The Hongkou district in northern Shanghai is collaborating with a design institute to replace its illegal buildings, which have been drawing complaints from old residential neighborhoods, with “pocket parks.” The municipality is seizing the opportunity to better utilize its narrow spaces as well as to create green spaces in the city’s most densely populated area.

The district authority has received repeated complaints about the poor hygiene conditions and pollution caused by the 40-year-old temporary houses rented by out-of-towners. Last December, the district took action and tore down several illegal buildings in the area. By the end of the year, the district plans to replace 600,000 square meters of illegal buildings with pocket parks to improve the living environment. The first pocket park launched on June 21 in Tilanqiao Subdistrict near the North Bund area along the Huangpu River. Moreover, around 28,000 square meters of new parks are planned to be built within Hongkou this year.

Even though many in the district were relieved by the city’s decision, the decision has made life difficult for those living and working in the illegal buildings. And although residents at the torn down old Shikumen-style buildings were given compensation, they claim it was unsatisfactory. Tao Qinjian, a blacksmith who makes pots and other iron utensils, is one of the people negatively affected by the action against the illegal buildings. Code enforcement officers promised Mr. Tao that they would just clean up his workshop when they came by in December and took down the sign and canopy on his shop. When he came back in January, he found that code enforcement officers were not as friendly as they were weeks ago. Instead of empathizing with the blacksmith who had lost his shop and was struggling to feed his family, they treated him as an illegal businessman “improperly using the sidewalk” and disturbing the neighbors – just like the illegal buildings.

pocket parks

Kelli Saperstein.

On the other side of the spectrum, unharmed residents in the heavily dense industrial district have responded positively to the introduction of pocket parks, which have reportedly changed their routines and reunited their neighborhoods. “The shikumen neighborhoods lack greenery due to their original design defects,” said a senior resident living in a community on Shanyin Road. “Now we can rest under the grape vines, chat with neighbors and take care of the plants together just like the traditional Shanghai lane lifestyle,” he added.

There are other cities that are fed up with the eyesores of blighted buildings and fields. The Ohio City of Cincinnati is home to upward of 1,000 abandoned properties, all of which are plagued with infestation and plant disease. Rather than let the properties continue to decline, the City Council has finally decided to take action to revive the properties and the surrounding neighborhoods. The Council is currently in the process of preparing a pilot program that will transform 10 vacant and infested plots into urban gardens, growing everything from herbs to cucumbers.

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