I am delighted to have discovered Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities. I remember reading her obituary in The Guardian some years ago and thinking how inspiring she was. According to The New York Times, although written in 1961 the book is ‘perhaps the most influential single work in the history of town planning.’ As well as writing the book, it seems that Jacobs galvanised local people to stop the destruction of Washington Square in New York by urban planners. I wonder what she would have made of the present day Chinese approach to planning, especially the way that new districts of cities seem to be built on the American model, without much reference to the human scale – tall, imposing glass towers, wide boulevards, huge, windy public squares etc, etc.
I picked out Jacobs’s book because, unusually, it has a long chapter on parks, my current research interest. ‘Build them where lots of different people live and can use them at different times of the day’, she says sensibly, citing many examples of decaying parks where this has not happened. I’m going to offer the book to a fellow student who is studying the phenomenon of Chinese ghost cities in Inner Mongolia. She has shown me some amazing pictures of Kangbashi, which has been built as a new suburb of Ordos, complete with a museum, library, public square, theatre, schools, malls, houses and parks, but has failed to attract any residents. Just put ‘Kangbashi’ into Google and you will find a host of photos. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tCUSTowpS_c
Some of Ningbo’s parks seem to fit the Jacobs standard and indeed attract different groups of people, although I don’t know yet whether they are used all day, every day. Last Sunday we cycled to one that was new for us – designed specifically for children and families and next to ‘Ocean World’. It is located north-east of our compound in an older and less affluent part of town, if the surrounding slightly down-at-heel, medium height apartment blocks are anything to go by.
The park is laid out on a similar plan to smart Yinzhou park on the edge of the new business district, but doesn’t attract the same ‘new rich’. No picnic tents or wedding parties having their photographs taken, partly because of a dearth of scenic spots. In Yinzhou notices were in characters with English translations – very sophisticated. Here there were simple pictures. A large foot with a line through it: don’t step on the grass (it didn’t have much effect).
There is a lake, but when we looked closely we realised that the boats for hire were all in the shape of military hardware. You can paddle around in a miniature submarine, gunboat or aircraft carrier. A machine gun is placed in the bows, so that you can take handy pot shots at other mariners. Buoys are actually mines and they spout water if you bang into them. The park was full of rides and these too had a military theme – lots of military vehicles and guns. To our amusement one ride was a fleet of US jeeps all with a little Stars and Stripes pennant!
To me the park summed up the Chinese preference for boy children – every amusement was for little boys, although that is not to say that a few girls and mums weren’t enjoying shooting the water pistols. It also seemed somewhat ironic in the light of current CCP rhetoric about creating a harmonious society and promoting ‘peaceful China’. Just yesterday we spent a class discussing the meaning of ‘the New Confucianism’. I wonder what the incognito inspectors for National Civilising Cities made of it.
Next on the list is a visit to a park on the west side of the city. My Ningbo city map tells me that it has an activity centre for the old and a bonsai garden. I think I might be happier there – for many reasons!