THE BLOG

Taipei's Sustainable Urban Design

05/10/2015 02:43 am ET | Updated May 09, 2016

Michelle Peters discusses how Taipei's riverside park bike path system maintains outdoor green space and a symbiotic relationship with the natural environment, even in the midst of urban expansion.

It's a sunny Sunday afternoon in Taipei. The bike paths along the Xindian River are filled with large families out for a walk, runners sweating under the sun, and bikers decked out in head-to-toe Giant apparel. Baseball teams run onto the field for practice, tennis coaches drill players on their forehands, and young inline speed skaters whip around the track. Elderly couples take their pet dogs out for a ride, while others are returning home with baskets full of produce from the outdoor Fuhe Bridge flea market. One Taipei mother who recently started coming to the riverside park points to her two daughters nearby, "just practicing how to ride a bike."

Completed in 2011, Taipei's riverside park bike path system extends for over a hundred kilometers along the Danshui, Keelung, Xindian, and Jingmei Rivers. The park system provides residents with open space to exercise and enjoy outdoor activities, even in the midst of Taipei's bustling city center. According to the Asian Green City Index, a research project conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit, Taipei has one of the highest ratios of green space per capita, with fifty square meters per person, out of the twenty-two cities evaluated.

The riverside parks succeeds particularly in their use of land in Taipei. Taipei's geography should be looked at from two perspectives, "from the opportunity and... from constraint," explains Shuli Huang, an advisor to National Government Councils on Sustainability and Development and professor at National Taipei University. The Taipei Basin originally attracted settlers for its fertile soil and convenient transport on the Danshui River, but flooding has been a chronic problem. Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies professor Karen Seto believes that in regards to climate change and urban design, "flooding and protection of the city's infrastructure and inhabitants [are] of primary concern." The government constructed levees along the major rivers to combat such issues with flooding, but this in turn blocked riverfront accessibility. Furthermore, water pollution was a serious problem in Taipei's rivers until about ten years ago. "Many buildings along the rivers," Huang explains, "are still not facing... the river, but the backside is toward the river," hinting that the river was simply seen as a place to dump sewage.

However, with the construction of a new sewage plant and the riverside parks, Taipei's rivers have once again become a valuable resource. Chienyuan Lin, deputy mayor of Taipei from 2008 to 2010, states that the government's purpose in constructing the riverside parks were manifold. "In addition to providing leisure space for citizens, it is also bundled with the purification of Danshui river and other rivers." To go along with the 2010 Taipei International Flora Exposition, "landscape beautification and greening of urban spaces were also promoted," Lin adds.

Before the construction of the riverside paths, bikers did not have adequate space to enjoy sports in Taipei other than biking on the street. One frequenter of the riverside paths believes that having such outdoor space is important "for physical health and alleviating pressure." Even for those who do not take sports quite as importantly, the parks provide a space for gathering with friends and enjoying the outdoors.

From a cultural perspective, Taipei has done an excellent job providing space for recreation, but from an ecological perspective, problems remain..Huang believes that the high ratio of green space in Taipei can mainly be attributed to the surrounding hill slope and therefore do "not really penetrate into the urban area except the urban waterfront." "Taipei should really have some symbiotic relations with the surrounding ecosystems" especially when considering future growth, Huang argues. He refers to the Guandu Plain as an example. Although Guandu has a nature preservation area for bird watching, the rest of the plain is mostly abandoned with only some agricultural practice and Huang therefore believes "it's not a very efficient use of land."

When it comes to sustainable development, Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies professor Gordon Geballe believes that "the hardest ecological, or maybe philosophical, principle to remember is change." While there is still progress to be made, Taipei's successful ventures, including the construction of riverside parks and the implementation of YouBike, a citywide bike sharing system, reflect that urban development and design in Taipei certainly embrace positive change for the city. In 2016, Taipei will hold the honor of World Design Capital, an initiative sponsored by the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design. With the theme "Adaptive City - Design in Motion," Taipei will focus on current development issues the city faces and how both government officials and citizens can employ "design thinking" to improve the quality of life in Taipei. With the spirit of the World Design Capital initiative and a new city administration eager for change, Taipei undoubtedly can continue to be an innovator and a leader in sustainability and urban development. As many countries across the globe experience high urbanization rates that are predicted to be on the rise, perhaps Taipei can provide for inspiration on creative approaches to maintaining outdoor green space and a symbiotic relationship with the natural environment, even in the midst of urban expansion.

Michelle Peters is a junior at Yale University in Morse College. Contact her at michelle.peters@yale.edu

This article also appears in China Hands.