Young designers bring innovative ideas to community transformation

Across the city, residential complexes are changing the local landscape, with centers that promote interaction, provide expanded services and create people-friendly environments.

To many people who live in pigeonhole residential complexes, home is never beyond the threshold and quality community services are lacking.

In Shanghai, young designers are being tapped to change all that by proposing initiatives to transform use of public space.

In 2017, when decision makers at the Changqiao community in Xuhui District proposed to turn the 184-square-meter, second-floor terrace of its community center into a small botanical garden, the residents curled their lips and shook their heads.

In stepped Love Create, a nonprofit organization specializing in community design, seeking a viable solution. The result is a mini-farm, with 40 to 50 kinds of plants in low wooden boxes and pebble paths.

The plain windows of the terrace were turned into bay windows, and furniture with soft cushions was installed for people to talk, read or just bask in the sunlight.

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Residents care for plants on the terrace.

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A child reads a book on a bay window sofa inside the complex of the community center.

Shanghai Daily met Yin Weiying, a resident of the community, and her 13-month-old grandson at the community center recently.

“He likes to walk on the terrace, especially when there are butterflies dancing around the plants,” Yin said. “He also likes to play with other kids. This play area is far better than our community garden, where people are smoking and there is no one there to give professional advice on raising kids.”

The “professional” Yin mentioned is a child-education expert surnamed Yao, who has an office right next to the terrace. Yao calls the design of the terrace and the bay windows brilliant.

“It’s a nice place for children to socialize with each other, so they become less timid than if they played alone,” she said.

Up to 20 children show up every morning, and the number has been increasing.

The children often come with their grandmas and grandpas. The two age groups largely comprise the community’s demography during the day. On the same floor, there is a community’s senior center.

“The place is ideal for both old and young, and both enjoy the company of the other,” said Yao. “It helps old people conquer their feelings of loneliness.”

More than that, a small library is embedded in the sofa benches along the bay windows, and the aromatic plants on the terrace serve both baking classes for children and therapies for the old.

This is just a part of the 1,800-square-meter community center, with three floors, designed by Love Create.

Wang Rui, design principal of the organization, said she felt a drive to design better communities after giving birth to her daughter over three years ago. Her sentiments happily dovetailed with government goals.

“Initially, the government laid more emphasis on caring for the old, but then the idea evolved that a multi-function complex tailored to all residents was more desirable,” she said.

In Xuhui District, community centers like the one in Changqiao are being introduced to integrate and expand services. In the Changqiao center, for example, services such as a public kitchen, electric appliance repairs, legal advice and health care are available to residents.

“In designing for a community, a designer can’t be selfish,” Wang said. “These projects are much more interesting than the sleek commercial ones.”

Wang said the expertise of professional designers is crucial in the process.

“In one community center we checked out, there was a great sofa, but no one sat there,” she said. “Why? Because the sofa was too soft and had no arms, so it was hard for old people to get up from it.”

The new public spaces in communities are changing resident behavior.

“In some communities, people who have potted household plants used to shovel soil from public greenery areas, and their neighbors called them thieves,” Wang said. “So we taught them how to create leaf compost, and many of them ended up becoming community home-plant counselors.”

Also, when children created craftworks in an art workshop, their parents wanted to take the artwork home. Wang had a different idea.

“They use shared resources to create something, so we encourage them to share the creations, too,” Wang said. “You don’t have to take something home to own it. What you share with others can also be yours.”

Yang Fang, who founded Shanghai Tri-seeder Art Communications Co after graduating as an art student from Shanghai Normal University, engages with local communities through art.

By bringing residents of different generations together to paint walls in their communities, Yang said relationships are built and the age gap narrowed.

While the youngest are unafraid to lavish their imagination on projects, adults are more worried about the judgment of others in the creative process. Elderly people are often the quickest to give their opinions.

“When they work together on something, they are inspired and encouraged by each other,” Yang said. “We also find that the more residents are engaged in painting, the better preserved it is.”

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At East Yinghuayuan, a residential complex in Xuhui District, walls of a public utility facility house are painted with the motif of sakura. The name of the residential complex, "Yinghua", means sakura, and there used to be many sakura trees in it. The trees died out or were removed due to reconstruction inside the residential complex. 

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Residents show up to paint sakura flowers on the walls.

Yang and his colleagues are also designers of community life.

Last year, at East Yinghuayuan, a residential complex on Guiping Branch Road in Xuhui District, Yang’s team painted a story about garbage sorting on three surrounding walls. It showed members of different generations doing different things — such as eating fruit, cooking and changing batteries for a remote controller — and then throwing the various garbage into different containers. In the small yard, residents gather together to learn about garbage sorting and growing plants.

Just down his own balcony, Yang sees how paintings in a public space change people.

Yang’s team did paintings on walls at the entrance and exit of an underground garage in the residential complex where Yang lives.

“The e-bike riders used to voom their way out of the garage, and the walls at the exit were often scratched by their bikes,” he said. “Now they carefully walk the e-bikes out of the garage, and the paintings are undamaged.”

Wang Tianqi, co-founder and general manager of Shanghai Neverland Creative Design Co, a company also involved in community design, said communication with residents is important in eliciting their participation.

He and his team, joining Banliang Environmental Design Co, started to renovate and transform a discarded riverside warehouse in a residential complex in the Jiangsu Province city of Wuxi. Such derelict warehouses are not uncommon in many residential complexes there.

“They haunt residents, but no one had taken the initiative to do something about it,” Wang said. “When we arrived to change things, we had little support from the community.”

At the end of 2017, the designers turned the 600-square-meter space into a shared work space for designers and a public coffee house. Public opinion turned, and residents started to give feedback on modifications for the project.

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Some of the old furniture stored in the discarded warehouse is restored and used in the newly designed space.

“We learned a lot through the project, especially in effective communications with residents,” he said. “We have to become a part of the community.”

Later this year, Wang’s team is going to implement a rural community center project in Shanghai’s Chongming District to create a public space for the old and young in the village.

He Jingyang, chief executive of Love Create, said it could take five to 10 years for the redesign of residential communities in Shanghai, starting from the urban area and moving out.

“But still there is no end in designing our living environment, and in the near future, we will be looking more at ecological and smart elements,” he said.

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