Running Tracks & Playgrounds Built on Chinese School Rooftops

An oval running track cleverly designed and built onto the roof of a school in China.


From QQ:

Rooftop “Wonder”

Just as the new school year has started, news of a track field built on top of a primary school’s roof in Tiantai County in Zhejiang province attracted a lot of attention. Many people questioned the safety of a rooftop track field. Some people are concerned the railings are not strong enough while others fear that a thousand students on the rooftop can cause the building to collapse. A rooftop track field may look as if it is merely adapting to local needs, representing a daring and innovative design, it instead reveals the phenomenon of insufficient land for the construction of schools in recent years, and this phenomenon is most often seen at schools serving the children of migrant workers that already lack teachers and funding. Photo [above] is of 2010 September 1, when the Hangzhou Tianhua School held an orientation ceremony on the school rooftop. All the students in the school are children of migrant workers. Due to the lack of land and other resources, they could only build an athletic field on the roof.


On 2014 September 1, Zhejiang Tiantai Country Cicheng No. 2 Elementary School’s rooftop oval athletic track officially went into use, with students running and playing on the circular track for the first time. This running track fulfills the educational activity needs of 1600 to 1800 students in 36 classes. This building of a running track on the roof is the first of its kind in China. The design represented China in the “14th Biennial Venice International Architecture Exhibition”. Behind the praise this design garnered is the awkward/embarrassing reality of “one building for one school”.


The “Guidelines for Ordinary Primary and Middle Schools” across China all set the amount of area dedicated to student activities. To use Shandong province as an example, the “Shandong Standard Guidelines for Ordinary Primary Schools” requires: “The physical education space should satisfy the school’s needs for track and field, basketball, ping-pong, sports equipment and other exercise uses, as well as class and extracurricular activities.” In a middle school with 24 classes as an example, the requirements clearly specify “at least 10893 m² for sport activity uses”. However, many schools failed to reach the minimum requirements. Photo is of 2005 October 13, as Wuhan Lingzhi Elementary School students do their morning exercises on the rooftop. All 10 classes in 6 different grades take classes on the second floor, while the roof was converted into an exercise yard.


With the development of cities, many middle and elementary schools in cities have been surrounded by high-rise buildings, with the activity space for children becoming smaller and smaller. As a result of being located in the city center where every inch of lands commands high sums, these schools are unable to expand, can only use make use of what limited resources they have, and thus a school’s roof becomes the best place to expand usable area. Photo is of May 28th, of a small green garden on the roof of Hanzhou Anji Road Experimental School, as students were followed the teacher to the rooftop garden to relax and rest after class.


The amount of land set aside for education use comes from the government’s allocation from public lands. 2001’s “Land Allocation Directive” clearly states non-profit educational facilities including schools classroom, office, laboratory, research, as well as cultural and physical education facilities are all included in the land allocation. But reality tells a different story. The property close to schools are all considered “school district housing” [desirable residential property near a school, usually allowing a resident child to attend that school], and will thus naturally demand higher real estate prices, which makes local governments even less willing to give this kind of “fatty meat” [lucrative property] over to the schools without compensation. Photo is of 2009 December 16, at Shenzhen Shekou Dongwan Elementary, a lack of space they forced them to convert the school’s roof into an activity space.


2012 November 27, Fujian province Putian city, the “athletic field in the sky” constructed by Nanmen Middle School on its rooftop. Because the school is located in the city center, with limited area, building a rooftop athletic field was one of the ways to expand activity space.


On 2012 March 26, a kindergarten and early education organization in Beijing’s Changping District Tiantongyuan East turned their roof into a physical activity space, where dozens of children play on the roof everyday.


2011 May 13, a kindergarten in Jinan constructed a “playground in the sky” on the third floor roof. Two years ago, after Mrs. Liu’s kindergarten moved here, it rented the entire third floor of the building, but because there was no open space to build a playground, they had no choice but to install railings and convert the roof into a playground.


Apart from schools lacking physical activity space, many schools also face other teaching resources shortages and inadequate school facilities. Photo is of 2012 September 1, where Hubei province Macheng city Shunhe village parents prepare their children for school, the most important being to bring a desk to school. Currently there are 5000 students in Shuenhe Village, and right before the semester started, about 2000 new desks were allocated to a Project Hope school and central elementary, meaning over 3000 students still need to bring their own desks to school like previous generations. Photo is of Lu Siling’s mother riding a scooter carrying her daughter and her desk to a school 2.4km away.


2011 December 7, in Guangxi province Liuzhou city, temperature have dropped to minus 10 Celsius, accompanied with category 3 winds and rain. Due to years of neglect, every window at Xingzhi Elementary classrooms is broken, and the windows for the classrooms on the north end are in especially bad shape, almost without a single window intact. To block sudden bursts of cold air, the teacher that day brought some old cardboard boxes folded up to seal the windows. However, the cold wind still blew through the seams, and the blocked off windows darkened the classrooms impacting the students’ vision.

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In migrant workers schools [schools serving the children of migrant workers], there are even more serious inadequacies with school facilities. Photo is of 2011 June, in an elementary school in Anhui province Hefei city, of migrant worker children sleeping on their desks.


The same situation happens in Anhui province Huangshan city. On 2012 May 24, at the Xidi Central Elementary in Anhui Huangshan, many “left-behind children” [children who remain in their hometowns with grandparents/relatives while their parents work elsewhere in the country] sleep on the desks in the classroom. According to one teacher, there are a total of 81 students with only 4 classes, including 1st to 6th grade, with an average of 20 students per class. Every day during noon, the teacher will also sleep in the classroom with the students.


2012 February 27, in Zhejiang province Zhuji city, due to the lack of sports equipment, the teacher played ping-pong on a stone platform with his students.


Not only do many migrant worker schools have limited space, some even have problems finding a stable/fixed location. In the face of demolition and relocation [land redevelopment], the students have no choice but to constantly move with the school. On 2014 August 21, in Zhengzhou, due to the demolition of the inner-city ghetto, Jinwen Elementary faced having to relocate for the third time in a year. The school entrance was blocked by a parked excavator, while the gate and gatehouse had already been torn down. With demolition imminent, classrooms were also ransacked by unknown people.


2011 October 13, Beijing, the New Hope School for migrant worker children was demolished this past August. Nearly two hundred migrant worker children who were students of the school were were reassigned to a public school – Xuefuyuan Elementary. A little over a month into the start of school, the children can only attend Chinese language and math classes, with no teachers available to teach the English language class and other electives. Photo is of migrant worker children students having to go through a small door in order to get to the school’s main gate/entrance.


We’ve chanted ”No matter how poor we are, we must not skimp on education; no matter how hard things are, we must not have the children suffer” and such slogans for years, but in the pursuit of ever higher buildings and larger plazas, we’ve sacrificed the education and activity space for children. Photo is of 2011 August 15, in Beijing Haidian District Dongshen Village, of the New Hope Experimental School being torn down. Just 3 days away from the opening of a new semester, many parents instead discovered over 10 school buildings leveled. According to reports, this school’s contract had expired, and was demolished 5 days ago.

Comments on QQ:

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Don’t even have a playground? What if there was an emergency situation? Where is the evacuation site? When there’s an earthquake, are you telling me they have to run to the roof?


A [government] leader visited a certain village for an inspection tour, and dinner was arranged at a herdsman’s home. When the leader politely invited the herdsman to enter first, the flattered herdsman said: “The leader should still go first. For us sheepherders, walking behind animals is something we’re used to.” The village head instructed the herdsman to bring a plate of the leader’s favorite lamb bones. The leader said as he gnawed/nibbled: “This taste great, just keep the meal simple, you don’t have to make it complicated [go through so much trouble]!” The herdsman quickly said: “No worries, it only costs a few cents, I normally feed these to the dogs.”


This breaks my heart, if the country’s officials were a little less corrupt, then these kids would not endure such hardship. I wonder when China’s education Chinese education change for the better in cities and in the countryside. The difference is too great. Sigh… [the situation] feels so helpless.


This is the product of China’s modernization, the result of corruption!


A special characteristic of the Heavenly Kingdom, just get used to it and you’ll be fine. The moment there is an earthquake, there is nowhere to run.


Our country’s education system is really TM trash. Teachers are unequal, and the situation of left-behind children, don’t tell me you ZF people don’t see it. Beijing is TM even more fucked up, for depriving a child of the right to go to school just because a temporary residence permit was a few days late.


Sigh, granted China’s population is too large, but for our future generations, no matter where the school is, no matter how much space there is, we should at least give the children space to play. Why does Chinese football [soccer] suck? It’s because there are no fields to practice on.


China will do anything for money, and education too has made making money as its bottom line. Though it is said that there is 9 years of free compulsory education, the books and other fees increase more and more each year.


A deformed society, one that has grown the economy, built skyscrapers, yet has left no space for the country’s future, where even a playground/sports field is a luxury.


In developed European and American countries, the grandest buildings are mainly churches, because it contains what they believe in: fraternity, liberty, equality; In Japan, the most lavish buildings are mainly its schools, because it contains what they believe in: knowledge, technology, and progress; In China, the grandest buildings are mainly government buildings and banks, because those contain what they believe in: money, power and arrogance.


Build less ghost cities, collect more real estate taxes, and none of this will happen to the children!


I was born in 1985, and when I was young, I also had to bring my own desk and chair to school. The whole class could only seat 20 students at the most, and apart from a tiny playground, we didn’t have any other sports equipment.


Nobody understands that this is China’s unique road to socialism, enriching the businessmen, fattening the officials, impoverishing the ordinary common people. The ordinary common people’s happiness only exist in Xinwen Lianbo.


I personally feel China only needs skyscrapers and total GDP. The rest isn’t important. The people driving luxury cars, living in mansions, and dating beautiful women are all illiterates, while those with actual knowledge and skills are all wage slaves and bachelors.


Why are government buildings never short of land?


I daresay that of all the kids who go to these schools in China, not one is the child of a of government official.


Today’s kids have it hard, endless amount of homework every day, like little birds locked in a cage when they go to school. Like in our Jinxian County elementary school, where every class has over 80 students, without a playground/sports field, without physical education or art and literature classes. When children’s innate liveliness and imaginations have been destroyed, how can they have creativity? In the future, they’ll just be mass-produced assembly line workers. What kind of education is this?


How many people in China cannot afford to go to school and get an education, yet we give billions in aid to Africa. In China, we use expensive shanzai products, while exporting the good products abroad at low prices. Is this the notion of a courteous nation? Is this socialism with Chinese characteristics?

Written by Joe

Joe is a documentary producer and journalist based in Shanghai

  • SimpsonsGoldenAge

    Aye you’ve certainly got a lot of people up in thurr, blame Mao-era pro-natal policies for that.

    • donscarletti

      China is the 82nd most dense country, after such overcrowded hell holes as Switzerland, Germany, UK, Netherlands, Belgium, Japan, Italy and South Korea.

      Even if you were not to count the sparsely populated provinces of Xinjiang, Qinghai, Tibet and Inner Mongolia, China would have a population density of 270 people/km², similar to the United Kingdom’s 262 people/km², still less than Japan, Belgium and the Netherlands and barely half that of Korea (503 people/km²)

      China’s not densely populated at all. It’s just some peculiarities that makes it seem this way.

      • SimpsonsGoldenAge

        Whether a country is overpopulated and to what degree is absolutely not decided by population density, it’s decided by the ratio of resources: population the most important resource of which being arable farmland. China is dangerously overpopulated (although not as much as India) and Mao’s pro-natalist policies are a major factor to blame.

        • donscarletti

          China is the world’s top producer of rice (200 million tons), top producer of wheat (120 million tons) and second in maize (217 million tons). It also produces well over half of the world’s apples (37 million tons), over 2/3rds of the world’s pears (16 million tons), over half of the world’s peaches (11 million tons), 3/4rs of the world’s water melons (70 million tons).

          Even if the Chinese do tend to overstate their agricultural output a little bit, the output still dwarfs any other country on earth and China has been more than self sufficient for food since the starvation in the 1950s (when China had half of today’s population and which had nothing to do with amount of arable farmland).

          If you want to pick another resource that China is short on, then restate your little “pro-natalist policies” refrain, go ahead, but amount of arable farmland is still one thing that China has in its favor.

          • da_shan223

            arable farmland might be the most important in a dooms day scenario or if you are suddenly cut off from international trade, but god help countries like japan if they were to have to use their land to feed their people. human capital is the greatest resource. it’s hard to say that China is dangerously overpopulated because who knows where to set the bar on that when concerning a developed nation. if were in new york city, i might draw some different conclusions than if I were in,well, all of north dakota. if india had a better economic history and not such a disproportionately huge impoverished demographic, “overpopulated” might not be the world to use…though “densely populated” would be appropriate since it’s a relative term.

          • SongYii

            All the same kind of apple. :-(

            I told some of my students that I used to go to the supermarket when I was a kid and get 4 or 5 different kinds of apples; they said they thought there was only one kind.

          • David

            lol where was that? Because at my supermarket in America (nothing special, just normal size produce area) they probably have 10 distinctly different kinds of apples. But I absolutly agree about the lack of variety here. I would love me some Granny Smiths right now.

          • SongYii

            guangdong. the fruit supply in dongbei was always damaged, and expensive. i thought when i moved to the fruit-producing paradise of dongguan it would be better… but its even more expensive here! and usually just one kind of domestically produced apple.

            im not a fan of sour apples myself, but i sure do love’em in apple pie!

          • moop

            yes, but this is causing problems of its own, not to mention the amount of environmental degradation, China’s alarming amount of polluted soil (19% of arable land), and rapidly declining water supply. The food China imports already uses a land mass equal to the size of California, and it is only going to continue to grow. china is already going to have to make significant changes to their imports of water-intensive crops. China’s arable land is dwindling (12% of land mass without accounting for polluted soil) and it is not in its favor at all when considering the soil pollution and water supply

      • da_shan223

        interesting. population density of cities? all the extra rooms in the house don’t matter if everyone is trying to shove their way into the closets.

      • SongYii

        Since I moved to China, I always felt the population problem (in terms of crowdedness, specifically) was always way overstated. People tell me traffic in China is so bad… I can’t think of any place I’ve seen it worse than the United States.

        • David

          True, in 20 years, with the rising middle class, when more than 2% of the population can afford a car it will be hell. For now, simply getting a taxi is bad enough, the roads are not crowded at all (thank God because the way they drive…)

          • SongYii

            the government seems to work pretty hard to avoid more cars on the road… 3000-10,000 for a license, few used cars around, higher gas prices than america (nominally and by PPP), and little domestic consumer car production. they most assuredly want people to stick with public transport, for both good and perhaps nefarious reasons.

          • hess

            3000 is still doable for a lot of people.. The us has incredibly cheap gas so its not a fair comparison. “little domestic consumer car production”.

          • SongYii

            :-O Are these produced for export? I really just don’t see a lot of Chinese makes around. Seems like most cars are foreign makes.

            I think the government wants to make it doable for a lot of people, but not most people. I paid $20 for a 5 year license in the US last month… this is nothing compared to the licensing fee here.

            Ask Americans… they don’t think their gas is cheap. :-D

          • David

            That certainly seems to be the case, but you can not long ignore the laws of economics. A rising middle class will demand more of everything.

      • Jahar

        Thanks for posting that. I like to remind my students of that as well, but I’ve never bothered to find out such detailed information. I think they Actually choose to crowd together this way.

      • Brido227

        Habitable land is quite a different question. |Even discounting the Wild West, by the time you’ve taken away land which is used for agriculture (still most poor people’s last resort), urban areas, industrial zones, communications (roads, railways, etc.), what’s left is what the population have to live on.

        ‘China’ may not be densely populated, ‘habitable China’ certainly is.

  • lonetrey / Dan

    Honestly? I love seeing stuff like this! Architecture and construction that utilizes space this way has always fascinated me!

    If they improve it even further and start choosing to build like this rather than build like this out of necessity, that would be even cooler. Imagine all the possibilities…

    • Teacher in China

      I’d normally agree with you on that, but given the quality problems of tings like schools, bridges, etc in China these days, I worry that all those constantly pounding feet on the roof are going to lead to some sort of cave in…

      • SongYii

        That’s pretty unlikely, but the weight of soil, water, and plants sure could.

      • bprichard

        Well, after seeing all the schools that collapsed during the Wenchuan earthquake, that seems like a reasonable concern.

    • firebert5

      That fourth pic especially is pretty nice.

    • Don’t Believe the Hype

      It would be a lot cooler if it wasn’t done out of desperation

    • James in China

      You can’t be effing serious! I see you have never been in a chinese school, where the walls, roofs and tiles are constantly falling in. That’s not to mention, if there was a fire or any other emergency, the limited access and egress that such a setup provides would undoubtedly cause serious if not fatal trouble. Use your brain, man.

      • Janus

        Of course, James who is ‘in China’ has been to every Chinese school that there ever was, is, or will be, making him the premier expert on Chinese schools, and who also uses his brain all the time and always effing serious. About Chinese schools.

        • James in China

          It doesn’t take an expert to understand that having children on the fucking roof in the event of an emergency is going to be disastrous, you simple-minded fuck.

  • firebert5

    In a previous article I asked if there was an official limit to the number of floors a school could have in China. I should have known better.

  • WangDN

    What do they need a sports field for anyway, it’s not like Chinese schools actually encourage kids to do any sports. Unless you consider “morning exercises” and an unmonitored game of basketball, played whilst the PE teach smokes a cigarette, to be a good sports culture :P

    • Zappa Frank

      exactly…I’ve always wondered what all that stuff was for. I think just for “relax” in the end, playing badminton, basketball, and so on.

    • Don’t Believe the Hype

      The sports fields are more often used by faculty and those middle-aged to older men and women, who have more time to exercise. Young people are too young and too often don’t see the long-term benefit. Course, they are also under a lot of pressure.
      That is why it is so important to understand that exercise releases stress! I was amazed at how few students i met knew that

  • mr.wiener

    Needs as one must.

  • SonofSpermcube

    “The school entrance was blocked by a parked excavator, while the gate and gatehouse had already been torn down. With demolition imminent, classrooms were also ransacked by unknown people.”

    God, I hope it was people looting it for stuff they could sell or use, and not developers just fucking up the place to discourage people trying to stay.

    I hope that, but my belief tends toward the latter.

    • David

      My first thought was it was the developers (or construction workers) stealing stuff so they could make more money.

  • SongYii

    Its good to see someone properly translate to “track and field” for once, instead of goddamn “playground.”

  • B*tches, Leave

    It’s the CIRCLE OF LIFE!!!
    A government official takes money from educational facilities away,
    The kids don’t have any opportunities and must survive their own way,
    But sometimes some kids do study a lot and do study hard
    They grew up to be confident and very smart
    And some of these get the chance to get their dream job
    Because when you’re a government official you’re the top dog
    You get rich and corrupt and you steal money awaaaaaaaaaay

    • slob

      Official : “Everything the light touches…is MINE”

  • bB

    I agree with Dan that it is interesting from an architectural perspective. But this is also sad , from a foreigner’s perspective. Seeing a country as powerful and enormous as China to be so limited in it’s urban land use, as a third world nation would, is sad. It must be caused by the corruption of the government, as others have mentioned. There is so much wealth in China, but so much poverty

  • AbC

    “Why are government buildings never short of land?”

    My thoughts exactly.

    • David

      My thoughts are very very close. “Of course government buildings are never short of land.”

  • Misiooo

    These pictures precisely reflect what so-called “older generation”, including chinaman government think about “the future of our country”, “our beloved children”. Just paraphrasing Orwell: take any word used in a propaganda tool and find it’s antonym, then you have the one that accurately describes reality. My favorite examples: “harmonious society” and “double happiness”. I feel so sorry for these poor chinaman kids.

  • twelveways

    Ever heard of sarcasm?

  • Insomnicide

    Say what you will about Chinese urban planning or quality of living but these designs are actually legitimately useful and aesthetically interesting. Ding for the architect(s).

    • James in China

      You’re literally a moron.

  • JayJay

    Recently saw James May’s people’s car documentary. Alfa Romero old factory has roof test track for their cars, which is pretty cool.

    • iLcOrNaLiTo

      Is that a Chinese version of the Alfa Romeo?

  • Zen my Ass

    With open spaces, community areas and squares shrinking in numbers and dimensions, this is the only feasible solution for the future. Where I live, any available lot is being used for new buildings and shopping malls, seems business it’s more important than the well-being of the people… way to go, China.

  • donscarletti

    And with two upvotes to boot!

    Just to think that a mere two decades ago, before online forums; when people instead gathered together in their chieftain’s longhouse to pass on their oral tradition, or whatever folks did back then; they never had such communication issues.

    My point is, Switzerland is a land of small towns and villages (including Zurich and Geneva), huge mountains and pristine valleys. Germany has its forests and the UK has its moors and have two and one large (>5m people) metropolises respectively. Netherlands and Belgium both have lovely fields and countryside, Japan too has plenty of pristine forests and mountains. But I don’t have to say it explicitly, because everyone knows these facts.

    Even if you didn’t know this, you could easily realise that saying that the countries with similar population density with China are grossly overcrowded would hardly be supporting my point that China isn’t crowded.

  • 日暮かごめ

    Might as well put a football field on top of a school roof next. Try not to hit out any nearby building windows and hit a passerby with the ball when your throwing it to each other. :P