Wangnan Park is a pilot urban rejuvenation project in Jiahe District located in the North of Guangzhou city. The new pocket park squarely addresses the pressing issue of public space renewal in the ‘urban villages’ of Chinese cities. The former villages, which have become densely populated urban enclaves within the ever-growing outskirts of Chinese metropolises, are challenged not only by the lack of public urban spaces but also by the loss of cultural identity and character. The project aims to maximize the urban identity by minimal urban intervention. It preserves and extends the existing cultural square and transforms it into a new meeting place for the community. To achieve this goal, the design process had been equally important as the built result. Public participation, workshops, and open forums guided the design from initial idea finding to models and further throughout the construction stage. Today, Wangnan Park is a place for all and the cradle of a new Wanggang community spirit.
China’s rapid urban growth and city expansion created a new phenomenon in Chinese cities: ‘urban villages.’ Villages and small townships – originally dispersed in the outskirts of the city center – became a part of the larger city proper. While the city grew around them, the villages themselves largely remained unchanged. They became enclaves in the urban fabric surrounded by new urban development areas and infrastructure networks connecting the former periphery with the city center and adjacent districts.
China’s urban villages of today are largely characterized by high-density low-rise housing and a lack of public urban spaces.
Their social fabric represents a mix of former villagers and new residents from across China. While the population of former villagers is aging and in decline, the influx of new residents, predominantly young families and couples seeking work opportunities in the prospering city are increasing.
It is exactly this patchwork of new urban development areas and former villages which defines the periphery of Chinese cities in many parts of the country today. Baiyun district in the north of Guangzhou is an example of this new patchwork city. Jiahe subdistrict in Baiyun alone compromises a total of nine urban villages, with Wanggang village being the largest and most well-known of them.
The history of Wanggang village originates from the famous Li family. Their descendants still form a prominent group in the village, next to a rising population of young couples and families who are newcomers to the village. While the older generation of villagers carries on the heritage and characteristic culture of the original village, the new generation of residents is less connected to the origin of the place and has different expectations of public urban spaces.
With the limited public space available in the densely populated village, the challenge to unite and heal these conflicting interests and demands on public space became paramount in our design. The Wangnan Park is a space for all, designed by all. It aims to bring the community together and strengthen the identity of the place. In this respect, we considered the design process to be equally important as the design result. Public participation, open forums, and workshops became the cornerstone of the success of the project. Right from the start, the project initiated a vivid dialogue within the village community, as it still happens today when neighbors unite and enjoy the new outdoor spaces at Wangnan Square and Park.
More than anything, the transformation of the former ancestral hall square in the new Wangnan Park is a process of dialogue and extensive consultations with the neighboring community and stakeholders. Various on-site visits, interviews, questionnaires, and local workshops guided the design process throughout all project stages. As a first step, residents could share their expectations of public open spaces in their neighborhood. Initial models were issued, discussed at neighborhood forums, adapted, and revised. The implications of the new design were illustrated and tested with local stakeholders on-site. Tree protection was closely monitored by the neighborhood committee, and not one tree was lost or damaged during the refurbishment of the square. Divergent expectations when they arose were united by design in one plan shared by all.
This mode of collaboration between designers and residents was never paused or stopped. Still, during the construction stage, the people of Wanggang meticulously followed the renovation progress. New comments were made, evaluated by the design group, and incorporated in the detailing and finetuning of the park design.
The original site encompassed a small square with a lotus pond in front of Wanggang’s ancestral hall. The square had been in a neglected state for years. While located at the core of the neighborhood next to the main place of worship, the square itself was underutilized. Litter covered the place, the service facilities were run down, and the pond edge and walkways were depilated.
With the projected refurbishment of the village center, the district government took the initiative to not only renovate the former temple square but to extend the square with a small parkland to the north. The connections into the side alleys were widened and renovated. Today, the small and elongated 6000-square-meter pocket park forms the core of the neighborhood and combines ancestral worship with daily recreation and informal sports.
During the early Ming Dynasty, the Jingzhao Li family moved to Wanggang village and subsequently defined the history of Wanggang in the following centuries. The inscription stone at the entrance of the ancestral hall, among others, praises the great Qing Dynasty calligrapher Li Zhanzhi, a descendant of the Li family. His work became the source of inspiration for the detailed design of the shaded walkway around the central pond. The design team deconstructed the famous calligraphy piece of Zhanzhi, identifying the singular brushstroke components and re-assembling them into structural elements of the walkway and pavilion. Furthermore, the arches and brickworks of the ancestral hall were decomposed and incorporated into the pillar design of the pavilion. The pavilion itself takes on a modernist and minimal shape. It references local culture through structural details and the rhythm of opening and enclosure as in classic Chinese garden pergolas.
Today, Wangnan Park has become an urban living room for the neighborhood. Elderly, families, and young residents mingle in the shade of the trees and the walkway to relax and chat or to exercise and play. Weekend markets are held here, and festivals and celebrations take place on special occasions. The small northern extension of the square serves as a most welcome place for informal sports and play activities. Challenged in the past by litter and vandalism, the new park today shines every day. It has become the new centerpiece of the neighborhood which everyone cares about and maintains.
The Landscape Renovation of Guangzhou Wangnan Park
Landscape design: Guangzhou S.P.I Design Co., Ltd
Image and Text Credits: Guangzhou S.P.I Design Co., Ltd