The wilder or the manicured? Exploring public perceptions of park landscapes in Chinese urban environment

Xinlei Hu is a PhD researcher in Landscape Architecture at the University of Edinburgh. She received her Master’s degree in Landscape Architecture from Southeast University, China. Xinlei’s research interests range from urban wilderness, ecological aesthetics, to landscape perceptions and preferences. Her doctoral research focuses on public perceptions of biodiversity and wilder landscapes in the Chinese urban context, aiming to understand the complex people-biodiversity relationship and its implications for Chinese urban landscape planning and design. 

You may contact her at X.Hu-36@sms.ed.ac.uk.


Introduction

One of the main attributes of the Anthropocene is the growing human influence on biodiversity (McNeill, 2012). In cities where human activities are intensive, biodiversity conservation and improvement have become a pressing issue (Grimm et al., 2008; Miller, 2005). As a response, some urban park designs in China have adopted the ecological/wilder approach due to its associated biodiversity benefits (Cao et al., 2019; Kowarik, 2018). Specifically, the ecological/wilder approach mainly includes the preservation and/or restoration of wild ecosystems, the use of spontaneous wild vegetation, and the application of low-maintenance measures in favour of natural/ecological succession (Özgüner et al., 2007).   

Although biodiverse and ecologically health, these park landscapes often look messy and unscenic (Saito, 1998), showing contrasts to Chinese traditional well-maintained parks with ornamental plantings and neat lawns. Urban residents have long experience with such conventional park type. Given this trend, an important question has emerged: How Chinese residents perceive wild-looking parks in cities in contrast to traditional parks which are neat and ornamental? Understanding this question allows the development of effective strategies for improving planning, design, and management of urban wild-looking parks for biodiversity enhancement in China.  

Methodology

This research used case study and focus groups to answer the above-mentioned question. Hangzhou in China was selected as the case study city because this city’s residents have long experience with both wild-looking parks and traditional parks, which provides opportunity for exploring public attitudes towards the two park types (Özgüner and Kendle, 2006).  

Conventional parks form a significant proportion of the urban green space in Hangzhou. As a well-known scenic spot, Hangzhou’s West Lake has profoundly influenced this city’s urban park designs. At the same time, parks in Hangzhou also absorb elements of English Landscape Style parkland such as well-maintained lawns and flowerbeds. Representative traditional park cases in Hangzhou are Fish Viewing Harbor Park and Prince Bay Park [Taiziwan Park].  

With the growing attention to urban environmental problems, concepts of biodiversity and ecological health have started to replace notions of attractiveness and neatness in Hangzhou’s urban park design and management. Accordingly, wilder parks have been proposed and developed in Hangzhou. Representative cases are Jiangyangfan Eco-Park and Changqiao Xishui Ecological Restoration Park.  

This research selected Jiangyangfan Eco-Park as the wild-looking park case and Prince Bay Park as the traditional park case to address the research objective via focus group discussions. The two park sites are similar in size and are in the same area to avoid other confounding factors that might influence public perceptions  (Özgüner and Kendle, 2006). Participants of focus groups were users of both two parks. Six discussion groups were held in Hangzhou, made up of the following age groups: Younger 18-34 year olds (two groups); Mid-aged 35-59 year olds (two groups); and Older 60 and over 60 year olds (two groups).

Satellite image of Jiangyangfan Eco-Park in Hangzhou
Map of Jiangyangfan Eco-Park in Hangzhou.
Image by Xinlei Hu. The map was retrieved from Google Earth.
Satellite image of Prince Bay Park in Hangzhou
Map of Prince Bay Park in Hangzhou.
Image by Xinlei Hu. The map was retrieved from Google Earth.
Wild-looking park case:
Jiangyangfan Eco-Park
Traditional park case:
Prince Bay Park
  • Original site was a biodiverse wasteland containing the dredged silt from West Lake.

  • As a way to protect the biodiverse environment, spontaneous plant communities on the site formed the whole basis for the new park design and the original biodiversity was all conserved (Lin and Wang, 2019).

  • The whole park maintains a “wild” atmosphere with the existence of woodlands, scrubs, and wetlands.
  • Prince Bay Park is a representative traditional formal park in Hangzhou with neat lawns, flowerbeds, individual specimen trees, etc.

  • The park was designed to reflect both Chinese classical garden style and Western formal park tradition (Chen, 2013; Qiu, 2010).
Swamp and spontaneous plants in Jiangyangfan Eco-Park
Photo by Xinlei 
Woodlands in Jiangyangfan Eco-Park
Photo by Xinlei Hu
Dead woods in Jiangyangfan Eco-Park 
Photo by Xinlei Hu
Well-maintained Prince Bay Park
Photo by Xinlei Hu
Neat lawn in Prince Bay Park
Photo by Xinlei Hu

Results

Three themes emerged from focus groups are presented here. Participants’ words are shown in italics. When quoted, the participants are indicated with a letter, meaning their gender, and a number, meaning their age, e.g., W58 = woman, 58 years old; M29-2 = The second 29 years old man.

1 – The natural vs. The ambiguous natural

All three age groups mentioned the natural quality of Jiangyangfan Eco-Park with both positive and negative connotations. Specifically, words like natural, random, pristine, forest-like, natural environment, wilderness were used to describe this park. Some older and mid-aged participants found its natural quality positive because of the environmental services it brings such as lowering air temperature and absorbing air pollutants. Moreover, experiencing wilderness in the urban setting without taking long journey to rural areas was possible.

For me, one of the reasons for visiting this park [Jiangyangfan Eco-Park] is nature. I mean the natural environment and the air is so fresh.

(W49, adult group)

It [Jiangyangfan Eco-Park] is in the urban area of Hangzhou, which is convenient for us to experience wilderness in an urban environment.

(W58, adult group)

However, some younger participants felt the natural quality of Jiangyangfan Eco-Park negative due to the perceived low maintenance condition, making it a rough and derelict place. A younger participant negatively mentioned spontaneous wild plants in the park and described them as weeds which should be cleaned up.

And the lack of management… You see litter in this park. This is a wild ecological park, but things like weeds, fallen branches… I mean you can still clean them up. Do not let people feel that the place is uncared for.

(W26-2, younger group)

On the contrary, Prince Bay Park was positively evaluated as a well-maintained place with neat lawns and manicured trees and flowers. Whilst acknowledging the well-maintenance condition, one interesting point is that Prince Bay Park was still positively perceived as a natural place: ‘I also find Prince Bay Park natural. It has a stream, large lawns, and green trees’ (W67, older group). By contrast, a group of participants used the word artificial to express their negative attitudes regarding the high maintenance condition of Prince Bay Park.

Too much artificial elements… I mean many flowers are cultivated and maintained. They are not natural. All the flowers are manicured…

(M34, younger group)

2 – The ecological vs. The recreational

When discussing the naturalness of the two park sites, some ecological-related points were emerged. Two younger participants found Prince Bay Park more ecological compared to Jiangyangfan Eco-Park because of its good maintenance and neat environment. Some participants were aware of the biodiversity value of Jiangyangfan Eco-Park. When asking why they perceived Jiangyangfan Eco-Park ecological, answers were related to more natural, less human influence, more trees, fresh air, and various bird and wildlife species. Compared to older participants’ more positive attitudes towards the ecological condition of Jiangyangfan Eco-Park, mid-aged and younger participants had mixed evaluations.

Most people just look around and walk in this park [Jiangyangfan Eco-Park]. They don’t understand some of the ecological knowledge within it. That is to say, although the site is ecological and has not been intervened too much, we just feel there are few things which could be appreciated… Because we don’t understand ecological issues. We just find the place has woods and vines and they look green.

(W49, adult group)

When talking about natural spaces full of dense woods and plants, a group of younger and mid-aged participants complained the lack of spaces and facilities to be used for recreation and social activities in Jiangyangfan Eco-Park. On the contrary, Prince Bay Park was evaluated more positively on this aspect considering its picnic areas on lawns and large recreation spaces.

3 – The unscenic vs. The scenic

The attractiveness of the two parks was also a theme emerged during discussions. Overall, the combination of open lawns and some trees in Prince Bay Park looked more attractive than dense woodlands and dead woods in Jiangyangfan Eco-Park. A group of older women participants mentioned safety issues in Jiangyangfan Eco-Park.

We cannot visit the [Jiangyangfan] ecological park in the evening because of safety… You know, dense woodlands, and the swamp in the park is more than one meter deep.

(W60, older group)

Yes, the swamp and the mud. A few meters deep.

(W74, older group)

Moreover, Prince Bay Park looked more beautiful because of its ornamental cultivated flowers such as tulips and cherry blossom. Whilst people generally appreciated ornamental flowers, many complained these flowers were seasonal and they only blossomed in spring. In summer and autumn, Jiangyangfan Eco-Park was more preferred because of green mature shade trees in summer and colourful deciduous foliage in autumn. A participant noted the natural seasonal process in Jiangyangfan Eco-Park.

All the things in Jiangyangfan Park are growing on their own. They bloom in spring and become decayed branches in winter.

(W74, older group)

Conclusion

Chinese cities have conventionally adopted the ornamental/neatness approach for urban park planning and design. Accordingly, urban residents’ experience of “nature” has been limited to the manicured, heavily maintained parks rather than real biodiverse wild nature. As Chinese landscape designers consider the idea of urban wilder parks, this study finds that in spite of the recognition of the biodiversity value of wilder parks by some participants, low-maintenance and the less use of cultivated flowers lower their attractiveness when comparing with manicured parks. This research highlights the necessity of ecological education with urban residents to improve their understanding of the biodiversity benefits associated with spontaneous vegetation and less manicured greenery. Apart from ecological education on public, practices of “cues to care” (Nassauer, 1995) in wilder parks to improve public acceptance of wilder landscapes in cities are suggested. From this research, such practices include providing moderate maintenance with signs of human intention and using flowering plants and trees to add visual aesthetic value. The finding of “cues to care” practices shows some consistency with studies in other cultural context (Hwang and Yue, 2019; Kühn, 2006; Oudolf and Kingsbury, 2013; Tylecote and Dunnett, 2012).


References

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Chen, Y. (2013) A comparative study on the landscape design of Hangzhou Prince Bay Park and Jiang Yang Fan Ecological Park. Zhejiang University. 

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Saito, Y. (1998) ‘The Aesthetics of Unscenic Nature’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 56(2), pp. 101–111. 

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