Hongxu Garden with volunteers working in the distance.
Hongxu Habitat Garden Volunteers and community members enjoying the Hongxu Habitat Garden © Dong Dazheng

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A Place for Nature in Shanghai

Volunteers in Shanghai, China are carving out refuges for wildlife and people in the heart of the city, improving biodiversity and climate resilience.

By Heather Sisan

On a typical morning, the streets of Shanghai—China’s largest city—resound with the rumbling of cars and trucks, bicycle bells, music, and human voices as 25 million residents hurry from home to work, school, or other destinations. The densely crowded streets are often snarled with traffic, and in summer the heat can be intense. Like other major cities around the world, Shanghai also suffers from air pollution. But here, residents are working to ease some of the stress of city living by carving out refuges for wildlife—and people—in the heart of the city.

In partnership with local volunteers and others, The Nature Conservancy is helping create habitat gardens across the Changning District. Landscaped with native plants, these pockets of greenery offer benefits for all the city’s residents. They are designed in close partnership with the community and created with the active participation of residents.

Two volunteers maintaining a raised bed in a habitat garden.
Hongxu Garden Volunteers work in the Hongxu Habitat Garden in raised garden beds. © Bo Yang

Small Garden, Mighty Impact for Biodiversity

Many of the gardens are just a few hundred square meters in size, but even such small refuges offer value. They help to soak up air pollution, cool the air on hot summer days, and capture excess water during storms to prevent flooding. Some of the gardens grow food that people can eat; others merely offer residents a respite from heat and stress. Even the smallest gardens are magnets for birds, butterflies, frogs, and other wildlife. They also provide food and shelter for migratory bird species that use them as vital stopovers when they cross the city.

The first habitat garden was built in 2018 inside Chuangzhi Garden, a community garden in the Yangpu District. TNC and the local nongovernmental organization Clover Nature School transformed part of the location from a construction waste site to a 60-square meter habitat garden within the larger complex. At the garden’s launch, TNC organized learning and volunteering activities that drew 300 participants. Since then, 24 species of birds, frogs, and butterflies have been recorded in the habitat garden. A series of activities at the garden helped residents appreciate its value.

Two people collect observations in a notebook.
NATURE LAB Volunteers document their experience at the Chuangzhi Habitat Garden. © Dong Dazheng
An artistically painted sign depicting the water cycle.
THE WATER CYCLE A painting helps communicate the importance of the habitat garden in making the city more resilient to environmental pressures. © Karen Tharp

From rubble to urban micro-renewal

The second garden project, completed in November 2019, was the 450-square meter Hongxu habitat garden. This site was once a storage site for rubble and garbage but now features native plants and ponds, vegetable gardens, children’s play areas, and a pavilion. The Hongxu community is known for its commitment to urban micro-renewal, uses permeable pavement, and is a leader in garbage classification, composting, and recycling. Volunteers maintain the soil in the garden using kitchen compost. The Hongxu garden functions as an important example of how to integrate nature into a community.

Four images of the trashed lot before the habitat garden.
Hongxu Habitat Garden Before The before photos of the storage and rubble area that was transformed into Hongxu Habitat Garden. © Dong Dazheng
An after view of the Hongxu Habitat Garden with painted mural and pond.
Hongxu Habitat Garden After The Hongxu Habitat Garden in Shanghai, China. © Dong Dazheng

The collective value of Changning's gardens

In 2021, with promotion and assistance from TNC, seven new gardens were constructed in the Changning District. Although many of the sites are very small, these tiny islands of greenery create an archipelago of wildlife habitat throughout the city. The volunteers who help maintain the gardens use few or no pesticides and fertilizers and focus on planting native species. At some of the sites, local university students are monitoring biodiversity; volunteers also assist with wildlife monitoring.

The gardens have already hosted community events and exhibits, with support from local partners. For example, in June 2021, volunteers celebrated World Environment Day by repairing and creating new “bug hotels” at the Hongxu Habitat Garden to attract beneficial pollinators. The gardens also inspired the Lego Habitat Garden Exhibition, which ran from November 2021 to January 2022, featuring plants, insects, and animals built out of Lego to bring attention to the importance of nature in the city.

The gardens have already hosted community events and exhibits, with support from local partners. For example, in June 2021, volunteers celebrated World Environment Day by repairing and creating new “bug hotels” at the Hongxu Habitat Garden to attract beneficial pollinators. The gardens also inspired the Lego Habitat Garden Exhibition, which ran from November 2021 to January 2022, featuring plants, insects, and animals built out of Lego to bring attention to the importance of nature in the city.

Hongxu Habitat Garden

The transformation of an abandoned lot made space for community life, both human and wild.

Daurian redstart on a branch.
Illustrated image including a pond, bee houses and garden beds built from Legos.
A view of the garden from the west side with raised garden beds.
A group of fifty plus volunteers pose for a picture in the garden.

How Shanghai's 2035 plan prioritizes nature

The gardens are an aspect of Shanghai’s 2035 master plan, which aims to make Shanghai one of the best cities in the world on measures like carbon emissions, tree cover, and water quality. By filtering pollutants from the air and water, these communal greenspaces make Shanghai more resilient to the impacts of climate change. They are home to more than 400 species of native plants and provide habitat for more than 40 species of urban wildlife.

TNC has been doing this work in Shanghai along with local organizations, government, communities, and universities, and with funding from Carrier Corporation. To date, nine habitat gardens have been built, eight in the Changning District and one in the Yangpu District, with eight new gardens to be constructed in 2022. The city has a goal to create 30 more habitat gardens by 2025.

For Shanghai’s residents, urban stress is a part of daily life in the world’s most populous city. But making nature an integral part of the city can go a long way toward improving their quality of life—and that of the wildlife sharing the city with them.