In the face of the COVID-19 crisis, cities around the world are re-evaluating the importance of accessible green spaces for the benefit of public health and well-being. However, Taiwan’s success in containing the virus might impede opportunities to transform its cities into greener, healthier and more resilient places.
Urban vegetable gardens have been highlighted by community planners worldwide during this wave of the green-space movement. Such gardens help enhance food security and also mental health, which in turn fosters social resilience in local communities during lockdowns.
Since 2015, Taipei has run the “garden city” program, which allocates vacant land for use as green space. It could be viewed as a far-sighted policy. However, the city is about to enact a plan that runs counter to this visionary approach.
“Happiness Farm” in Songshan District’s (松山) Fujian Borough (復建) was created seven years ago on a vacant lot owned by the Ministry of National Defense. It has become popular among residents as a place not only to grow vegetables, but also to meet with neighbors and ease the symptoms of depression.
The Taipei City Government has repeatedly held up the garden as an example. Its popularity and success continue to attract visitors — even from aboard. However, residents have always been afraid of losing it.
The garden is located in the city center, and the land is worth NT$2 billion (US$67.5 million). For this reason, the garden’s design is quite simple, using mostly inexpensive and temporary materials. Borough Warden Lin Kun-xin (林坤信) said that the ministry, as the landlord, was not happy to see the garden’s success, as it makes it difficult for it to reclaim the land.
Earlier this month, the doomsday scenario arrived. Without prior consultation with the community, the ministry told Lin that the garden must be cleared within three months to make way for social housing to be built by the National Housing and Urban Regeneration Center.
It is understandable that the city needs more affordable housing, but the appropriateness of the location and the decisionmaking process matters. It seems that the ministry and the center have already made an agreement, so residents have no chance to voice their opinion on the matter.
As there is a relatively high rate of vacant housing in Wanhua (萬華) and Beitou (北投) districts, it would be more practical to reuse or refurbish vacant properties to provide affordable housing rather than further increase the density of buildings in the city center, where green spaces are already scarce.
Among the strengths of the garden city program are its robust public-private partnership and the active public participation in shaping policy. It would be a pity to undermine this with such an abrupt decision. After all, it is always easier to protect an existing green space than to reclaim it later, especially in a densely developed city such as Taipei.
While the pandemic has catalyzed urban redevelopment, Taiwan is still behind the curve on rethinking the need for food supply and contact with nature in urban communities. It is also a critical time to consider what communities really need and who can decide what they have in their immediate surroundings.
Shih Wan-yu is an associate professor in the Department of Urban Planning and Disaster Management at Ming Chuan University in Taipei.
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