The European Journal of Creative Practices in Cities and Landscapes. Vol 2, no 1 (2019)
ISSN 2612-0496

Re-defining the appreciation and usability of urban watersides in the urban center and peri-urban fringes of Shanghai

Harry den HartogTongji University Shanghai (China); Delft University of Technology (Netherlands)

Faculty member at Tongji University Shanghai, China, and PhD candidate at Delft University of Technology, The Netherlands

Submitted: 2019-01-14 – Published: 2019-12-20


Countless waterways defined both the rural and urban landscape and related daily life activities in China’s Yangtze River Delta for many centuries. However, much of these bodies of water disappeared due to extremely rapid urbanization in the last three decades and this process is ongoing. This paper critically assesses how the appreciation and usability of the remaining urban watersides is currently changing drastically by examining recent waterfront projects in the Direct Controlled Municipality of Shanghai. This research mobilizes insights from the academic field of Sustainability Transitions – specifically on expectations, experimentation and innovation journeys – to explain how, in the context of extreme urban pressure, well-manicured new urban watersides are often visually attractive but functionally inadequate. The paper concludes with recommendations to reverse this trend and to create more sustainable and attractive watersides. By describing, comparing and evaluating three cases, this paper by Dutch Shanghai-based urban designer and researcher Harry den Hartog also wishes to contribute to the discourse on China’s urban transition by critically examining the gap between expectations and outcomes in daily life reality.

Keywords: place-making; real estate; Shanghai; socio-technical transitions; urban delta; urban waterfront; waterfront usability; waterfront appreciation; Yangtze River Delta.

1 Introduction

This paper describes and analyses the changing appreciation and role of living and working along waterfronts in the context of China’s extremely rapid and large-scale urbanization, occurring since the end of last century.1 The paper focuses on the Direct Controlled Municipality (equal to a province) of Shanghai and its surrounding region, with its many canal towns and rich water history. Historical continuities and recent discontinuities will be explained and assessed regarding the appreciation and usability of urbanized watersides, with one case in Shanghai’s Central City and two cases in its rural fringes, all under high urban development pressure.

Resorting to Sustainability Transition theories, overarching patterns are identified and translated into broad lessons on how urbanization processes can be steered into more sustainable paths, keeping historical continuity and attractive well functioning new environments. In the next section, three key concepts are introduced (expectations, socio-technical experimentation and innovation journeys) as useful tools to help assess the promises and realities of waterside transitions. The third section elaborates on the methodological approach and the selection of the cases. The fourth section describes the dynamics for the three cases. The fifth section combines the findings and the final section concludes with some recommendations.

2 Theory: expectations, experiments and journeys

This paper describes and analyses tendencies in recent urbanization projects and their relationships with the water in Shanghai, China, especially regarding the functionality of new public spaces, but also regarding ecological, socio-economical, and sociocultural values, and flood risk measures. Illustrated with three cases, these changing relationships are conceptualized by resorting to insights from the field of Sustainability Transitions. In this field, scholars investigate major shifts toward sustainable socio-technical systems of production and consumption. The study of socio-technical transitions to sustainable urban development draws on a wide range of theories and lines of thought (such as neo-institutional theory, evolutionary economics and science and technology studies) and a variety of frameworks and approaches (such as the multi-level perspective, strategic niche management and transition management) to express how promising visions of a sustainable future and attractive urban realities – for example living along the waterside – can be translated into experimental development projects and how these can be empowered in order to transform the unsustainable current order.2 To investigate the promises and realities of urban waterfront projects, three core concepts from the Sustainability Transitions field will serve as “sensitizing concepts” for the empirical analysis and structuration of the argumentation.3 These concepts are: (1) expectations, (2) socio-technical experimentation and (3) innovation journeys, which I proceed to explain below.

To investigate how actors use appealing visions of the future in their urban development projects, scholars from the field of Sustainability Transitions often use expectations as a concept. Expectations can be defined as “statements about the future – uttered or inscribed in texts or materials – that circulate.”4 The idea that they circulate is important, because they are not merely descriptive statements, but they are especially “performative,” which means that they help to create a new reality by providing heuristic guidance5, by coordinating roles and activities amongst actors6 and by legitimizing certain investments.7 Expectation is one of the key processes in facilitating sustainable innovation journeys, and to do this successfully, expectations should be robust (shared by multiple actors), specific (if expectations are too general they do not give guidance), and of high-quality.8

To turn visions into reality, actors engage in a process of socio-technical experimentation. Ideas that look appealing on paper and sound good in words are applied in real-life settings to be tested and developed further. In this context, experiments can be seen as seeds of change that may eventually lead to a shift in urban planning approaches.9 Opposed to the experimentation in the natural sciences that usually take place under strictly controlled conditions to find hard objective truths, the experimentation in the field of sustainability transitions take place in a real-world environment with a wide variety of societal actors and other influences. To deal with this, it is more accurate to talk about a “socio-technical experiment,” which can be defined as: “an inclusive, practice-based and challenge-led initiative, which is designed to promote system innovation through social learning under conditions of uncertainty and ambiguity.”10

Experimentation in the urban environment is an unfolding innovation journey11 and in particular a “sustainable innovation journey.”12 A journey also implies open-endedness and uncertainty.13

3 Case study selection and methodological approach

This paper describes and analyses two different situations of a changing relationship between city and waterside: one urban case along the Huangpu River in downtown Shanghai with a transition of industrial waterfronts into recreational waterfronts, and two rural (now peri-urban) cases with “Long Island” on Chongming Island and “New Venice” in neighboring Nantong (fig. 1). In the latter two cases, agricultural functions and wetlands have been transformed into speculative residential and recreational property. By conducting this comparative case study research14 also qualitative methodological approaches for geographers15 are used.

Fig. 1 Huangpu River with more than 45 kilometers of new waterfront in the Central City of Shanghai’s Direct Controlled Municipality. The cases Long Island and New Venice at Shanghai’s rural fringes are under the administration of Nantong, in Jiangsu Province (map by author, 2019).
Fig. 1 Huangpu River with more than 45 kilometers of new waterfront in the Central City of Shanghai’s Direct Controlled Municipality. The cases Long Island and New Venice at Shanghai’s rural fringes are under the administration of Nantong, in Jiangsu Province (map by author, 2019).

Both the Huangpu Waterfront case and Chongming Island (exclusive Long Island and New Venice) were during their initial planning process appointed as National Demonstration zones. The urban and peri-urban cases are chosen because they are complementary to each other (urban vs. rural, high-density vs. low-density, etc.), because they are related to each other (same target group: the new middleclass), and because they are representative for many waterfront developments in the wider context of the Yangtze Delta (and to some extent even for China as a whole).

The Direct Controlled Municipality of Shanghai and surrounding Yangtze River Delta Region are China’s economical engine and “Head of the Dragon” for centuries, thanks to a strategic location for trade, efficient waterways, and fertile soil. Many experiments and projects in Shanghai function as model for projects elsewhere in China.16 Shanghai’s new urban waterfronts form one of the main planning strategies in this city’s attempt to become an “Excellent Global City” according to the Shanghai Master Plan 2017 – 2035.17 Since 2018 the Huangpu Waterfront is earmarked as a “demonstration zone for the development capability of the global city of Shanghai”18 to determine the image and brand of Shanghai and to improve the quality of life in megacities. Chongming Island was appointed as National Ecological Demonstration Zone in 1996.19 Both demonstration zones function as sample for similar situations elsewhere in China, according to the Shanghai Master Plan 2017 – 2035.

Within the context of Chongming Island the case of Long Island is described in this paper because it illustrates the loopholes of the National Ecological Demonstration Zone. Chongming is an experiment to realize a more sustainable and balanced (but still urban-centered) society. The real estate development of Long Island illustrates what would probably happen on Chongming as a whole when the Eco Island policy is absent. Inherently related to this the case of New Venice shows the extreme consequences of what will go wrong if the waterfront landscape is approached as a mere investment object.

Scientific research that focuses on recent developments at the waterfronts in Shanghai and the Yangtze River Delta region is still limited. The Huangpu Waterfront redevelopment and the ambitions for Chongming Island are both to a high degree experimental within the Chinese context. The degree of experimentalism is illustrated by the fact that dozens of international design competitions have been launched during the past two decades for the Huangpu Waterfronts and Chongming Island as a whole and also for subareas, e.g. Chongming Island Master Plan in 2004, Dongtan Eco-City (on Chongming) in 2005, North Bund in 2010, Suzhou Creek redevelopment plan in 2016, the 22-kilometer long Huangpu River East Bank in 2016, and many others. This has generated an enormous amount of plans and ideas. Subsequently, new plans were compiled by picking and reassembling the – in the eyes of decision makers – most attractive elements in a very opportunistic way. This method is very common in China’s spatial planning and design but very unusual in Western countries in terms of copyright and prestige. This “shopping” among design competition entries and “use” (or misuse) of international input is rejected with great suspicion and distrust in the international discourse of architects and urban developers in the West.20 Nevertheless, this is still daily practice in China, sometimes resulting in success, sometimes in failure, like in an experiment.

Although the cases have many similarities, there are also significant differences, in scale, in economic-geographic position, in policies, and in functioning. However, they clearly illustrate the recent dramatic shift in the relationship between the urban environment and the water, focused on the role and appreciation of urban watersides. The main goal is to give recommendations and suggestions to overcome future mistakes in planning and practices and to mitigate their effects. The findings in this paper are based on a series of site visits, observations and interviews (see table 1 for an overview of the data collection process). The author is very familiar with all cases and has done related research and design projects in this region during the last ten years.

Table 1 Figures on data collection

Interviews Grey literature Site visits
New urban waterfronts Central City of Shanghai Residents (50+)
Urban planners and architects (10)
Local government officials (5)
Developers (3)
Real estate agents (5)
Knowledge institutes (1)
Official policy docs (3)
Governmental website (1)
Expert meetings (3)
Knowledge institute reports (1)
Workshops (3)
Hongkou Creek (25+)
Suzhou Creek (25+)
North Bund (25+)
East Bund (15+)
South Bund (15+)
West Bund (15+)
New peri-urban waterfronts (Chongming and Nantong) Home-owners and residents (25+)
National government officials (1)
Master plan expert committee (3)
Shanghai government officials (2)
Local government officials (3)
Urban planners and architects (8)
Developers (2)
Real estate agents (3)
Knowledge institutes (6)
Official policy docs (3)
Governmental website (3)
Expert meetings (4)
Knowledge institute reports (5)
Workshops (3)
Chongming Island (35+) Nantong (7)

4 New urban waterfronts in the central city and peripheries of Shanghai

4.1 Shanghai’s rich historical relationship to the water during the years

Shanghai, and its wider urban region with neighboring cities and towns, used to be crisscrossed by waterways (fig. 2). The city’s name literally translates as “upon the sea,” since the coastline has been shifting eastwards due to sedimentation processes of the Yangtze River and tributaries. Water is not only a means of transportation and trade but also a source for stories, local myths and cultural practices. The classic Chinese painting Qingming Shanghetu, from the early 12th century, is the perfect illustration of the importance of water in Chinese urbanization (fig. 3). The Qingming Shanghetu depicts the rich mix of economic activities on the urban waterside and embankments, symbolic for the vitality of a relative compact city clearly defined within its city walls.

Fig. 2 There used to be a more direct interaction between urban life and water, also for washing laundry and cleaning food (photo by author, 2013)
Fig. 2 There used to be a more direct interaction between urban life and water, also for washing laundry and cleaning food (photo by author, 2013)
Fig. 3 Fragment of the classic painting Qingming Shang He Tu – original painting by Zhang Zeduan. Twelfth century, Handscroll, 24.8 x 528.7 cm (Source: Beijing, Palace Museum).
Fig. 3 Fragment of the classic painting Qingming Shang He Tu – original painting by Zhang Zeduan. Twelfth century, Handscroll, 24.8 x 528.7 cm (Source: Beijing, Palace Museum).

Until the middle of the twentieth century, the spatial and economic development of the Yangtze Delta was propelled by an efficient network of waterways and canal towns.21 In “Farmers of Forty Centuries” F.H. King describes how more than 3,000 kilometers of waterways provided an ingenious transport system that simultaneously supported soil fertility and irrigation. To improve the fertility of the land, a great deal of mud was dredged from the canals and creeks and spread across the fields. At the same time, night soil from the cities was transported to the fields by boat to be used as natural fertilizer, even until the late 1990ies (author’s own observation). To a large extent, these techniques contributed to the self-sufficiency and economic growth of China.

Later, under Mao’s leadership, the Chinese government adopted policies that imposed a technocratic engineering on the surrounding landscape: “Man must conquer nature.”22 Natural capital and rural values around Shanghai (and elsewhere in China) have been largely neglected since then. Current planning practices are consequently based on a tabula rasa approach and steered by GDP-oriented motives, with a lot of collateral damage for ecosystems and livability. During the last few decades many natural waterways in this region were transformed into canals, while others were dammed or filled in completely. The eastward shift in the world’s economic center of gravity at the end of last century has made highways, railroads, and airports the new flywheel of Shanghai’s development — a process accelerated by mass migration to the city from rural areas. The few remaining canal towns are revalued now and more and more exploited as tourist attractions and investment opportunity, hence still loosing their original population and character due to gentrification processes. Simultaneously, many remaining waterways around Shanghai are currently transformed into scenic landscapes due to experimental landscape “beautification” policies, which resulted in the planting of many flowers along roadsides and canals. The long and fruitful relationship between the urban landscape and its water systems is changing drastically. The water system seems to be degraded from a transportation and urbanization backbone into a decorative element to brand real estate projects, without much sense of its historical importance and former usages. Countless street names still pay homage to the former canals and creeks that disappeared. Today, the reality is completely the opposite to the former water-rich landscape, with multiple new towns, high-tech industrial parks and other new phenomena sprawling at the fringes of Shanghai and other megacities connected by asphalt and rails.23 Since late last century Shanghai is transforming itself from an industrial and agricultural – large parts of the Direct Controlled Municipality are still mainly agricultural – dominated city into a service-oriented metropolis. New real estate projects aim for a rising upper middle class, and in the rural fringes especially also on the wealthier elderly who are in search for leisure and luxury. Shanghai is “Striving to become an Excellent Global City” according to the credo on the first page of the Shanghai Master Plan 2017 – 2035. To facilitate this in the Central City, a large number of waterfronts has been transformed from a mainly industrial usage into a recreational and commercial use with abundant public recreational space, offices, shopping and hotels, offering a welcome and pleasant relief of the urban congestion for many.

Simultaneously – but not directly as a result of policies but more as a result of greedy developers that know how to exploit loopholes in regulations –more and more recreational and luxurious settlements are popping-up in the rural fringes. The latter ones are located on often-questionable locations – e.g. in conflict with existing natural and social-cultural values, vulnerable24 to flooding, inaccessible to common people – as observed during fieldtrips and also learned from interviews with multiple stakeholders.