If this is The People’s Republic, Why is there no place for The People to play?

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My wife and I just bought a house in suburban Shanghai, about 45 minutes out of the city, and the move out here has only reinforced one nagging question I’ve had about life in 21st century China: if this is the People’s Republic, why is there no place for the people to play?

Particularly the little people, aka, children. When we lived in town we were not far from the Bund, and within walking distance of Renmin Park– People’s Park–more or less the Central Park of Shanghai (and oh how it pains me to even make that comparison) on the older side of town. We–my wife and our two year old daughter– lived on Suzhou Creek, a tributary that runs into the Huangpu River, in a splashy high rise with glorious views in every direction. Down in the basement there was a play area for kids. It consisted of a couple of cheap plastic slides and a little plastic kitchen. Just outside was a fairly sizable garden and a greenhouse where adults could walk or sit and read. But no play area. By the time my daughter was about one and half she seemed bored to death by the plastic slides and kitchen.

So we had one main option: walk over to Renmin Park, where, in China’s shining city, the very symbol of all that is allegedly good and great in the New China, they actually do have a nice kids’s playground: jungle gyms and swings and long, double twisting slides. The difference between this and public playgrounds in the US or Europe: they make you pay the equivalent of a dollar (eight Renminbi) to get in. Now for some people a dollar to get into a playground is obviously not a big deal. I’d be a little annoyed at having to shell it out every time we went, but it wasn’t the small amount that mattered, it was the principle. Why, in People’s Park here in the People’s Republic, were they charging a dollar so your kid could play? Because for a lot of Chinese, even in “prosperous” Shanghai, that’s simply too much. During the week in the summers, I’d take my daughter over to the park and often we’d literally be the only ones there. That wasn’t just because of the heat.

I figured when we moved way out to the suburbs things would be different. We have a small yard now, and in a few weeks I’ll put up swings and little play area for our daughter, but in the meantime we’ve been searching in this brand new suburban town–we’re just the second family to move into our little subdivision– for what I thought sure would be a nice brand spanking new public playground.

Wrong. There IS, let it be said, a nice, big new park, right beside a man-made lake, not far from where we live. And thankfully there aren’t even signs that say (as they usually do in public spaces in China) “keep off the grass,” so parents and kids fly kites, walk their dogs, run around and kick soccer balls, or just lie around and have a picnic–all the things, in other words, that happen every day on the Great Lawn in Central Park, but never do in Renmin Park. But there is no play area, per se, for little kids, and as far as I can tell so far, there actually isn’t one in this entire little town.

I’ve come to be slightly obsessed with this, and have pondered why, exactly, this might be the case. There are several possibilities ( and they are not, mind you, mutually exclusive):

1) In this, the capital of the New China, rapaciousness and greed rule. Real estate is by far the biggest–and has been the most lucrative–business in Shanghai. And there is no skinny–no money to be made–in wasting land. In town, land is meant to be built on, not “developed.” The Jiang Zemin clique who, until recently, ran Shanghai, apparently equated quality of life with the number of new high rises–not with green space or, god forbid, anyplace for a two year old to have some fun.

The problem with this theory: it doesn’t explain why there are so few play areas in the suburbs, like the one we live in now, where actually is a little bit of land that doesn’t have housing or office space either built already or soon going up. But there are no sand boxes, either.

2) I’m asking too much, too soon. China’s economic transformation is only 30 years old. This remains an intensely crowded, still poor country, even in cities like Shanghai. There simply hasn’t been the money, nor the time, for the government to worry about relatively trifling things like public playgrounds for little kids. (Much more important, for example, was the government making sure people didn’t HAVE too many little kids, aka the one child policy). Many public schools, moreover, actually do have swing-sets and jungle gyms on their grounds, but those schools (unlike, say, in the US) are usually walled off from the rest of the public. I once got tossed off an outdoor basketball court at a “public” junior high near our old apartment in town.

This is the case for a basic reason: if the playgrounds weren’t walled off they’d be overrun by people using them. My wife, a Chinese citizen and native of Shanghai, is sympathetic to this argument, and counsels me to be patient: when our daughter gets old enough to go to school, she’ll have a play area there. (To which I reply: one hour of recess a day isn’t really what I’m talking about.)

3) The Chinese conception of recreation–of play– is a bit different than American’s or European’s. This sounds a little bit high falutin’, and is related to possible reason Number Two (see above). The early 21st century caricature of this argument– part and parcel of the notion that China will soon take over the world, so we might as well get used to it– would be that little Chinese kids aren’t outdoors playing because they’re indoors studying mathematics, or computer science, or learning to play the Mozart violin concertos at age three. There is, I’ll concede, a sliver of truth to this. As a gross generalization , it’s safe to say urban Chinese kids spend more time indoors studying than their western counterparts. But my wife, while a dutiful student when she was a child, remembers growing up in Shanghai, and basically the only place she’d PLAY was inside, at home or at a friend’s or relative’s house. It’s just what people do, she says.

Fine. But would that have still been the case if there had been a nice public playground nearby? There are some public basketball courts in Shanghai now, for example, and even on the steamiest summer days, they’re usually packed with guys playing and waiting to play.

I don’t what the right answer is, and am aware that some cities in China are better in this regard than Shanghai (Dalian in the northeast, for example, seems to be a more kid friendly city than Shangahi). But I’m sufficiently intrigued (and annoyed) by this that I’m going to pursue it by asking some Shanghai city planners, developers and academics what the answer might be. I’ll let you know what I find. In the meantime, I’m going to go buy some playground stuff to put in our little yard, and hope and against hope that China’s Frederick Law Olmsted (the 19th century designer of New York’s Central and Prospect Parks, Boston’s “emerald necklace”, et al) , suddenly appears out of nowhere, and gets to work. — Bill Powell

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