Making room for nature

It seemed like a good idea at the time, but a group of Taipei residents are starting to second-guess their decision to build an eco-friendly park in their borough

By Vico Lee  /  STAFF REPORTER

Sat, Dec 28, 2002 - Page 16

The 5,700 residents of Taipei's Fujin Borough (富錦里) used to feel lucky living next to the 3,000-ping (9,900㎡) Fumin Park(富民公園), with its shady banyan trees that made for cool summer

evenings and its expansive meadow where children could play. In downtown Taipei, these were luxuries.

Then, four years ago, a plan began to take shape that would turn Fumin Park into Fumin Ecological Park (富民生態公園). It was based on a suggestion made by Lee Jin-shing (李進興), a producer of nature programs for local television. The plan went into action after Wang Wen-fu (王文甫), Fujin borough warden, briefed the Taipei City Bureau of Urban Development (都市發展局) on the plan's merits. Granted a budget of NT$30 million, the ecological park was to have a speaker's corner, a small playground, and most importantly, an ecological zone with two ponds and a small marsh to bring a little nature back into the city.

The park's remodelling was the first urban development project in Taipei to have been initiated not by city authorities, but by the residents themselves. The idea was so popular, in fact, that Taipei Mayor Ma Ying-jeou listed the project as one of the 12 major achievement of his first term. And borough residents themselves were so enamored with the idea that they were willing to wait two years -- two years without any park at all -- so that the lengthy redesign could be completed.

Mixed reviews

Many were not happy with the final result. Although some residents approved of it and volunteered to nurse the plants and insects in the ecological zone, others were appalled by what they saw once the final shape of the park became apparent in March. The days leading to the park's official opening on Jan. 1 have seen a heated debate over whether the park's new incarnation is a blessing or a curse for the community.

The park's ecological zone was made to simulate the marshy areas of the Red Forest (紅樹林) in Taipei County's Guandu Plain Ecological Park (台北縣關渡生態公園). Several species of butterflies, frogs and small fish were introduced into the park along with plants they could eat.

"This was the first ecological park in a heavily urban area. Unlike other [ecological] parks, there were many problems because ours was in the middle of a city. We had to build a natural environment from scratch. But I believe that as long as we provide the environment, the animals will come," Lee said.

The re-construction was not without its problems. "It's the first of its kind. So the government gave us little help because they were as inexperienced as we were. Ecological parks in urban environments are a totally new concept. I hope other communities will follow suit," Wang, who is currently seeking another term as borough warden, said. A photo of the completed park appears on his campaign flyer.

Much of the work to maintain the park is done by the community. Currently there are 67 volunteers who look after its natural areas. And these are still waiting to be trained in the art of ecological maintenance.

Elementary school teacher Wang Mei-yin (王美瑛) is one of the volunteers. Although she lives in another borough, she often takes her students to the new park to watch butterflies. "Now the park is more than a park. It's a botanical garden. Teaching the importance of biological diversity to children in the park is much more effective than teaching them inside classrooms with artificial models," she said.

Although the park received the Urban Planning Landscape award (都市設計景觀大獎) from the Taipei City Government yesterday, a petition signed by more than 200 residents is being reviewed by the Bureau of Public Works' Department of Parks and Street Lights. At the award ceremony yesterday, Peng Shu-lan (彭舒藍), a resident of the apartment building next to the park who launched the petition, led a dozen neighbors in a protest at the city hall to voice their concerns.

"We would rather give the ecological park to other neighborhoods. This is not the right place for it. We have too little space," Peng said.

For the birds

Although they support the park, Authorities admit it is far from perfect. "There are a lot of problems. The ponds are muddy and the water is stagnant. What we can do is clean up the place regularly, although that does not address the root of the problem," Lin Shin (林信), chief of the parks department's Yuanshan precinct, said in reference to flaws in the construction.

Another point of controversy is the designer's plan to attract migratory birds to the park. "I have not see one migratory bird in the park, and neither have my neighbors," Wang Lin-lin (王玲玲), who lives in the 20-storey apartment complex next to the park, said. Wang wondered why residents had to give up their leafy trees and green meadow for the marsh and concrete pond.

"For migrating birds to stop by a place, it has to have a fairly large area where they can keep at a safe distance from humans. Second, there has to be an abundance of food," Wang Huei-mei (王惠美), who has been volunteering at the Wild Bird Federation Taiwan (野鳥學會) for the past 15 years, said. "In an urban environment it's not impossible, but quite improbable that migrating birds will stay. There's too much human activity."

According to Wang, even the ecological area at Ta-an Park, Taipei's largest, has only one migratory bird; most likely one that's lost its way.

Residents also complain that the park's artificial hill, valley and cliff have bad feng shui.

"The old park was much better, it was simple, flat and contiguous. My granddaughter used to play in the park, and my friend and I would sometimes walk through it. I don't see anyone doing that nowadays," said Mrs. Chiu, a 70-year-old who lives in an apartment facing the park.

"Ecological parks are a very high-level thing. They meant well. We know that, but we cannot use the park the way we want," Chiu's husband said.

"Parks are for children and the elderly to go to. That's what parks are for. We have no use for an ecological park. It does nothing for us, and it's not pretty either," Mrs. Chang, Chiu's neighbor, said.

The park does indeed look rather plain, as the usual flowers have been removed to make space for plants that attract wildlife.

"It all comes down to people's choices between providing a place for nature or reserving it for themselves. It's also a choice between the place's educational function and its recreational function," Guo Chung-ying(郭瓊瑩), chairwoman of the Chinese Institute of Landscape Architects (中國景觀學會), said.

Electioneering

Addressing resident's complaints, Guo said: "Now that it's an ecological park, residents need to be informed and educated so they can look at the park from a new angle. They cannot keep on thinking of it as the park they used to have. For example, weeds should be gotten rid of in a [normal] park, but they are an integral part of an ecological park," Guo said.

According to Guo, it will take at least couple of years to get the park into shape. "It's about building up the whole food chain. In a city where there's interference from humans, this takes longer. Ecological parks don't happen overnight," she said.

While admitting that the park left much to be desired, Guo, one of the judges on the committee that gave the urban planning award to the park, defended those who planned it.

"We gave the award to the park project partly to recognize the courage of the borough office. It's difficult to manage an ecological park. They were the only ones who dared to. There will always be people blaming and pointing fingers before any positive results can be seen," she said.

The park's future depends on the outcome of the upcoming borough warden elections, scheduled for Jan 4.

"It simply cannot possibly be an ecological park. I will give it back its old face," Peng Chun-hua (彭春花), the other candidate in the borough warden race, said. "I'll get rid of the concrete and plant the trees back. What the residents need is a simple park where the children and the elderly can spend time."