Bringing trees back to Shanghai

Measuring the benefits of the urban forest – by speaking to people.

By Andrew Wilkinson and Richard Mullane with illustrations by Matty Kapeleri

The last decade has seen cities around the world invest in landscaping and tree planting programs of impressive scales.

For example, New York City’s government maintains five million trees located in the city’fs parks, streets, playgrounds and backyards. This urban forest’ generates measurable and much-discussed benefits.

New York City says that its canopy soaks up one million tonnes of carbon dioxide and three billion litres of stormwater. These trees also provide habitat to countless birds and animals, and increase property values in the city.

Each dollar spent on planting and maintaining a tree in New York City provides more than five dollars worth of benefits to the city.

Alliance for Community Trees

But what about the less quantifiable value of urban landscapes? Are there personal benefits? Do city dwellers form an emotional connection with their leafy neighbours?

In the distinct context of China, the dramatic immigration to cities there poses a different set of questions. Could green places help nurture new communities? Could more trees help people feel better connected?

Shanghai business owners who took part in our survey on nature in the city


By 2030, another three hundred million people will be living in China’s cities. This unprecedented, rapid urbanisation is occurring at the expense of air and water quality, and limiting residents’ access to natural environments.

China’s city governments recognise the need to address these issues to be competitive in the future. Liveability is now an important factor in planning decisions that must cater to a new generation of city dwellers and a rising middle class. 

Looking to expand its landscape character, Shanghai has committed to 35% green coverage by 2020.

Shanghai City Urban Green Space Planning of Shanghai (2002 – 2020).


Even China’s older and greener cities like Shanghai are setting ambitious targets to improve their green spaces. 

To explore the connection between nature and liveability in Shanghai, we did field research with global insights agency, Flamingo, to find out how Shanghai’s residents felt about nature in their city. 

Only 10% of people we surveyed in Shanghai could name a city park that made them feel connected to nature.

Hassell and Flamingo field research, 2016.

We surveyed people in their streets, parks, neighbourhoods, homes and via WeChat. We found that nature has always played an important role in Chinese culture, as a source of inspiration for Chinese wisdom. Trees themselves are metaphors for righteousness, longevity and nurturing.

They also play a central role in the identity of Shanghai. The plane trees of the historic Former French Concession area are iconic symbols of the city, like The Bund waterfront or the gleaming skyscrapers of Pudong’s skyline.

These hybrid Platanes hispanica’ – referred to as French Plane trees in China (faguo wutong – 法国梧桐) – were planted from 1902, and remain central to the identity of these historical Shanghai neighbourhoods today.


Most people we talked to had concerns with the quality and accessibility of public space in the city.

More than a third of respondents chose leafy Ferguson Lane as one of their favourite places in Shanghai, and the place in the city they most associate with nature.

We also found some consistent themes about what people want from nature in their city.

87% thought Shanghai wasn’t green enough
80% worried about air pollution
61% wanted better access to nature

As Shanghai continues to grow, green space was seen as an escape from the urbanity and congestion of the city.

Many people are craving simple, unpretentious relaxation, away from the rat race.

[Ferguson Lane] is one of the most beautiful places in Shanghai and walking under the canopy makes me feel so relaxed.”

Shanghai resident

The physical, mental and emotional health benefits of access to nature rate highly.

It’s great to do some exercise outdoors around 8 or 9 in the morning when it’s not so hot in summer.”

Shanghai resident

Respondents felt that it was trees and nature that made human interactions and meetings feel natural.

When people are living in a friendly and harmonious environment, they are more open to each other.”

Shanghai resident

People want access to greenery that feels dense, wild and natural.

Shanghai often feels inauthentic, overly planned and controlled, like a stage set.”

Shanghai resident

People want an immersive escape from the city, places that feel casual and authentic and make interaction easy and enjoyable.


These insights inform our projects in China, where we’ve been bringing nature back into urban landscapes and preserving natural environments around cities like Shanghai and Nanjing.

Our urban renewal project with the Hongkou District on the North Bund will reconnect people to the waterfront and parklands.

For Shanghai, we proposed planting two million trees for each one of the city’s children. The Huangpu East Bank Urban Forest would be a major ecological and social shift and a significant legacy for the future generations. It was also designed to be a place of endless delight and discovery for the people who live in the city today.

Creating and preserving these environments in China’s cities will let people reconnect with the nature they crave. And this liveability is critical for cities like Shanghai to attract and keep people from across China and the world.

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