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    Urban forests ─ a unique resource for creating a better city for people

    Wang Yong
    Shanghai's master plan to "introduce forests into the city" means more forests are now accessible to the public, which has a positive physiological impact on urban populations.
    Wang Yong

    The sudden appearance of a bearded goat gave me a start as I was exploring a rural forest path in a lake area in western Shanghai on a recent Wednesday afternoon.

    I hadn't expected to encounter a lone goat ─ a stray goat indeed as I learned later ─ along the metalled path flanked by big trees, small shrubs and wild grass. After all, the path was part of an accessible forest which had taken shape only recently to give people more recreational space in the bosom of nature. It was not a farm path.

    The goat stared me straight in the eye, a long piece of grass hanging from its shut mouth. Before I could get closer, it darted away at a leisurely gait to keep a safe distance between us. Out of curiosity, I backstepped and hid myself behind a small office building before I quickly and quietly emerged on the far side to confront the animal again. Seeing that I was making faces at it, the goat apparently "thought" for a second and then turned around and pattered away from me ─ again.

    We repeated the hide-and-seek game for several rounds, and the goat got an upper hand each time by dodging me effectively while grazing on the grassland at ease.

    Urban forests ─ a unique resource for creating a better city for people
    wang yong / SHINE

    A bearded goat crosses a forest to graze on a grassland in a scenic spot in western Shanghai.

    In the past, I had met and fed sheep on my field tours in different villages. They all came toward me in earnest to see if I had food for them. One sheep, I remember, ate many leaves from my hands, not a bit afraid of me.

    I was wondering why this lone goat was different when a man's high-pitched voice broke the silence at a distance and caught me off guard. I turned around and saw a middle-aged man driving a moped toward the goat, yelling and waving at it all the way. In no time, the goat fled and disappeared into the dense forest.

    "Is it your goat? Why did you drive it away?" I asked the man, who was panting from speed driving.

    "It's not mine, it's from a neighboring farmer," the man replied with a grin. "It comes every day and I have to drive it away each time I see it, otherwise it may even bump into the window of our office building."

    Now I understood ─ in the eyes of the goat, the grass was indeed greener on the other side. The man, who helps maintain the scenic spot in the now accessible forest, explained that many types of grass had been planted recently to create a biodiverse environment, which naturally attracted nearby sheep.

    Urban forests ─ a unique resource for creating a better city for people
    wang yong / SHINE

    Newly paved pedestrian paths are now open to the public, enabling them to walk into a forest near Yuandang Lake, which encompasses both Qingpu District of Shanghai and Suzhou's Wujiang District.

    When I visited the lake area a few months ago, the forest was not yet accessible, as there was no pedestrian path to cut through the grand groves. Grass was not yet plentiful or varied, either. On Wednesday, I found that more pedestrian paths were being built deeper into the forest.

    The story of a stray goat in search of lush grass in a scenic spot attests to Shanghai's efforts over the past three years to reinvigorate an erstwhile lackluster landscape on its western outskirts. The place where I met the goat is inside a 6.2-kilometer-long lakeside area, many parts of which used to be segregated, dilapidated and closed to the public.

    After a three-year effort, this area in suburban Qingpu District, around Yuandang Lake which borders Wujiang District of Suzhou City in Jiangsu Province, became basically accessible by August this year.

    A recent report by The Paper, a leading Shanghai-based news portal, shows that about 7 kilometers of pedestrian paths had been added toward the end of last year, while the forest area had been expanded or otherwise improved.

    Urban forests ─ a unique resource for creating a better city for people
    wang yong / SHINE

    A group of young ladies walk in an accessible forest in which wild grass grow luxuriantly.

    Doses of sunlight

    At the same time, the 16.8-kilometer-long lakeside area on the Wujiang side has also been spruced up to become an accessible forest land. When I explored the Wujiang part of the lakeside area in October, I met a group of senior cyclists who had ridden all the way from Shanghai's Songjiang District. They said they started from Songjiang early in the morning, and would pass through the 16.8-kilometer accessible forest in Wujiang before returning home at dusk.

    One cyclist was in his 70s but looked much younger, with a suntanned face and a nimble readiness in mind and body. He said he had won several top awards in Shanghai's triathlons, including those held in Jinshan District.

    "You're younger but you have more gray hair than us. But don't worry, expose yourself more to nature and you will be better. This is one of the best urban cycling routes I've ever seen, and you could walk or ride here for a day to get the maximum benefit of sunlight and fresh air," he told me.

    His candid advice to a stranger like me reminded me of an article published in March on ScienceDirect, a world-leading website for scientific literature. The authors of the article ─ scholars from Shanghai Jiao Tong University and the University of Hong Kong ─ noted that urban forests afford opportunities for people to connect and interact with diverse nature in multiple ways, which consequently leads to a positive physiological impact on urban populations.

    Urban forests ─ a unique resource for creating a better city for people
    wang yong / SHINE

    Above and below: A group of senior cyclists from Shanghai's suburban Songjiang District ride in an accessible forest in Wujiang District of Suzhou.

    Urban forests ─ a unique resource for creating a better city for people
    wang yong / SHINE

    They wrote: "Many empirical studies have been conducted to test the physiological effects of different activities performed in urban forest settings, ranging from physical exercises (such as taking a walk, performing various sport games), social interactions (such as relaxing, meeting or chatting with friends), to nature-related activities (such as watching plants/animals, experiencing nature)."

    In short, they concluded, "Contact and interaction with nature inhabiting urban forests has been widely recognized as a beneficial component of visitors' physiological well-being, and the positive relationship between contact with urban forests and good physiological performance has been demonstrated to a considerable extent."

    That brings us to Shanghai's master plan to "introduce forests into the city." Earlier official statistics showed that Shanghai would expand its forest area by 40,000 mu (2,666 hectares) this year, following an increase of about 50,000 mu in 2022. Meanwhile, more forests are being made accessible to the public. A forest will "walk into" the city when people can walk into it.

    Not just the forests along Yuandang Lake, but those near my suburban home are being opened to the public. On Wednesday, Shanghai unveiled the first batch of 47 "forest villages," with Fangxia Village at my doorstep being one of them. In the village, a vast riverside forest which I could not enter just a few months ago is opening, with zigzag pedestrian paths now taking shape.

    Also near my home is Songze Village, home to an archeological museum recording Shanghai's history from about 6,000 years ago. Now the ancient village has opened its dense forest of firs.

    "It was inaccessible before," a middle-aged woman in the village told me on Wednesday morning. "Now I come here for half an hour's exercise almost every day."

    Shot by Wang Yong.

    In Dongshe Village, a walk in an accessible forest brings back childhood memories.

    Childhood memories

    An accessible forest has more to offer beyond just sunlight, fresh air and social communication. It may revive your childhood memories long lost in the hustle and bustle of urban life.

    When I ambled in a newly opened rural forest in Dongshe Village, located near Zhejiang Province, a vendor's vehicle and voice immediately took me back to my childhood days in the 1970s, when time passed slowly and life was simpler. The wares she was hawking were so familiar to me, like pillow sheets and vermicelli, which often spiced up my simpler life when I was a child.

    In many ways, rural open forests are a unique resource Shanghai can tap into when it comes to creating a better city for the people.

    On Thursday, local media in Shanghai reported that Qingpu District's 6.2-kilometer-long biodiverse belt along Yuandang Lake had just been selected as a model of the people's city.

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