Petal power: How flowers give city life aesthetic expression
Amid the concrete and bustle of a megacity, flowers – millions upon millions of them – remind us that an urban center is a place of human dimensions. Shanghai's aim to become a "garden city" demonstrates how flowers express the public heart and soul.
Flower power is especially evocative in springtime.
Everywhere are floral landmarks – from large botanical gardens to small roadside pots. Exquisite landscaped flowers in places such as the Huangpu River waterfront attract hordes of visitors, who take photos and post them on social media.
A pot of tulips near the famed Normandie Apartments in downtown Xuhui District has triggered a photography craze of its own, becoming a must-see spot for visitors to the city.
A historical villa at the Sinan Mansions is bathed in a wall of flowers that has earned the site the nickname "the most romantic residence in Shanghai springtime."
People also line up for hours at the terrace of the Bund Finance Center mall to pose with a giant rose resembling the flower in the French novel "Le Petit Prince." From that vantage point, they can take photos with Lujiazui skyscrapers as a backdrop on the other side of the Huangpu River.
"I missed spring last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. How can I miss it again this year!" a netizen gushed on the lifestyle social media app Xiaohongshu.
Shanghai plans to transform itself into a "city of gardens" by 2025. It's a term coined by Britain's Ebenezer Howard in 1898, wherein he described residential communities built around a mix of parks, factories and farms.
"Apart from visiting a large park a 30-minute drive away, residents should be able to enjoy plants and flowers within a 10-minute walk from home," said Deng Jianping, director of the Shanghai Greenery and Public Sanitation Bureau.
To achieve that goal, more than 10 million pots of flowers were placed on local streets to help create a festive ambiance during Spring Festival, and they are constantly being refreshed after the holiday.
Flowers and plants in a megacity like Shanghai represent the relationship between humans and nature, Liu Yuelai, a landscaping expert and professor at Tongji University, told Shanghai Daily.
"Urban dwellers bear great pressure in a densely populated city, and they increasingly yearn for the calming effect of nature, especially after experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic in recent years," Liu said.
In traditional Chinese culture, flowers and plants lift spirits, encourage contemplation and evoke benevolent invocations.
The three durable plants of winter – pine, bamboo and plum blossoms – symbolize perseverance and nobility. Lotus was lauded by ancient Chinese poets for unspoiled beauty arising from muddy roots.
Shanghai's love affair with flowers has a long history.
Floral cultivation as an industry began in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), when about 45 domestic species of flowers were cultivated across the city. More species from abroad appeared after Shanghai opened its ports in 1843.
In October 1986, the magnolia beat out the rose, peach blossom, begonia and azalea in a public poll to become Shanghai's official city flower. The flower is said to represent enterprise, innovation and elegance.
Beginning in the mid-1990s, the city began landscaping elevated highways with winter jasmine, a practice later expanded to local streets.
Zhu Daoyi, a senior horticulturist with Jing'an District's greenery authority, was among the city's first street landscape gardeners.
The 52-year-old horticulturist studied flower arrangement with famous master Liang Shengfang, bringing an artistic vision to street landscaping. He has been tending the floral landscape of downtown streets near Nanjing Road W. for 15 years.
He and his colleagues plant and maintain over 500,000 flowers of 100 species in some 5,000 street-side flower boxes. The plants are replaced about seven times a year to ensure fresh seasonal flowers, Zhu said.
"We try to tailor the choice of flowers to the particular local characteristics of each road," he added.
For example, he chooses flowers in purple and pink hues for trendy Nanjing Road W. because those colors are currently global fashion vogue.
"We usually change the floral scenes every 500 meters along a single road to avoid aesthetic fatigue," Zhu said.
"More people are taking photos of the pot flowers and posting them on social media, which encourages me to keep improving the quality of the flower arrangements," Zhu said.
The greenery authority of Xuhui District recently set up a team to solicit public opinion on street flowers, said Zeng Jun, an official with the Xuhui greenery management office.
Public comments on popular social media apps like Xiaohongshu, Douying and Bilibili are collected and personal interviews with shop owners and residents conducted.
The tulips for the Normandie Apartments, for instance, were arranged for Spring Festival after public input was evaluated.
"Heightened interest in floral landscapes shows people are becoming more sensitive to the quality of the urban environment," said Wang Ying, director of the Xuhui Landscaping and City Appearance Bureau.
The tulips around the Normandie were replaced by pink hydrangeas as the tulips began withering, Wang said. The pot flowers will be refreshed every month with roses, carnations, peach blossoms and crabapple flowers, based on public input.
Professor Liu says restraint is a big factor in street landscaping. Extravagant flower arrangements can look "unnatural and require high cost and energy consumption," he explained.
Flowers and plants should have a natural look, Liu noted.
In 2016, Liu founded the Clover Nature School, a social organization dedicated to creating gardens in underutilized community spaces. During the pandemic, he encouraged individuals to cultivate plants at home and share seeds with neighbors – a campaign later lauded by the United Nations.
He said residents should focus more on often-ignored wild indigenous plants and flowers, such as wormwood, plantain herb and vetch, which have connections with the city's culture and history.
"Public attention to plants and flowers actually goes to the heart of a city's aesthetics," Liu said.