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Community gardens dissolve private-public boundary, support governance

SHI YUNQING | 2020-09-09
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Community residents are gardening in the core zone of KIC Garden in Shanghai. The self-organization practice aims to increase residents’ participation in building community green space. Photo: SHPLANNING 


Unprecedented urbanization has supported china’s economic growth and social transition. At present, China remains in the key period of transforming its urban renewal model. From a spatial point of view, China initially focused on developing tracts of golden zones in old cities. It then began to construct gardens and university towns in the outskirts of cities as a part of mid-term expansion. Since then, China has focused on “micro-space building” in hutong courtyards and the “vacant spaces” of city centers. In view of the model, it has changed from market-driven demolition and construction and overall relocation in the early and medium term to the recent government-led multi-participant, co-governance and sharing model. This renewal transition has been epitomized in social construction and community building across the country in recent years. 
 
Embracing the challenge, municipalities have put great effort into searching for efficient ways to transform and modernize primary-level governance. However, most of the primary-level top-down social construction still lacks grassroots support, which becomes highlighted when society faces severe crises. Therefore, participatory public space building dedicated to breaking group boundaries is now in focus. Specifically, a family is often regarded as a tool for strategic development in the context of governance research. For example, in rural areas, the clan provides strategies for relation mobilization within political mobilization. The discussion of family research has always been limited to the abstract level, such as spreading the cultural tradition of integrating family and country and considering family tradition and family education in the process of governing. Overall, there is insufficient discussion of the role of Chinese families in social governance, leaving great potential for future discoveries. 
 
Community gardens and socio-spatial urban planning 
The rising popularity of the participative community garden has pushed “family” to the forefront of conversations about urban planning. The Knowledge & Innovation Community (KIC) Garden in Shanghai has been a pivotal community garden. Its space is based around nature education for children, aiming to mobilize community members of all ages and develop a co-creation community team (where groups of mothers played a central role). This could extend the role of “family” from the private zone to the public community and make the process of repairing the social fabric more humanist and inclusive. How to bring the “family” into public space and social life? How does the family's private boundary interact with the public? 
 
Firstly, in community gardens, social interaction is led by children, enhancing quasi-family relationships within the community. Initiators of the community garden have carefully identified the potential groups who may focus on natural issues in current cities, especially the social participation of “one elderly, one child.” On the one hand, programs, such as “balcony planting” and “community nature conservancy”, have a broad foundation in middle-aged and elderly populations. On the other hand, “nature education” and “green life skills” are popular among urban parents when they raise young children. Different from the traditional urban landscaping, the participative community garden contributes by leaving “blank space” when designing, using simple rules to encourage community engagement. Supplemented by courses on nature education in the garden environment, this garden provides a place for parents and children to play, work and study and promotes intergenerational coordination and support. Linked by planting activities in the garden, parenthood and grandparenthood which are normally confined to private family residences are extended to the community, constructing urban quasi-family relationships, and publicizing the intergenerational relationships to some extent. For instance, groups of “storytelling grandmothers” have formed, who read books for children in the community and “entrepreneurial mothers” who organize community activities. Women’s participation has spurred men, such as “fix-it fathers” and “photography grandfathers.” This kind of child-driven involvement of family members and enhancement of the quasi-family relationship have become the most important mechanisms for mobilizing participation. Different from other projects, it represents the characteristics of all-age involvement. 
 
Secondly, it is embodied as the production of public space directly participated in by the family. Those initiators of the community garden have also noted that urban residents are driven to create natural worlds on their own balconies, as green space in the city is inadequate. They proposed that the family should be used as a productive unit and brought into the production of community public spaces. They launched a “seed plan” and mobilized neighbors to build contactless “seed relay stations,” through which neighbors could share seeds, grow seedlings on their own balconies and then transplant them into the community garden. As a result, the space production and resource accumulation extends into the family, where the balcony provides a nursery and kitchen garbage can be used as compost. Family and community life are then gradually integrated by virtue of the plant growth. Within three months of the launch of the “seed plan,” many communities have responded, and it has even spread in Guangzhou, Tianjin and Shenzhen. The “seed posts” designed by residents are put in corridors and downstairs by unit or community entrances, delivery lockers and stores where the flow of people is concentrated. Seeds and seedlings are passed from private balconies to semi-private corridors and public space (other places in the community). All sectors in the community connect, and the boundary between the public and the private has been changed from complete isolation to an intercommunicated state. 
 
Finally, the garden reminds people of the social trust and collective memory, which are mobilized by family. The concept of family symbolizes family affection and trust, and family ties are strengthened when society faces crisis. Some mature community gardens provided a place for neighbors to exchange face masks, toys and objects when all major public places were shut down during the coronavirus epidemic. The garden itself surpasses the role of planting, instead it represents the foothold of trustworthy human-to-human relationships in a crisis. Moreover, family, which contains abundant memories and histories, could remind participants of personal growth and will foster common nurturing ideals for the next generation. High-speed urbanization and rising consumerism have alienated people and nature. The community garden provides the utopian color of an “urban countryside” and recalls growth memories of all ages. Young parents miss their childhood when they  run without restraint in the fields and play in the warmth of the city. The elderly recall the time when they were sent to the countryside to live and work in rural area during the 1960s and  1970s, or they might think of the hometown they left to raise their grandchildren. "Finding a place for children to get close to nature and meet friends in the environment of high-rise buildings" has become the nurturing ideal and has further developed into a cultural framework for mobilizing social members. This has promoted the development of a co-creation team led by mothers with the aim of enriching community activities. 
 
Resilient families 
The original private boundary of family has been broken down to a certain extent, and a social mobilization process mediated by family has been presented, which has expanded this concept in primary-level governance. For community life, the introduction of family participation has enhanced trust and intimacy within the community network, which is the essence of repairing the social fabric. This process has also improved the family's "resilience" as the bearer of the current burden of care, and strengthened the social capital that the family can use in the community. At the same time, a public space suitable for all ages also provides the conditions for publicized and socialized care in a broader sense. 
 
At present, the number of full-time mothers in the community has been increasing with the implementation of the comprehensive two-child policy and the rise of family education goals. Meanwhile, more and more grandparents migrate into cities and live there for a long time as they need to foster their grandchildren. These demographic shifts increase the amount of potentially active groups in urban communities. Family is the most private living space while the community is the most human public place. The construction of a community centered around family extends the benefits of private relationships into the public, making intergenerational activities a bridge connecting private and public areas. Therefore, bringing “family” models into primary-level governance has transcended the practical meaning of “family tradition” and “family education” and introduced a warmer but more powerful mode of societal participation at the primary level of urban social construction. 
 
Shi Yunqing is an assistant research fellow from the Institute of Sociology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. 
 
edited by WENG RONG