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The Gardened City

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The French left Shanghai with the former French Concession streets lined with plane trees. Many more trees were planted across the city in the 1950s and they continue to provide shade and coolth today. Streets like the one below are attractive and also very welcome on hot days.

We now know that the bark and leaves of plane trees can trap airborne pollutants and so many Shanghai roads now inadvertently have a degree of pollutant removal at source. None of the scenes below is exceptional but Shanghai has many many scenes likes these and this is exceptional.

In this next photo is a wide sidewalk with two rows of plane trees and a gathering of rental bicycles.

Further to the left is a new and additional belt of trees and planting called Shanghai Greenway. This section was maybe 15 metres wide but the greenway totals about 112 kilometers in length and links several parks. This section had the distinctive smell of conifers.

Shanghai was blessed with trees anyway but this greenway is a recent addition. New residential developments are planned around existing trees and supplemented with others. The newly planted street trees at the entrance to this housing development are going to have yet more plants at their bases. This is a private developer going that little bit further to make a difference.

The same happens with new retail developments. Trees might be seen as part of the charm of Old Shanghai but they’re a significant part of the charm of the new.

It seems you can’t have too many plants in a city. The sidewalk in this next photo has a row of plane trees, a line of kerbside planters and three lines of stepped planters on the other. This shouldn’t seem strange but it is. There’s some sort of policy at work and it seems to involve growing plants on any piece of land not built on, driven on or walked on.

If you wanted to discourage people from jaywalking – not that people do – then this would be a good way to do so. It’s an opportunity for more plants – hibiscus, in this case.

Back on the sidewalk, there’s no need to choose between using land for plants or for bicycle and scooter parking.

It seems that any urban space that can be cultivated will be cultivated. Durable and low-maintenance hard landscaping isn’t preferred. This next is a green roof on some underground ventilator. It could easily have been some other kind of roof but it’s not. It’s reducing the urban heat-island effect and the rate of stormwater runoff but we can also appreciate how it looks.

This construction site hoarding could easily have been a sheet metal wall or even a masonry wall topped with ridge tiles but it’s a living wall. The plants are real.

Otherwise unused and unfriendly spaces beneath bridge approach roads are opportunities for parks and gardens. The photo on the left below is of a park and monument to the workers who built the nearby Nanpu and Yangpu Bridges. It’s a handsome monument.

This footbridge has been designed to have containers of plants on each side, dwarf bougainvillea in this case.

If I were caught in traffic on the Yan-An Elevated I might appreciate the planters of dwarf bougainvillea lining each side of it, as they do many other sections of elevated road. It’s prettiness where you least expect it and potted bougainvillea are not plane trees growing in the ground but, theoretically at least, this is another example of pollution control at source. Narrow tubes looping between the planters are probably the reticulation system.

Note the trolley busses.

Planters only seem to be used only when there’s no alternative. The footpath outside this public toilet can’t be compromised, and the ferry is a ferry.

The spaces below elevated motorways are typically difficult to love but it doesn’t take much coaxing to get ivy to grow up the supports and to even creep along the underside in some places. It’s going to be wonderful, more effective than an upside-down High Line, more surreal than a Stefano Boeri or a Heatherwick, and for less cost, maintenance and liability.

It’s said “Doctors bury their mistakes – architects cover theirs with ivy” but using ivy to cover something that people don’t generally like the look of anyway must surely make it better than it was before, even if only visually – which it’s not. I don’t understand why all cities aren’t doing this instead of letting billionaires and architects distract us with visions of futures less immediate. This should be our Plan A.

• • •

Urban gardening is extremely good value for money and especially so if the climate is plant-friendly.

Shanghai’s is warm-temperate with precipitation all year round and an average minimum above freezing. But just because things can grow doesn’t mean people will want to plant things everywhere and take pleasure in watching them grow. The 2010 Shanghai Expo no doubt prompted movements to prettify the city in readiness and this may have set this greening process in motion. “The rate of increase of [Shanghai’s] surface urban heat island (SUHI) effect has slowed due to reasonable urban planning and relevant green policies since the 2010 Expo”. If there’s some sort of policy at work, then I’m amazed how unforced it all looks, probably because it resonates with a cultural preference anyway.

It’s more apparent in the smaller cities but there is a Chinese tendency to not leave any patch of land uncultivated.


Vegetables aren’t about to be grown on the street verges in China’s largest city but its surfaces can still be cultivated to provide other types of nourishment. If I had to think of what links all this, I’d say it’s an appreciation of an everyday symbiotic relationship with plants, and not just in Shanghai. This electrical substation is in Wenzhou at that mall I keep mentioning. The grass is real.

The construction site hoarding as living wall was a spectacular exception but, back home now, the default construction site hoarding is a masonry wall, painted white and capped with brick intended to resemble a traditional wall. It took me a while to realize they were construction hoardings.

More short-term hoardings for roadworks are often covered in some Astroturf equivalent. I’ve seen others with images of grass but I’ve also seen them with images of fake grass. On the surface, an image of fake grass is no better or worse than an image of real grass but it does encourage us to see them as equivalent, continuing the postmodern project for representations of things to substitute for the things themselves.


And on it goes. We now call mountain-shaped buildings mountains and call vegetated buildings forests. I suspect the real reason gardening the city is not being promoted more in Western economies is not because it costs money and labour but because it’s free for the public. The trend in Western societies these past few decades has been for anything free to become paid and for anything public to cost more. So instead of more plants in our cities we have projects like Boeri’s Vertical Forest (2014) in Milan which is PRIVATELY-OWNED NATURE attached to privately-owned apartments even if the public can still see it. This is not the case for Boeri’s Mars proposal which would be CORPORATE-OWNED NATURE.

It would also an example of SEQUESTERED NATURE for all the benefits of growing plants are kept inside the enclosure for the people wth a reason [$] for being there. In that sense it’s no different from BIG and Heatherwick’s proposal of a enclosed garden environment for Google Headquarters.

Foster+Partners Apple Headquarters (2017) and Gehry’s (2015) Facebook Headquarters are also sequestered nature but at least their plants were on the outside where people unable to see them can theoretically benefit from a marginally improved air quality and urban heat island effect.

Ultimately, there is PAY-PER-VIEW NATURE which is gardens accessible to the public at a price. Heatherwick’s London Garden Bridge proposal was going to be this. The “sky garden” at the top of Rafael Viñoly’s 20 Fenchurch Street (2014) is free to the public until 6:00pm but after then accessible only to paying customers of the restaurants. So far, Heatherwick’s Little Island (2021) in NYC remains free of charge.

MVRDV have experience with PSEUDO-NATURE and PRIVATELY-OWNED NATURE but their London Mound (2021) is unashamed PAY-PER-VIEW NATURE.

London Mound is a temporary artificial mountain built to monetize a patch of grass and paving at London’s Marble Arch. Not many people have anything nice to say about it. Organizers claim it’s because it was opened too early, presumably in an attempt to claw back the £6,000,000+ construction cost. Its purpose is to increase footfall past shops on London Oxford Street. MVDRV’s PR says the project has a serious message. It does. Once people begin to prefer representations of Nature over Nature itself, then it’s only a small step towards making them pay for it. The bigger game is to make real Nature redundant so nobody cares what happens to it.

All these dysfunctional natures work to lessen our attachment to Nature, so I’m not surprised nobody’s rushing to emulate Shanghai’s example of a simple, inexpensive and free-to-the-public approach to more plants in the city. I will surely visit Heatherwick’s mountain-esque “1,000 Trees” at Shanghai’s M50 arts space. Representing Nature was a bad idea but not as bad as objectifying representations of it on pedestals and disengaging plants from the ground.

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For the bigger items you’re going to have to talk to your municipality. For a more immediate result you could always scatter some seeds along some public path or road. Nature will do the rest.

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