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December 1, 2020

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New footbridge bonds man with nature and breathes vitality into regional development

Walking on a newly built footbridge in the shape of a flying ribbon last month, I felt I was anchored in a boat in the middle of a lake — a typical scene in ancient Chinese landscape paintings.

On both sides of the 600-meter-long footbridge are islets planted with trees and flowers and banked with large stones that leave space for the soil to “breathe.” Such “breathing” banks are conducive to water life and feature in many ancient landscape paintings, which show man’s harmony with nature, especially in the 14th-century masterpiece “Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains” — one of China’s most treasured ink-wash paintings.

The footbridge I sauntered over has opened to the public. Linking Shanghai and adjacent Suzhou over a turtle-shaped lake, it’s the first footbridge designed for “slow life” in the demonstration zone for integrated green development of the Yangtze River Delta region.

Last month I got permission from builders to have “a test walk“ half way through the zigzag steel-structured bridge, on which pedestrians could rest on benches shaded by trees and surrounded by flowers and various plants.

As I rambled from Shanghai to Suzhou, a young man walked past me from the opposite direction, led by two little white dogs on a leash. He also came from Suzhou to Shanghai for a morning “test walk.”

This kind of cross-border exchange was impossible for local residents in the past, as Shanghai and Suzhou, two economic powerhouses on the country’s eastern coast, were separated here by the Yuandang Lake, which spans about 13 square kilometers.

Someone from this part of Jiangsu Province who wants to travel to Shanghai would have to detour and ride for at least 40 minutes by bus or car. But now, with the footbridge, travel will be possible in a few minutes on foot.

Nearby, a newly built 4.5-kilometer-long road linking Shanghai and Suzhou across the lake opened last month, significantly reducing the time for motor transportation.

Linked by the new road and footbridge is an area of pristine beauty at the core of the future “parlor of a Jiangnan-style watertown” — a meeting place now being designed to revive and showcase the traditional Chinese landscape and architectural aesthetics, especially those associated with life in Jiangnan (regions south of the lower reaches of the Yangtze River). It will be a place of low-rise buildings, vast water areas and lush greenery where the earth can “breathe,” benefiting both the people and the environment. The skyscrapers and hardened river banks that define many a modern city the world over will yield to spaces suitable for pedestrians and plants.

Prior to the integrated green development of the Yangtze River Delta region — a national strategy implemented in 2018 — the islets on both sides of the footbridge were banked with hardened cement walls which harmed the health of the water. Some rivers that flow into the lake were clogged. Agricultural and fishery pollution is appalling. Due to administrative division between Shanghai and Suzhou, concerted efforts were lacking to make a change.

Environmental challenge

But with the progress of integrated development, the administrative barriers have been broken between different regions. The Yuandang Lake area has reinvented itself along the lines of traditional Chinese aesthetics as well as modern practices of sustainable growth.

Liu Feng, an official responsible for ecological preservation and construction planning, told reporters in a collective interview in October that all hands were on deck as the pump was used to clear the lake of environmentally unfriendly elements.

Hardened cement banks gave way to earth slopes stabilized by stones of irregular shapes between which the islets and plants can “breathe,” fishing ponds that polluted the environment yielded to wetlands, and wasteland was afforested or converted into shaded footpaths.

Compared with many other ancient watertowns in the Yangtze River Delta region, the Yuandang Lake area will be more pristine with less hustle and bustle. If you are a sailor or like sailing, come here and join a yacht club; if you like birds, herons abound here; and if you like running or cycling, here is the place.

The newly-built road and footbridge across the turtle-shaped lake and the attendant ecological preservation projects attest to an accelerated change of growth models in the region to put nature first.

Qingpu, the western district of Shanghai that borders Yuandang Lake, has done more than just help cleaning up the lake area. The Ministry of Culture and Tourism has just recognized Qingpu District — known for its myriad watertowns such as Zhujiajiao and riverside footpaths — as one of the country’s demonstration zones for all over tourism. About one-fifth of the 678-square-kilometer district is covered with water. Last year, a whole-district water park spanning 1.5 million square meters was completed.

Not far away from Qingpu lies Yaozhuang Town (in nearby Zhejiang Province), another core area in the integrated green development of the region.

In an interview late last month, I found it following the same Chinese aesthetics that give priority to preserving the natural bucolic environment in which future artists and innovators would come and live side-by-side with farmers.

Stephane Garelli, former director of the World Competitiveness Center at IMD, Switzerland, predicted in an interview with Shanghai Daily many years ago that China would continue to be highly competitive in economic growth while sprucing up its natural environment.

He said: “It’s very deep inside Chinese culture and expectations to have a peaceful relationship with the environment. I have a feeling that rediscovering the beauty of China is going to be very important, so that people will believe that, when China becomes more prosperous, it means a better quality of life for its people.”

Zhu Liangzhi, a professor of philosophy at Peking University, said the landscape painting “Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains” betrays the painter’s lofty ideal of portraying “a universe of life” rather than just a few concrete stones.

Walking along the now “breathing” banks of the islets in Yuandang Lake, I sensed an air of life beyond what I saw — the stones, the bridge, the trees. I felt vitality everywhere.

And it’s not just vitality of the Yangtze River Delta region, but of the entire range of the world’s third-longest river. Going forward, the “parlor of a Jiangnan-style watertown” will be a window into a greener Yangtze River that has and will continue to help nurture Chinese civilization, which values harmony between man and nature.


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