Why a flexible approach is crucial to waterfront design in China

Traditional Chinese sail. Early 20th century
A view of abandoned Xinhua harbor in Shanghai Pudong district

A view of abandoned Xinhua harbor in Shanghai Pudong district


According to a research done by National Geographic, If All The Ice Melted, There are more than five million cubic miles of ice on Earth, and some scientists say it would take more than 5,000 years to melt it all. If we continue adding carbon to the atmosphere, we’ll very likely create an ice-free planet, with an average temperature of perhaps 80 degrees Fahrenheit instead of the current 58 raising the sea level 216 feet and creating new shorelines for our continents and inland seas. Rising ocean water would flood China’s most economically developed region of more than one million square kilometers with a population of over 600 million. Based on this research most of the wealth China is producing, which concentrates in the coastal areas, would be submerged. Actually, even small changes would have a huge impact on cities like Shanghai, a city that lies below the sea level in more than a few areas.

Vitruvius VS The philosophy of impermanence

Vitruvius, the prolific architect and scribe of antiquity, imparted three principal virtues, among other things, unto the Western architects that would fall under his influence: utilitas, firmitas, and venustas. The meaning of these terms is subject to much debate, but semantics aside, Vitruvius’s virtues roughly translate to “utility,” “durability,” and “beauty.” With these virtues firmly in place, Vitruvius equated the Roman Empire’s commanding marble cities with built perfection. The monuments that he extolled in the 1st century BC are an unmistakable tribute to the import of permanence.

But for centuries now, this association of great architecture with fixed and timeless permanence, along with the entire Vitruvian triad, has been losing traction. Our environment has been built, altered, and rebuilt in overlapping waves. While some buildings stand the test of time, most seem to expire in relevance. Grand architectural and planning schemes are increasingly rare. In fact, we fast-forward to today, and it seems that we are collectively swinging towards a polar opposite of Vitruvian values. We are moving towards an architecture in which the permanent is becoming a lot less permanent.

On the other side, Chinese traditional architecture did never share this features. Even today where it massively imports western building techniques and designs, the rapidity with which the buildings are demolished and the relatively low quality of the constructions seem to show us that the philosophy of impermanence that permeated all the traditional wooden architecture in China survives today. On top of this, especially in boarding areas such as that of the waterfront, where small technological or social changes sometimes mean a totally diverse use of space, a lighter and lower impacting approach to renewal is becoming more and more necessary.

Waterfront redevelopment

City-ports are always important as central places of political, economic, social and cultural interchange. In former times, traders from overseas often found tropical coasts a barrier rather than a link with hinterlands largely hidden from the rest of the world; but many of the transforming influences that have affected the modern development of the Late Developing Countries (LDCs) have come by sea and have entered through port cities, and Shanghai makes a good example of this.

Some have regarded such redevelopment as a luxury irrelevant to the more basic needs of cities and countries where recreation, as understood in Baltimore or Sydney, to take two cases, is limited to a tiny elite and where urban tourism is in its infancy. Today, however, in the context of modernization, urbanization, and globalization, clear links are perceived between urban renewal and other socioeconomic sectors: water supply, housing, employment, and tourism.

To be successful in world markets a modern city must learn how to position and promote itself on the competitive world stage: Envisaging the reviving city as cultural capital, past and present, is a necessary tool in the armory of modern urban authorities. Widely recognized in advanced countries, this is today also increasingly the case in developing countries, where a specific dilemma often arises from the inability of governments to meet cultural objectives.

Urban vacuum

A pattern of dissociation and neglect is common around the world in port cities founded to serve the needs of one politico-economic system, sometimes for long periods, but then doomed to decline as new systems evolve on different scales and with different objectives. The separation of port and urban functions during the second half of the twentieth century is well documented. It was largely brought about by the increasing scale and changing technology of maritime transport and the consequent transformation and relocation of port facilities, and by the parallel and sometimes closely associated programs of urban renewal developed particularly in larger, older city centers in advanced countries. In urban terms, the most well-known and widely recognized results of this process of geographical and functional change are the abandonment of traditional urban waterfronts, the recognition of the problem of the urban vacuum thus created and the consequent development of policies designed to revitalize waterfronts and associated urban areas that had lost their original raison d’être but still, by reason of their geographical location, frequently offered enormous development potential in new functional contexts and planning environments.

In the last 100 years, cities have not only had to deal with more changes than average in the centuries before, but the speed at which the changes take place and their magnitude make it virtually impossible to anticipate the changes beforehand. The high complexity of the modern city requires a high level of flexibility, so that changing spatial requirements can find a place within the existing structures. Technological progress keeps speeding up due to computerization and globalization. It’s clear now that there is an area of tension between the long lifespan of the urban environment and the quickly fluctuating demands and wishes of the city dwellers. There is a growing awareness that cities succeed or fail at the scale of place.  Leaders know they have to be able to react more quickly to a city’s diverse population and changing conditions than ever before.  And that requires resiliency: adaptability, agility, and the means to repair damage and remake derelict spaces of every scale.

Ancient China was unique in having little trade exchange and sea explorations

Traditional Chinese sail. Early 20th century

Traditional Chinese sail. Early 20th century

In Asia, most large metropolitan cities like Shanghai, Dalian, Chongqing, Suzhou, Jakarta, and Seoul have been developed along water systems that penetrate deep into the mainland; water has always been considered to be one of the key elements of nature, to be respected, used, and enjoyed as part of the landscape. However, despite its rich relationship with water, considering water as a recreational asset has never been a strong tradition in Asia.

Since ancient times, Chinese people (“Han” nationality) cultivated so efficiently in the fertile land that the need to trade with the outside world was little. So in ancient China, urban waterfronts were mainly located along river and used for internal political and security purpose instead of along the seacoast for the convenience of external trade. The Ming dynasty (1368-1644) was best known for establishing stable political society with trade to other countries, the population thus grew and thriving harbor cities developed, such as Guangzhou, Quanzhou, and Yangzhou. But the trade at that time was limited to silk, medicinal materials, precious perfume, and the total volume of trade was not: big, small wharves were consequently set up in the river-mouths of these. For instance Guangzhou was in the mouth of Zhujiang River, Quanzhou in Jinjiang River, Fuzhou in Minjiang River. In the famous painting Along the river during the Qingming festival of the eleventh century, a thriving urban waterfront can be identified: a scene of buildings and bazaars, peoples and boats, and bridges and piers. Comparing with other major ancient civilizations such as ancient Greece and which depended on sea transportation and established flourishing harbor cities, ancient China was unique in having little trade exchange and sea explorations. During the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), transportation by sea was even forbidden.

Since 1990, many Chinese city planners and governments are being inspired by internationally renowned waterfronts and have developed many large-scale projects for waterfront development, often hoping to replicate these successful places within their own cities. However, any good place-making professional understands the challenge of creating an idealized waterfront project that not only fits into the local urban context, but also suits the local market and water culture.

Fast responses to fast changing market demands

Satellite photo of Shanghai and portion of Jiangsu province

Satellite photo of Shanghai and portion of Jiangsu province

Private investments usually require fast responses to fast changing market demands, and this is even more true in China, where central government policies can suddenly influence the market. Take for example the abandoned Xinhua Dock in Shanghai; the developers have interest in turning this area into a private Yacht Marina. Usually the life length of a marina is about 25 years, but, considering China’s instable attitude toward luxury and its historical attitude toward sea transportation, such a project for Xinhua Dock needs a much shorter timeline, but can be used to provide findings for public use of other sections of the dock.

Many of the best, most authentic and enduring destinations in a city, the places that keep locals and tourists coming back again and again and that anchor quality, local jobs, were born out of a series of incremental, locally-based improvements. One by one, these interventions built places that were more than the sum of their parts.

Instead of blindly replicate successful waterfront renewal projects from Europe or North America, China should look into its own traditions and find out that, maybe, in those traditions from the past lies the key for innovating the relationship between the city and its water-edge: an innovating approach that could anticipate new trends arising in Western countries and cultures after the subprime crisis in 2008. The economical recession that followed, in Europe and North America, is beginning to look more and more like a turning point in which those cultures need to change their problem-solving patterns, towards more sustainable ones. And this affects the way city planners and designers deal with their environments, especially in those critical areas like the waterfront, where future is decided buy the sum of more and more unpredictable factors.