Dr. Yuelai Liu

Dr. Yuelai Liu, Associate Professor at Tongji University’s School of Architecture and Urban Planning, Director of the Experimental Center for Community Garden and Community Creation, Co-founder & Director of Shanghai Clover Nature School Teenager Nature Experience Service Center. Additionally, Dr. Liu is a member of the Party Group and Deputy Director of the Urban and Rural Planning Administration of Urumqi City. He is dedicated to the teaching, research and practices of landscape planning, community garden, community planning and has been utilising community gardens as experimental bases for participatory planning and community autonomy on landscape construction, and facilitating grassroots community autonomy within diverse governance mechanisms in Shanghai.

Dr. Liu and his team have assisted in the construction of over 260 community gardens in different districts of Shanghai, supporting more than 1200 mini-community gardens run by residents and organizing over 1500 community gardens and community construction workshops. Their approach integrates design, construction, management, and education, contributing to local network construction and international cooperation, while continuously exploring sustainable urban and rural spatial development and innovative public participation models in China.

In recognition of his contributions, Dr. Liu was awarded the inaugural Sanlian City for Humanity Award in 2021. Projects he has been involved in, such as the KIC Garden & Herb Garden, the Community Garden Green Participation Network, Shanghai SEEDING, and the Dongming Participatory Community Planning Experiment, have been included in the “Shanghai Manual: A Guideline for Sustainable Urban Development in the 21st Century” jointly published by UN-Habitat, the International Exhibition Bureau, and the Shanghai Municipal People’s Government in 2017, 2018, 2020, and 2021 respectively.


According to Jane Jacobs, residents need to extricate themselves from the passive receipt of services and take proactive actions to build and maintain their own spaces. Therefore, encouraging individual autonomy and self-service consciousness can enhance the ability to cope with future risks, gradually evolving into resilient social networks. In this issue, we engage in an in-depth dialogue with Associate Professor Yuelai Liu from Tongji University, discussing how “community gardens” can organically integrate urban and agricultural elements, promote community self-governance through self-organized grassroots efforts, establish “governed landscapes”,  cultivate healthy lifestyles, and enhance social wellbeing.

Urban agriculture serves as an incubator for humanism, nurturing a spirit of communal cooperation and advancing community self-governance through the collaborative allocation of unused land and the integration of both ornamental and productive features in design.

1. What is community self-governance? Why did you choose “urban agriculture” as the vehicle for community self-organization, and promote it initially in Shanghai?

Firstly, this is closely related to my educational and professional background. After graduating from my undergraduate studies, I joined a design institute where landscape design emphasized the approach of large-scale and high-efficiency. This not only consumed tremendous resources but also failed to align with the genuine living needs of people. Later, my research focus of my master’s and doctoral studies shifted towards landscape governance. Through studying the dynamics of power capital and landscape spaces, I began to explore new production methods of landscape, emphasizing the involvement of space users in decision-making and planning processes. Eventually, I recognised agriculture as a pivotal aspect of spatial production, and community gardens could serve as a starting point for realising residents’ self-governance, co-construction and sharing. This aligns with the goal of promoting people’s autonomy and achieving healthy development objectives.

Secondly, the choice of “urban agriculture” is also grounded in the research on the urban development trajectories in different countries, which indicates that community agriculture often emerges and serves as an incubator for new humanism after a certain stage of urbanization. As an international metropolis, Shanghai has a high level of urban construction and gathers many innovative concepts. Various entities such as enterprises and governments have begun to recognize the significance of community agriculture and have provided strong support accordingly. Ancient Chinese literati had a strong yearning for rural life, but this sentiment seemed to fade away with the massive construction of industrialization and urbanization. Now, with the improved living standards of people in first-tier cities like Shanghai, they are beginning to seek more spiritual fulfillment. In this opportune context, the resistance against promoting community gardens will be relatively low and can exert a significant impact and drive similar initiatives in other urban centres.

Figure 1. Railway Vegetable Garden Elite Valley Innovation Park

 (Urban Permaculture Experimental Base)

Source: Provided by Yuelai Liu


2. What are the characteristics of the community garden renovation projects that you have been promoting? How to balance the productivity and aesthetics of urban agriculture?

Currently, our team has directly participated in 260 community garden projects in Shanghai, and we have helped and trained residents who spontaneously constructed over 1200 community gardens. These projects receive support from various entities including enterprises, government agencies overseeing streets or communities, and initiatives driven by residents themselves. Each community garden reflects the characteristics of its residents, drawing essence from their past experience and integrating into the design process. The diversity of personal experience has been the source of the uniqueness of each community garden.

While improving public spaces, community gardens also promote the creation of public spirit through the negotiated allocation of idle land, which contributes to boosting the city’s soft power. Urban land is not only for consumption but also for production, allowing users to transform from mere consumers to active producers by participating in the production process. The community gardens we create offer both aesthetic appeal and productivity, although the productive function is also influenced by relevant policies, planning, and culture. At the policy level, since community garden land is classified as greening land, it must adhere to the rules and regulations set by the landscaping and greening industry authorities so as to ensure the ‘survival’ of our community gardens. From the perspective of culture, due to the traditional belief that agricultural planting may negatively impact the urban image, aesthetics is also essential in garden design. Therefore, when selecting plant species, we choose plants that are both ornamental and productive. For example, as a common agricultural product, ginger also has good ornamental value.

Despite significant environmental differences across regions and limitations of government and corporate funds, grassroots efforts can demonstrate remarkable autonomy. Community gardens, grounded in self-education and shared values, serve as platforms for building social networks of mutual trust among individuals of different ages. They contribute to the mitigation of social and public safety risks, building of resilience, and accumulation of social capital.

3. In your recent practices, you have expanded community gardens from Shanghai to other cities. What are the similarities and differences of cross-regional practices? What are the motivations for governments and markets? What roles do planners and designers play? And how can we sustain community gardens in the future?

Cities like Shanghai have more resources and conditions to promote the construction of gardens. In comparison, cities like Urumqi, located in arid areas and exposed to ice and snow for most of the year, may present more constraints accordingly. However, in our practices, we have found that people from different regions have the same love for nature and the same yearning for a better life, and such a commonality transcends geographical differences.

Of course, the motivation for governments and developers to participate in community garden initiatives is not sufficient. Firstly, from the government’s perspective, given the current financial constraints, especially in small cities, there is limited financial support for community garden projects. Some leaders and officials are cautious in their mindset, exhibiting strong risk awareness and influence of rigid control that brings challenges to cooperation. The leadership changes in relevant departments may also cause hindrances. On the market front, although some real estate developers and operators, such as Shui On Land and Vanke, are willing to have urban regeneration with public participation and support the creation of community gardens and communities, most others find these troublesome and are unwilling to make changes. They resist the idea of replacing traditional landscaping designs with community gardens or urban farms. In the process of creating community gardens, planners and designers play multifaceted roles, serving not only as proficient researchers and practitioners but also as key promoters at the current stage. They continuously advocate for community garden concepts that everyone can participate in to enterprises, governments, and the public, sparking enthusiasm and gathering support.

To ensure the sustainability of community gardens, on the one hand, it is necessary to establish a set of goals recognized by various stakeholders at the grassroots community level. This can be akin to a “five-year plan,” providing strong guidance for better implementation of community garden plans. On the other hand, in terms of cooperative relationships, it is important to establish mutual trust while maintaining a sense of flexibility and relaxation among the partners, creating a relatively free, open, and inclusive environment to facilitate long-term cooperation.


4. What benefits do you think children and college students can bring in as participating in the construction of community gardens? What is the willingness and ability of young people to participate in community garden construction activities?

Children’s active participation will have a profound impact on their future growth. Community gardens provide children with the opportunities to participate in social activities, thereby enhancing their social skills and contributing to their psychological wellbeing. Childhood memories are often vivid and lasting, and these enjoyable activities will leave them with valuable memories.

College students play a crucial role in building social trust. Compared to commercial activities and traditional charity events, activities that are led and participated in by college students are often more innovative and engaging, with greater attractiveness to residents. For example, parents often seek opportunities for their children to interact and learn from outstanding college students, such as those from Tongji University. Moreover, elderly community members are more willing to participate in activities with young people, allowing themselves to embrace new trends and intergenerational interaction, which further promotes social harmony and progress.

Young people now prioritise the intrinsic value of action over economic benefits and prefer learning through practical experience to theoretical lectures. They further share experiences and form communities through social platforms, amplifying the impact of community gardens. Currently, we have established over 200 communities. In Urumqi, we have also supported local young leaders to establish a volunteer team of young community planners called “Turtle Construction”, attracting nearly 200 participants. These practical experiences not only enhance students’ understanding of spatial production, governance, and operations, and provide valuable internship experiences, but also stimulate their motivation for innovation and entrepreneurship. For example, the Old Friends Garden project in Nanning was implemented by a group of young people who led a team of college students, enabled residents to become managers of their communities, and eventually completed the construction of nearly 1000 gardens in 2.5 years.

Figure 2. Autumn Community Event Spontaneously Organized by the Volunteer Team of Young Community Planners in Urumqi

Source: Provided by Yuelai Liu

5. What impact do you think community gardens have on promoting social development and enhancing urban resilience? What role do grassroots efforts play in the garden construction process? How do community gardens contribute to future community governance?

Community gardens provide a platform for communication and cooperation among people from diverse backgrounds, fostering stronger interpersonal relationships, reducing social conflicts, promoting the development of social networks, and accumulating social capital. This social capital, beyond mere financial resources, encompasses key elements that promote the repair of social relationships and social construction, which is also the fundamental purpose of integrated urban-rural development. Taking a series of practical projects in Urumqi as an example, our young volunteers, graduate students and classmates from the Environmental Design Team, the School of Design, Xinjiang Arts Institute, renovated the garden of a spicy chicken shop, which not only improved the relationship between the restaurant owners, provided a place for children to paint and graffiti but also served as a practical base for research topics for students from Xinjiang Arts Institute and other universities. Through communication, interaction, and conflict resolution, the public attributes of this area were further stimulated, enhancing its social functional value. Similarly, the corridor garden project implemented by students from Xinjiang Agricultural University and Xinjiang Arts Institute at a local hospital helped to mediate doctor-patient relationships. Overall, community garden activities, through subtle environmental improvements, can unleash the inherent potential of residents and make the urban atmosphere more friendly and vibrant, positive to promoting ethnic unity and building a harmonious society in the Xinjiang region.

Figure 3. Ms. Li’s Spicy Chicken Restaurant

Source: Provided by Yuelai Liu

Urban resilience is demonstrated by its ability to respond to various risks and challenges. While traditional views focus on physical risks such as fires and floods, I believe that the greater risks faced by cities come from the realm of social security, which is unpredictable and difficult to prevent. The construction of community gardens can help cultivate residents’ sense of security, promote communication and trust, bridge social divides, and resolve conflicts. Moreover, the consensus among residents in micro-spaces will gradually extend to the entire community network, forming a community of mutual trust. This plays a crucial role in enhancing social resilience and preventing social risks. The essence of community gardens lies in promoting mutual education and fostering mutual value recognition, which can be integrated with grassroots governance in order to progressively mitigate potential social risks.

The community garden practices in Urumqi have deepened our understanding of the importance of grassroots efforts. Despite the challenges in Urumqi, where community garden projects face more difficulties than in Shanghai due to financial and governance constraints, people’s autonomy and creativity can still make community gardens flourish. In the future, we plan to undertake 100 similar garden renovation projects under the concept of urban micro-regeneration.

The creation of community gardens prompts us to re-evaluate the often-overlooked beauty around us. For example, in caring for plants, we begin to recognize the value of rainwater, which was previously overlooked. Similarly, in social interactions, many people’s shining points are ‘folded’ and need to be opened through interaction to gradually establish everyday trust relationships. Community gardens provide a valuable opportunity for interaction, where people collectively discover and solve problems, understand each other better, and promote the development of community publicness and the establishment of community self-organization.

As cities progress into high-quality development, public participation is increasingly valued. Practices have demonstrated that people can independently undertake and promote certain transformation actions. As the public’s awareness of autonomy continues to strengthen, they will become more actively involved in the construction and management of community gardens. We also hope that through community garden initiatives, we can fully leverage the value of design and the potential of creativity, mobilize grassroots efforts, establish mechanisms of mutual trust and collaboration, and orderly promote the transformation and development of urban environments.