Wandering around Shanghai between meetings and visits to the World Expo, I’ve come across a number of small parks that have been cleaned up, fluffed with new plantings, and groomed to please. From previous trips here over the years, I remember neighborhood parks as scruffy, usually dirty, often forlorn places. (People’s Park was an exception to this rule—it’s location at the center of town and its large size always made it a magnet for people and activities.) But by and large, the history of open public spaces in China has been a sad one. Places designated as everyone’s land meant no one took care of them. 

Someone, though, has been paying a lot of attention to the city’s landscaping in this Expo year. Planners buried six lanes of traffic below the Bund and brought in NBBJ and landscape architecture firm Klopfer Martin Design Group to redesign the pedestrian esplanade along the Huangpu River there. New rows of trees run along meridians and sidewalks around town. And pocket parks, mostly built in the early 20th century by the occupying European powers for use by Caucasians only, have come alive as real neighborhood amenities.

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The city renovated the esplanade along the Bund and buried six lanes of traffic underground.

I walked through Fuxing Park in the French Concession recently, impressed with the wonderful mix of plantings, outdoor spaces, and activities. A sign at one entrance provided a short history in Chinese and English, explaining among other things that the place was originally called French Park and didn’t allow Chinese. Small signs set in the ground identified some of the trees, giving their Chinese and Latin names. Three small children pedaled tiny plastics boats on a pond in one corner of the park, while at least half a dozen different groups of adults practiced their dancing (ballroom here, pop there, and some kind of strange East-West fusion out over there). A cluster of people sat on stools watching a DVD of an oddly coiffed man singing syrupy Chinese love songs and several elderly folks zipped along in little motorized carts. At a fold-up table, a nurse took a man’s blood pressure. Since it was a weekday, most people using the park were either retired or not yet old enough for school. But the place buzzed with music, dancing, and gossiping.

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Dancing in Fuxing Park in the French Concession.

Architects working here will tell you buildings and outdoor spaces are never maintained in China. But I don’t think the people using Fuxing Park today are going to allow it to fall apart. These fox-trotting grannies and grandpas are enjoying the place too much. And having seen how tough they can be pushing their way onto subway trains, I wouldn’t want to get in their way. Forget the China Pavilion and the enormous fair grounds straddling the Huangpu; rejuvenating the city’s neighborhood parks may turn out to be the most important legacy of the 2010 Expo.