In January this year, I made a short visit to my hometown. Hangzhou is one of the Chinese cities most visited by tourists, with 123 million visitors in 2015. The municipality used to encourage locals to either stay at home or travel away from the city during long public holidays, because of the extreme congestion in parks and natural open spaces. This inconvenience, however, seems not to diminish the tourist fever in any sense.
The jewel in the region’s crown, West Lake, is the must-see destination for everyone. Growing up next to the lake shaped my appreciation of natural beauty and landscape since a very early age. The lake is surrounded by a chain of public parks and urban promenades. It was my daily habit during school days to stroll along the lake after dinner and sit on a bench, watching passers-by and their activities. I didn’t realize at the time that those observations would eventually become useful in my professional practice.
Hubin, which literally means lakefront, is a linear park bordered by the lake and the downtown commercial core area. January in Hangzhou is cold: the temperature was about 5-6 Celsius during my visit. But the temperature didn’t dampen the vibrant public life in the park at all. Various gathering spaces were occupied by many different, spontaneous social groups: for dancing, performing, singing traditional opera, community singing, playing Chinese chess and poker, tai chi, group discussions, and casual chatting. Passers-by would stop and watch the action or strike up a conversation with the participants. Such groups usually start from a small number of participants, and then other park users join in and people get introduced by friends. Some groups included more than a hundred people on the day of my visit.
Besides group activities, people come to the Hubin area for a wide range of reasons: to exercise, shop, sit in cafes (reading or working), take a lunch break, have dinner with friends, watch a movie, watch the grand fountain show, pause on their way to work, and so on. I have always believed that a successful place needs to be first and foremost a magnet for local residents, and needs to return value to the local community. Only theme parks are designed for external visitors. Authenticity comes with real life.
Hubin has not always been like this. In my childhood memories, it was a narrow linear park consisting of a three-meter-wide footpath, large camphor trees, traditional pergolas, a few heritage buildings, and a strip of densely planted garden bed, also serving as a visual barrier to the adjacent busy street. I liked its picturesque quality but there weren’t many things to do there besides taking a leisurely walk and photos.
In 2003, SWA was commissioned by the City to redesign and redevelop the Hubin area. Everyone in the city was very curious about what was going on behind the fence. In October 2003, the new Hubin district was revealed to the public. Many local people, including myself, were surprised by the new look of the park, which was unfamiliar to the city at the time: meandering paths were replaced with gathering spaces, multi-functional paths, areas for public seating, outdoor dining, public art installations which referenced local history and culture, etc. The busy street that used to demarcate the park boundary had disappeared below ground. Instead, a shared space used by pedestrians, cyclists and cars became an extension of the park and seamlessly stitched together the downtown and lake areas.
Thus, a prime visiting destination was created with the use of all possible urban and landscape assets, plus a design language adapted to the local conditions. At the time, like many other local people, I would not have imagined a well-considered park would continue to transform public life over many years. In 2005, the project was one of only three projects world-wide to win the very first Global Award for Excellence from the Urban Land Institute.
Lei Zhang is a designer in the Houston studio.