Local communities in Beijing write to government to promote nature in new park design

Nearly 400 individuals, along with three schools representing more than 2,500 students have written a letter to the Beijing government to ask for a new park to be designed not only for people, but also for nature.  A wonderful initiative that has the potential to change attitudes about the design, and purpose, of urban parks.

What do people want from a park?  The conventional wisdom in Beijing is that local residents want somewhere “beautiful to look at, neat and tidy”.  Anyone who has enjoyed one or more of the city’s parks will have noticed that they are certainly neat, tidy and well-maintained, with an army of workers collecting litter, tidying up dropped leaves, spraying insecticide and strimming any vegetation more than a few centimetres high.  But what does this meticulous management mean for wildlife?  In most cases, although many parks provide temporary shelter for migrant birds during spring and autumn, Beijing’s parks are generally wildlife-deprived.  There are signs that this may be about to change.

As reported earlier, the government is planning to pilot the idea of leaving “10% wild” in some existing parks.  If successful, this pilot could be expanded to cover more of the capital’s green spaces.

And, as part of Beijing’s ‘greening’, the government is planning  a series of new parks on the outskirts of Beijing.  One such park is being planned along part of the Wenyu River, a well-known birding spot, an important habitat for wintering waterbirds, and a corridor for migrants in spring and autumn.  In total, more than 300 species of bird have been recorded along the river, including endangered species with Class I protection in China, such as Scaly-sided Merganser and Yellow-breasted Bunting.   Parks in the capital are traditionally designed by landscaping companies with little understanding of the needs of wildlife.  Fortunately, in the case of the Wenyu River park, the local government has invited Peking University and Beijing Forestry University to provide advice on how to make the new park better for wildlife.  Several suggestions have been made, including using a ‘zoning’ system for activities such as fishing and recreation in order to ensure some areas are relatively undisturbed. 

The academics working on these proposals suggested that a letter from local residents to make it known that they would like their park to be designed not only for human leisure but also for wildlife, would strengthen their case. 

A few weeks later, the letter below has been submitted to the Director General of the Beijing Forest and Parks Bureau and the local governments of Shunyi and Chaoyang Districts (the river marks the border of these two districts and the park will include land on both sides of the river).  The letter has been signed by three local schools, representing more than 2,500 students, and nearly 400 individuals.

2021-03-30 Letter to Beijing Municipal Goverrnment

The hope is that the letter will demonstrate to government that the traditional view that people want parks to be places solely for human recreation is out of date and that, in a modern global city, people want their parks to deliver multiple benefits, including supporting and nurturing wildlife.  

Changing attitudes takes time but, with 190 countries due to meet in Kunming, Yunnan Province, in October to thrash out a new international framework to tackle the global biodiversity crisis (the 15th Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, commonly known as COP15), it is clear that governments – both national and subnational – business, and indeed all of society will need to integrate biodiversity considerations into their operations if the world is to be successful in slowing and halting biodiversity loss.  The role of cities, home to more than 50% of the world population (expected to increase to 66% by 2050), is vital not only in terms of supporting urban wildlife and providing safe spaces for migrant birds to navigate large urban areas, but also to allow the increasingly disconnected urban population to connect with nature.  

We await the response of the Beijing Municipal government with interest. A huge thank you to everyone who signed and promoted the letter.  It is wonderful to see the overwhelming support from local residents for Beijing’s public parks to put the interests of wildlife at the heart of their design and management.

 

Title image: a river providing space for people and wildlife by Madeleine Donahue

New hope for Miyun Reservoir

Miyun Reservoir is Beijing’s largest and most important drinking water reservoir.  Until public access was forbidden in 2016, this site was the premier birding site in the capital, providing wonderful habitat for a range of waterbirds, including important numbers of cranes (incredibly, seven species – Common, Demoiselle, Hooded, Red-crowned, Sandhill, Siberian, and White-naped – have been recorded here) and the surrounding scrub attracted thousands of passerines in winter, including the first records of the endangered Jankowski’s Bunting in the capital for 75 years in the winters of 2015/2016 and 2016/2017. 

Miyun Reservoir is a spectacular site and an important stopover for many waterbirds.
Miyun Reservoir has the potential to be a world-class wetland reserve, including for many species of crane, such as these White-naped Cranes.
A small wintering population of the endangered Jankowski’s Bunting was found by young birders Xing Chao and Huang Mujiao in January 2016 and they returned the following winter. Unfortunately the area they favoured was cleared and replaced with trees.

Sadly, after a fire in the area, the vegetation was ripped out and replaced with trees, a disaster for wintering passerines and making the area no longer suitable for cranes and other large birds such as Great Bustard.  

After some conversations with the government about England’s experience of managing its largest reservoir for water quality and wildlife, in 2019 the Beijing government invited Tim Appleton, former manager of the Rutland Water Nature Reserve, to Beijing to meet officials and share his experience.  That visit took place almost exactly a year ago.  

We knew that change would not happen overnight but it is heartening that, a year on, I can report some progress. 

September 2020 marked the 60th anniversary of the reservoir’s creation, prompting President Xi Jinping to write a letter to local residents to thank them for protecting the capital’s most important water source.  Sparked by that letter, the Beijing government convened a meeting to discuss how the reservoir should be managed in future.  I was honoured to be invited and to present my ideas about how the reservoir could be managed for wildlife as well as water, explaining how important the site is for migratory and wintering birds, including the occurrence of important numbers of cranes and other waterbirds, as well as the records of the Jankowski’s Bunting (of which they were unaware).  Miyun Reservoir had the potential to become a world-class wetland reserve, boosting the local economy and improving Beijing’s image in the process… and with China hosting the important meeting of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity in 2021, what better time to show how Beijing was making its contribution towards stemming biodiversity loss?

I was one of eight people in the meeting with government officials, with most of the others promoting forestry-related ideas.  Although there is surely a role for forests and tree-planting, it would not be appropriate, and in fact would be detrimental to many migratory birds, to manage the site solely for this purpose.

The result of the meeting was the formation of a “Working Group” to develop proposals.  I was honoured to be invited to join and we are planning our first field visit to the reservoir in late October.  

We are still a long long way from securing any management changes that may be beneficial to wildlife but it is heartening to see an openness to ideas and I feel there is a genuine chance to influence the way ahead, especially with China hosting the UN conference on biological diversity, meaning biodiversity issues are probably higher on the agenda than ever.

I want to put on record my thanks to Tim Appleton for visiting Beijing in 2019 and for encouraging those first steps.  I’d also like to thank Madeleine Donahue for providing the wonderful illustration at the top of this post, showing how the reservoir could be managed in future – for water, for birds and for people.

Watch this space!

 

 

Title image: an artist’s impression of how Miyun Reservoir could be managed in future – for water, for birds and for people.  By Madeleine Donahue.