transportation routes around the hospital's outpatient building into one-way streets. After implementing the plan to ease traffic congestion in the area, patients who need to drive no longer had to worry about parking or getting stuck on the roads around the hospital.
A number of effective measures changed the bustling area into a quiet and leisurely pocket park. When designing the park, the designers followed the concept of “improving the surrounding environment by highlighting traditional Chinese culture and creating an urban leisure space.” The park contains meandering pathways and a square, and its buildings are decorated with magpie patterns because of the bird's auspicious connotations according to traditional Chinese culture, which symbolise the hope that patients get better soon. The park is rich in green vegetation including Chinese scholar trees, ginkgos and magnolias, enabling visitors to enjoy shade in the summer. The park installed signs at its north and south ends to show the Peking University First Hospital's layout since many of the park's visitors are either patients or their family members.
The pocket park not only adds a vibrant green space to the neighbourhood but also provides a good place for local residents to enjoy leisure activities and for the hospital's patients to relax.
Historical and Cultural Elements
Liang Fei explained: “We hoped to reflect more culture through the architecture
when developing the pocket parks, because Shichahai is one of Beijing's historical and cultural preservation areas.” According to this concept, the designers focused on exploring and carrying forward Shichahai's most striking features through the layout and design of the parks.
Donggongfang Pocket Park gets its name from Donggongfang Hutong. The 236-m alley runs from Di'anmenxi Dajie in the south to Xinghua Hutong in the north. During the Qing Dynasty (1644– 1911), members of the imperial family and high-ranking officials lived in the alley, which still has houses featuring the traditional architectural style of that era. There is a wall in the pocket park inscribed with an introduction to the alley's history, and similarly, Xishiku Pocket Park also installed a bronze sign introducing the history of Xishiku. According to historical records, Xishiku (lit. west ten warehouses) was named after 10 imperial warehouses built during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). On the site of the pocket park, there once stood a warehouse storing items confiscated by the government. Apart from installing signs to introduce the local history and cultural background, designers demonstrated their own ingenuity in the detailed design of the parks.
When visiting Huoshenmiao Pocket Park, one can experience its unique design. Although the park is small, it contains many different elements. The 775-sq.m park borrows the design of traditional Chinese ships. The park installed over-10-m long benches on either side of the park, in the style of shipboards—the wooden benches and decking enabling visitors to feel as if they are stepping aboard a ship to enjoy the attractions along a river. In spring, the nearby Huoshenmiao ( The Temple of Fire Deity) is filled with blooming magnolia and weeping forsythia, creating a traditional Chinese landscape. This design originated from the culture of the Grand Canal. After the Grand Canal was connected to Shichahai in 1293, the area became the terminal dock for water transportation in the north of China for 139 years, providing rich historical and cultural heritage to the area. The designers created the pocket park inspired by ships to pay homage to the culture of the Grand Canal.
The 850-sq.m Dahongluochang Pocket Park contains many historical and cultural elements. According to Rixia jiuwenkao (a book about Beijing's history written during the Qing Dynasty): “The charcoal used in the Forbidden City's palaces needed to be sawn into different sizes and placed into small red baskets, known as hongluo.” This shows that in ancient times, the area was used to store hongluo charcoal, hence the name dahongluochang ( lit. Big Hongluo Factory). A landscape of these red baskets was built in the park to reflect the origin of Dahongluochang. The sub- district office planned to focus on the greening concept of “one street and three locations,” according to the characteristics of the layout of Dahongluochang. “One street” refers to Dahongluochang, which would be restored to reflect its historical past; and “three points” refers to the three intersections between Xisi Beidajie (North Street), Xihuangchenggen Beijie (North Street) and Xishiku Dajie. Around the intersections, screens and red baskets have been installed to highlight the cultural connotations and historical background of the entire street, and a screen structure has been built around the entrance to Dahongluochang Pocket Park. Screens were important parts of Chinese furniture and interior decoration during ancient times. As such, they contain many cultural elements in terms of their shapes, patterns and inscribed texts, which not only represent the refined taste of scholars but also reflect people's wishes for happiness. Dahongluochang Pocket Park has the most complete facilities in Shichahai. Local residents can take a walk in the park among the lilacs, magnolias and begonias, relax on the stone seating to chat with one another, exercise using its fitness equipment and read newspapers posted on the bulletin boards.
Shichahai Sub-district Office continues to expand its green spaces. According to Liang Fei, over the past two years, idle land greater than 100 sq.m has now been greened. The next step for the sub-district office is greening idle land smaller than 100 sq.m through a number of measures, using things like flower pots and planters. In addition, the sub-district office is encouraging residents to take responsibility for looking after the facilities to help improve the environment.
A Chinese architectural element in Dongfushouli Pocket Park
Dahongluochang Pocket Park
A pocket park east of the Huoshen Temple