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  HOME > GARDENING COLUMNS > 2004 > IMAGINATIVE 'GREENWAYS' WELCOME VISITORS TO CHINA'S CITIES

  IMAGINATIVE 'GREENWAYS' WELCOME VISITORS TO CHINA'S CITIES

Imagine that it is early October and you are driving east on the stretch of Highway 212 from the County Road 40 turnoff to Carver to the Highway 101 turnoff to Shakopee. Then imagine that alongside the highway, covering 100-ft. swaths in both directions, perennial flowers are in full bloom between artfully sited stands of pine and spruce. Behind the evergreens, dazzling displays of red, orange and yellow leaves adorn the overhanging branches of maple, oak and ginkgo trees.

Imagine further that these meticulous plantings are watered every day with trickle irrigation and dozens of workers patrol the roadway and plantings every day, sweeping leaves and dust off the pavement and pruning plants to remove spent blooms and bent branches.

Believe it or not, that is the picture that greets travelers on thousands of miles of China’s freeways today.

During a three-week tour of China in October 2004, I witnessed postcard-perfect scenes like this along China’s roadways in more than a half dozen cities across the country.

I visually inventoried plants in two cities as I traveled by bus on several hundred miles of urban highways. Often, the highway plantings seemed to become more imaginative with each passing kilometer.

 

In the southwest industrial city of Chengdu (population: 12 million), I noted the following plants along the roadway, many of them in bloom: geranium, marigold, celosia, hibiscus, willow, calla lily, yucca, boxwood, palm, magnolia, oak, cypress, ginkgo, larch and poplar.

 

Two weeks later, along freeways in Shanghai (population: 12 million) I saw all the above species, plus juniper, shrub roses, pine, oleander (in bloom), tree lilacs, bamboo, crabapple, locust, viburnum, spruce, elm and red barberry.

These were just the plants I was able to identify at 90 km/hour. Many more unidentified species had also been worked into the attractive landscapes.

Several other factors add to the eye appeal of China’s “greenbelts.” First, the plantings are very dense; thousands of trees, shrubs and flowers are packed into every square kilometer of roadside.

Second, China’s landscape designs alongside highways take advantage of varying plant heights, plant bloom period, and contrasts in foliage color and shape. Attractive geometric patterns have been created by the imaginative spacing and clustering of flowers, shrubs and conifers.

 

When I visited China’s large eastern and central cities in 2000, freeways were just beginning to be planted with poplar trees. The obvious question is, why has China committed tens, or maybe hundreds, of millions of dollars to this beautification project? I posed that question to tour guides and never really received a plausible answer so I will speculate on the reasons.

First of all, there has been a total reversal in the government’s attitude about trees since the era of Mao Zedong, China’s leader in the middle of the 20th century. Chairman Mao declared war on nature and was responsible for a nearly total deforestation of China. Since the 1980s, the people of China have been encouraged to plant trees as part of their civic duty.

 

Another factor is China’s growing understanding that trees can provide a line of defense against the country’s environmental crisis that includes pervasive air pollution, dust storms, erosion, flooding and rising summer temperatures.

It is also obvious that China is working hard to encourage tourism and attract foreign investment. It is also mobilizing on many fronts to “put its best foot forward” as it prepares to host what it hopes will be the most successful Olympics ever in 2008. Since nearly every visitor headed for a city center from a China airport travels by car or bus, attractive roadways are an excellent way to create a good first impression.

I have traveled in 47 of America’s 50 states, yet I have never seen highway landscaping that compares with what I observed during my recent China visit.

There isn’t much about life in China that I would trade for our U.S. culture but the Chinese highway landscape model is one area where China puts the U.S. to shame.

I was a high school student when Lady Bird Johnson, wife of President Lyndon Johnson, championed a highway beautification campaign that resulted in at least some plantings along U.S. roadways. The program lost steam, unfortunately, as the Johnson Administration budget got diverted to the Vietnam War and other funding priorities.

Too often our Minnesota roadways consist primarily of quack grass and volunteer elm and box elder trees. Too few Minnesota towns and cities  – in fact, none that I can think of – invite people into their city limits with landscapes that delight the eye and say “welcome to our city.”

Such a landscape certainly would make the drive from Carver to Shakopee more interesting.


 
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