Urbanization and the Value of Parks

Though the holidays are over in America, ’tis still the season in China. As Spring Festival creeps closer, Chinese people everywhere are preparing to celebrate the nation’s most important traditional holiday, but some traditions are newer than others. New cars have begun to crowd the roads–what better way to impress one’s family and friends over the holiday — and when the time comes to wish acquaintances a happy new year, many people will do it by phone or text message rather than visiting their friends in person.

This is, of course, the new China, where high-rises have replaced low-slung houses surrounding a courtyard and, to some extent, technology has to some extent supplanted the need for face-to-face interaction. Old people complain that the cities, especially, have grown colder these past few decades. “People treat each other like strangers,” said one man I spoke to. “Why? Money. If this person is rich, he will not want to talk to the poor person. If you own a car, you should be hanging out with other people who own cars.”

Interestingly, Gallup polls show that modernization in cities has not increased the number of Chinese people who report being satisfied with their lives. Nor has the rapid economic development of cities apparently made them good places to live. Gallup notes that:

While China’s cities continue to grow rapidly because of massive internal migration, those Chinese who have remained in the countryside are now dramatically more likely than their urban counterparts to say they are satisfied with their own communities ‘as a place to live’”
Gallup via USC US-China Institute

Many Chinese are acutely aware of the issue. Optimism for the future remains high–a 2008 Pew Global Attitudes poll indicated that Chinese people are generally extremely satisfied with their country’s direction and its economy–but concerns about the vast gap between rich and poor are still highly prevalent. Urban residents also reported a higher degree of concern for Chinese traditions, which they feel are being lost, than rural residents did. (And, of course, there is certainly evidence to indicate that this is true).

Some people have attributed the lack of increased happiness to a Chinese cultural propensity to tolerate suffering, and to celebrate people with a great capacity to endure hardship. The USC-China Institute article quotes University of Hong Kong psychology professor Samuel Ho as saying, “Suffering itself has a different meaning than in the West. Suffering can lead to some positive outcome according to Chinese culture. So people would not like to let themselves be too happy.”

Of course, urbanization and social stratification creating alienation are nothing new; this effect is certainly not limited to China. The same thing can be seen in cities across the globe. In fact, Chinese cities may still be comparably well off–although there is no way to measure or quantify this, the people of many Chinese cities still have a reputation for being friendly (as opposed to, say, the reputation of New Yorkers).

Recent scientific findings indicate that, from a well-being perspective, urbanization could actually be one of the worst things a country could do. The brain, it turns out, needs nature and isn’t particularly well wired to handle urban environments:

A city is so overstuffed with stimuli that we need to constantly redirect our attention so that we aren’t distracted by irrelevant things, like a flashing neon sign or the cellphone conversation of a nearby passenger on the bus. This sort of controlled perception — we are telling the mind what to pay attention to — takes energy and effort. The mind is like a powerful supercomputer, but the act of paying attention consumes much of its processing power. Natural settings, in contrast, don’t require the same amount of cognitive effort.

Interestingly, even small amounts of nature in an otherwise urban environment can make a difference:

Studies have demonstrated, for instance, that hospital patients recover more quickly when they can see trees from their windows, and that women living in public housing are better able to focus when their apartment overlooks a grassy courtyard […] Even slight alterations [to a city], such as planting more trees in the inner city or creating urban parks with a greater variety of plants, can significantly reduce the negative side effects of city life.

Unfortunately for Chinese people, “parks” in Chinese cities tend to be few and far between; those that do exist could hardly be called natural. In his own reaction to these findings, titled “Is Shanghai Making Us Stupid?”,Shanghaiist‘s Dan Washburn writes, “What our brains need […] are parks. Real parks, with lots of tall trees, a diverse mix of plants and animals, and grass you can stroll upon. What our brains need, it seems, is to get out of Shanghai.”

Whether cities are bad for the brain or not, whether cities in China are good places to live or not, one thing is certain: Chinese cities are going to keep expanding. The past decade has shown unparalleled growth and there’s little indication the trend will decline or reverse. Additional parks — real parks — might benefit Chinese cities in a number of ways. In addition to the relaxing effect described in the study above, parks in China tend to create communities where perhaps there were none before. A group of old people who meet in the park and get together each morning to practice Tai Chi, for example, is not an uncommon site in Chinese parks. Could an increase in the number and quality of parks alleviate some of the dissatisfaction Chinese urban dwellers have with their community as well as reinvigorate some aspects of Chinese tradition? It’s hard to say. If nothing else, it seems unlike that more parks could make Chinese urban living worse.

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