The night owls are out in Shanghai parks as city green spaces open 24/7

Yang Jian
Park gates are no longer closing to the public at night, but the "city of 1,000 gardens" faces new challenges in increasing use of urban oases.
Yang Jian
The night owls are out in Shanghai parks as city green spaces open 24/7

People watch the sunset at Century Park in Pudong.

Shanghai, which takes great pride in its extensive network of parks, is now making urban green space even more accessible by allowing around-the-clock use and removing restraining walls.

The initiatives are part of Shanghai's broader vision of transforming itself into a "city of 1,000 gardens."

Making parks more accessible is becoming a trend globally. Central Park in New York, Hyde Park in London, Tiergarten in Berlin and Ueno Park in Tokyo have all extended open hours into the night as part of efforts to provide residents more access to urban oases.

Opening parks 24/7 dovetails with city efforts to nurture a lively nightlife culture, which attracts an estimated 3 million people – the most of any Chinese city.

On May 1, Century Park in Pudong will be fully accessible around the clock. The park, frequently called "Central Park," is roughly the size of 200 football fields, though half the size of New York's iconic park.

The night owls are out in Shanghai parks as city green spaces open 24/7

Gardens of spring tulips draw shutterbugs to Minhang Cultural Park, which is now open 24/7.

Local residents and visitors alike applaud wider access to city parks.

Marialyn Gatchalian from the Philippines said she enjoys peaceful moments sitting at night by the lake in Century Park. A British jogger, who identified himself only as Stuart, praised the park's 5-kilometer running track, which is popular with runners day and night.

Parks like Fuxing in Huangpu District and Zhongshan in Changning District have begun replacing walls with greenery, a move also underway in Heping and Luxun parks in Hongkou District.

"Have you visited a park today?" is now a frequent question on social media, where many advocate the concept of the "20-minute park effect," or spending a little time every day in a park, even without exercising, can greatly boost happiness.

"It is always beautiful to go to a Shanghai park and feel you are a bit in touch with nature and away from the hustle-bustle of the city," said Sharon Krohn from South Africa.

By the end of 2023, over 70 percent of Shanghai's 832 urban parks were open 24 hours a day. Thirty more parks will be added to this list, including Minhang Cultural Park, the largest urban park in the outlying district.

Starting this month, that park will remain open 24/7 to accommodate nighttime running enthusiasts and other night owls. However, the lake area of the park, deemed riskier at night, will maintain its previous opening hours from 5am to 9pm.

The night owls are out in Shanghai parks as city green spaces open 24/7

Heping Park's pavilions and central lake always draw a steady stream of visitors.

Keeping parks open around the clock has drawn some mixed reaction online. Most people applaud the concept, likening parks to "urban furniture" that should be utilized to the fullest without time constraints.

Others, however, question the necessity and practicality of such measures, citing low visitor numbers at night, potential security risks and increased management costs.

"Night-time park openings increase maintenance needs, energy use and security costs – all for a few visitors," said Hélène Zhang, a civil engineering postgrad from France. "Aligning park hours with Metro station hours would be helpful."

The Tongji University exchange student said she particularly likes Heping Park – its layout, lighting, cleanliness, amenities and Chinese cultural elements.

"Removing the walls there is a positive idea because it creates the illusion of a larger, more expansive park," she added.

The night owls are out in Shanghai parks as city green spaces open 24/7

Century-old Fuxing Park replaced its walls with greenery in 2022.

A survey of 310 residents around Minhang Cultural Park found that 13 percent of respondents visit the park between 10pm and dawn. A majority of respondents expressed support for the 24/7 open policy.

The park has added 18 surveillance cameras and hired extra night-time security guards, with thermal imaging for improved monitoring of hideaway spots. An electronic fence now surrounds the lake area, which is closed to access at night.

Springtime always brings large crowds to city parks, and warmer, longer days mean more are visiting at night.

Zhongshan Park, which extended access around the clock last year, has chalked up a daily average of 729 visitors between 10pm and midnight, accounting for about 3 percent of total visitors. A night-time jogging group forms the backbone of the park's late hours use.

At Heping Park, public activity begins picking up at 4:30am, when senior citizens start converging for morning exercises. The park has recorded foot traffic of about 1,700 people from 9pm to 5am.

The night owls are out in Shanghai parks as city green spaces open 24/7

A local orchestra that performs at Luxun Park is popular with the public.

Opening parks to wider access comes with added responsibilities.

Liu Ming, who joined Luxun Park as a security guard in late 2022, said the removal of walls has increased his duties, including noise abatement from early-morning exercisers and enforcing no-fishing rules in the park's lake. Controlling the distribution of leaflets, often containing scams targeting the elderly, has also become more challenging.

"Some fishers sneak in from the roadside," he said. "As for those handing out flyers, we can't force them out of the park at closing now."

Century Park faced additional challenges with daytime camping spilling over into nighttime after parts of the walls at Fanghua Garden were opened late in a trial last year.

"Some people entered after 10pm to try to set up tents," park staff Cao Liming said.

With Century Park open around the clock, staff are considering drones and robots for surveillance. More staff have had to be hired for upkeep and security.

The night owls are out in Shanghai parks as city green spaces open 24/7

Women do morning yoga at Heping Park.

The public popularity of parks and greater access introduce some issues related to maintaining a balance in park activities and nature preservation. Already, heavy park use has raised concerns about degradation of lawn areas.

Chen Anbing, a Frisbee enthusiast, found his pastime halted at Fuxing Park during the 2022 National Day holiday when an uptick in visitors caused accidents with flying discs and led to a ban on the sport.

Looking for other spots, he turned to Luxun Park but discovered that lawns there were frequently blocked by waist-high railings.

"The barriers on the outside of the park are gone, but now they're all over the lawns inside," Chen complained.

Professor Da Liangjun from East China Normal University warned that 24/7 access in some parks may disrupt wildlife and suggested "quiet zones" for its protection.

He recommended night access for high-demand areas be limited or even banned to preserve quiet in sensitive spots, like botanical gardens and zoos.

He also noted that parks can remain open without fully removing fences by enlarging or adding entrances, especially near residential or ecologically sensitive areas, where night access should be carefully managed.

The night owls are out in Shanghai parks as city green spaces open 24/7

Campers' tents fill a lawn at Century Park.

Zhong Lu, landscape architect director at the Shanghai Engineering Design Institute, said she views the removal of park walls in Shanghai as major progress, transforming the city into a vast, unified park.

Central Park in New York is seen as a benchmark for urban parks. Located among Manhattan's towering skyscrapers, it's more than a green retreat. It's also a center for cultural, leisure, and educational activities.

Over its 160-year transformation from simple green space to a renowned urban landmark, Central Park now draws over 42 million visitors each year, with 20 percent coming from abroad.

Unlike Central Park, which evolved alongside New York's architecture, Shanghai's urban development has largely involved the construction of buildings, parks, schools and residential zones in isolation from one another, leading to unique challenges when trying to unify them, Zhong said.

"Shanghai is starting a new chapter of blending green spaces with the urban environment – facing challenges but also making steady progress," she added. "The success of integrating parks into urban living hinges on collaboration between parks and the community."

The night owls are out in Shanghai parks as city green spaces open 24/7

A security robot patrols Fuxing Park, now wall-free and open all hours.

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