On arrival in Beijing, I was struck by the levels of smog and, with the city being virtually shut down for the National Holiday, I spent my first day looking for a park.
Beihai, the nearest to the hostel I was staying in (and one of the nicest parks in Beijing) was closed.
All of the former imperial parks were closed.
The Shicha Lakes, across the road from the Northern entrance to Beihai was open and in use.
People were resting in shady spots to watch the parades in Tian’anamen Square on their phones. Military music played out across the water.
A couple of hardy souls were wild swimming while families and groups of old men, seemingly ignoring the broadcasts, were working out in the green gyms or playing board games.
In the afternoon, having established that everything except the Drum and Bell Towers were closed, I set off in search of a park in a more residential area.
(The evening hostel discussion of daytime activities confirmed that nothing was open and everyone else had ended up there too).
I never reached the park. I got distracted. I found… the Second Ring Road. Does this girl know how to have a good time or what?
And, trivia fans… there are six ring roads in Beijing with the third being where central Beijing is considered to end.
Stand by… Public Health Geekery, incoming.
The Second Ring Road has a Greenway constructed alongside it for a distance of 35km. Linking with the river, this green space covers 100 hectares and the Beijing authorities have planted extensive coverage of flowers, shrubs and trees.
Their aim is that by improving the ecological environment, creating a comfortable and pleasant space for leisure, the city freeway will provide better services for people.
The intention is practically a Public Health manifesto: ensuring development is focused on human health and wellbeing needs.
The Greenway is described as an organic combination of the needs of citizens and green space resources to develop leisure, recreation and green travel – creating a people-orientated way of city construction.
Beijing has recognised that by incorporating Public Health principles with development, there are gains to be made for ensuring that the city is focused on the people who live there: emphasising the cultural charm of the capital, creating an international city full of character.
Both of these outcomes create the desired outcome for the city of creating further growth – through tourism and international investment.
The section of the Greenway I visited also linked with the Andes City Park, a small picket park heavily planted with beautiful flowers and featuring a number of insect hotels.
I did find myself wondering if the British government would provide the levels of funding required to create and maintain such a diverse array of planting.
Geeenways are in place in a number of British cities but not to the same level of formal planting.
Are formal garden displays necessary?
I do wonder if these ornamental displays encourage greater attendance? Is vandalism an issue? In Beijing, possibly not.
Both the park and the Greenway encourage physical activity with cycle/walk ways and play areas.
These spaces also provided opportunities for people to simply spend time in nature. I saw several fisherman, as well as artists and musicians practicing their instruments.
That was a little surprising – people practicing, dud notes and all, in a public space.
When I finally made it to Beihai Park, which is vast and like a painting from Chinese crockery, I realised that the Greenway (while learning from international best practice) has also taken its inspiration from China’s history and heritage to create a space that works here.
Over half of Beihai Park is water – the lake stretches over 1km from North to South. Its foundations were apparently laid by Kublai Khan (grandson of Genghis) long before any of the Forbidden City structures were conceived.
The lake is man made, an island created in its midst with excavated earth.
Throughout the Park are temples, some of them hidden off wilder rockeries – you pass through gardens and discover statues. There are secluded grotto hidden from the busier pathways.
Likewise the Greenway on the Second Ring Road is dotted with small sites of cultural heritage and by the river are balconies and shelters for people to sit in peace.