What you need to know
The privatization of urban renewal in Taipei has led to a proliferation of parks in name only — deficient in space and social and environmental benefits. Activists are fighting back.
“Green City” has emerged in recent decades as an attractive blueprint for sustainable urbanism. Simply put, the idea is that cities can be redesigned to support climate change resilience, reversing decades of aggressive urban development practices.
Yet high-density cities like Taipei are notoriously difficult to green. Thorny issues, primarily land scarcity and the ever-intensifying pressures of development, make the widespread creation of new urban greenspaces nearly unthinkable.
Taipei’s recipe for urban greening has so far been inextricably tied to a broader push for private-led urban renewal, recently promoted under the banner of “urban beautification.” This privatization of urban renewal was apparent in one of Taipei’s most controversial attempts at urban greening.
The 2010 Flora Expo was the first official international exposition to take place in Taiwan. Joining London and other world cities in using mega-events as triggers for urban renewal, the Taipei Beautiful scheme was launched at the same time, in an attempt to clear out abandoned buildings.
Under the program, still in effect today, property-owners are incentivized to demolish unused structures and build greenspaces in exchange for various forms of compensation. Incentives include awards of up to 10% of the Floor Area Ratio (FAR) for sites within strategic areas – along with exemption from property and land value taxes.
A flawed policy
In its review of the initiative, the URO announced the addition of 37 acres of greenspace, boasting carbon absorption capacities five times greater than that of Da’an Forest Park.
But these results are compromised by a little-known detail: these greenspaces are only required to be maintained for a minimum of 18 months, coinciding with the duration of the Flora Expo.
Once the wait is over, these may be demolished and replaced by profitable developments such as luxury high-rises.
This flaw led activists from the Taipei Metropolitan Development Research Center (TMD, 揪甘心) to sarcastically label these as “fake parks,” as part of a series of protests organized by collectives of young urban planners.
Having taken an active part in the protests at the time, Chen Ying-fen, assistant professor at Taipei Tech’s Department of Architecture, said that the inner workings of the scheme largely escaped public debate. “If there is no community involvement, no one is going to notice this initiative.”
Ten years on, many parks have been replaced with high-rises. Of the remaining ones, most go unnoticed.
This is by design. Many are found in incongruous places: on the corner of a busy intersection or slated in between towering high-rises. The dangers of constant traffic, lack of natural light, or unpleasant noise and air pollution detract from what is desired of a natural enclave.
With the only requirements for sites to display a green coverage rate of at least 70%, many developers have opted for low-effort approaches. The result is a mosaic of spaces that look green but deliver minimal environmental and social benefits.
Moves and countermoves: the promise of community-led planning
This urban greenwashing hasn’t only been protested against — it’s been directly confronted. The young urban planner collectives have in the newly built parks in acts of “Guerrilla Gardening.” Others, though, have sought to collaborate with policymakers in the hope of refining the policy.
The Roosevelt Road Green Line Axis project is recognized as the most successful attempt to reclaim some of the green space.
The project brought together the URO and Classic Design and Planning (原典創思), a professional agency renowned for successfully running participatory projects.
As a result, a network of grassroots proposals was brought to life along Section Three of Roosevelt Road. These included an upcycled rain garden, an ecological observation garden, an urban farm catered to the elderly and a medicinal herb garden doubling as a public forum.
The projects involved various organizations, from the Green Citizens’ Action Alliance to a permaculture association, along with the engagement of landowners in some instances.
“By creating relationships between people and the public spaces, we hoped that these places might become permanent, or that people would protest when it came to demolition,” Chen Ying-fen said.
This collaboration was later formalized with the launch of the Open Green Matching Fund program (打開綠生活) in 2014. Under this program, residents and communities are invited to propose plans to restore and activate abandoned spaces in their neighborhoods.
between 2014 and 2018, each receiving between 150 and 600 thousand NTDs in government funding. The strict regulations surrounding the use of these funds led to experimental projects that prioritized eco-conscious approaches over conventional ones.
With an intentional emphasis on themes such as sustainability, elderly inclusive design and innovation, the scheme set itself apart from the limited vision of the Taipei Beautification policy.
The success of urban greening strategies depends upon how well the needs of communities and local ecosystems are being addressed.
Yet, it is hard not to wonder whether these, be it top-down or bottom-up, are a diversion from the real issue: the ongoing loss of natural public spaces under a neoliberal economy.
“Our enemy was urban renewal, rather than Taipei's beautification strategy in and of itself,” said Ying-fen, reflecting on the broader stakes of the “fake parks” controversy.
To devise strategies based on alternative vision of urban space-making is to take one step towards meaningful, just and equitable urban greening.
The grassroots spirit encapsulated by the Roosevelt Green Axis project and subsequent schemes hold the key to the restoration of collective urban spaces via new forms of self-governance and collaboration.
This won’t be enough, however, until transparency is introduced where opaque decision-making processes silently dictate the fate of our cities.
TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)
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