Urban parks: We need more greenways like Nanjing’s

By Mitchell Blatt | China

Apr 16

With the coming of spring, kites fill the sky in Nanjing. Parents take their toddlers to run around in the grass, old folks walk along the path while listening to music of their youth, and young people run and bike along the Yangtze River.

Kites being flown from Yangtze River Greenway in April 2016 (photos by Mitchell Blatt).

Nanjing’s Greenway is a long stretch of interconnected parklands and trails that follow along the Yangtze River, the Qinhuai River, and Nanjing’s 21-kilometer ancient city wall. The benefits it brings to urban beautification, public health, and even transportation (I biked to work along it) are immense.

A study of urban parks in Los Angeles published in 2014 found that people who live nearby public parks display significantly better mental health states, as measured by responses to the MHI-5 mental health inventory, than do people who live far from public parks. Other studies in other countries have found similar results. Parks can stimulate people to exercise, facilitate social interactions, and bring people closer to nature. This has led policy planners to advocate for community-focused measures to help create environments relatively more conducive to positive mental health.

It’s not just about mental health. Urban parks and urban park networks are beneficial to the environment as well as just being good and enjoyable for their own sake.

Nanjing Ming City Wall (photo by Mitchell Blatt).

Chinese urban planners and researchers have made urban greenways an important part of their strategies for years. As far back as 1998, the Nanjing government envisioned a plan for preservation of the Ming Dynasty City Wall based on the creation of urban parks around the wall. For at least 15 meters around the walls, there would be no construction at all; just green grass, trees, and trails. The height of nearby buildings would also be limited, with no buildings allowed higher than the wall for at least 50 meters and up to 200 meters in some places, according to a case study by Yao Yanqi and Li Zhenyu, a student and professor, respectively, at the College of Architecture and Urban Planning of Tongji University.

Map of building heights around Xuanwu Lake city wall, from Yao’s and Li’s paper.

Besides the Greenway, Nanjing also has a large manmade lake to the north of the old city downtown area, Xuanwu Lake, which has five islands connected by boardwalks and bridges, and the Purple Mountain is always visible from the old city. There may not be any research to formally confirm it, but I am sure that I feel happier even just living in a city where you can look up and see a mountain on the horizon. (Nanjing, Seoul, Dali, and parts of Hong Kong, for example.)

Xuanwu Lake (photo by Mitchell Blatt).

Other cities, among them Chengdu, Yancheng and Wuhan, have their own greenways.

Wuhan greenway in the woods (photo from Baidu Baike).

Not all of the “greenbelt” in Wuhan is really secluded in the woods or by the riverside. Still, the bike paths by the road, like this one, make it easy for bicyclists and pedestrians to get around (photo from Baidu Baike).

Map of Wuhan’s whole greenbelt network (Baidu Baike).

My favorite part of Nanjing’s green urban ecosystem is the Greenway that follows along the Yangtze River and the Qinhuai River.

The pedestrian path along the Yangtze (in red pen) is wide and planted with trees alongside mini-gardens and sculptures. There is enough green space to keep the Yangtze River Highway (the road in red) out of sight. Underpasses run under the highway to allow access. (Technically, it follows the Jiajiang River for a long time, the part of the Yangtze which goes inside the island in the Yangtze.)

Greenway at night.

Many mornings, I would bike from my apartment block on the other side of the highway, under the highway, onto the greenway and bike down to Wanda Plaza where I worked.

Towards the south is the Nanjing Greenification Exposition Park (南京绿化博览园), which includes model energy-saving homes, and the Youth Olympics Cultural Sports Park (青奥文化体育公园). In addition to sports fields, riverside parks also have picnic areas for grilling Chinese barbecue.

Qinhuai River Greenbelt (photo by Mitchell Blatt).

The Qinhuai River section of the Greenbelt is sometimes quieter, and its a great place to go for a run, too. Along the northwestern section, many art studios and art product vendors opened establishments, as it is in proximity to Nanjing University of the Arts.

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About the Author

Mitchell Blatt is a travel writer, editor, and columnist who has lived and worked in China for six years. He is an author of two guidebooks, Panda Guides Hong Kong and Panda Guides China. He has been published in National Interest.org, USA Today, the South China Morning Post, The Korea Times, Roads & Kingdoms, Vagabond Journey, Silkwinds and The World of Chinese, among other outlets. See examples of his published articles.