Tensions and opportunities at Shanghai’s waterfronts

Laboratories for Institutional Strategies toward Sustainable Urban Planning and Delta Design Transitions


  • Harry den Hartog Delft University of Technology




How can the Global North oriented and welfare state rooted Sustainability Transitions theories be enriched with the Chinese and communist state rooted Ecological Civilization thinking that has been included in the Chinese constitution since 2007, to make it able to evaluate the making of the direct-controlled municipality Shanghai into an institutional frontrunner of sustainable transitions in urban planning and design with its prime waterfront as exemplary ‘urban lab’? Around this central question, this dissertation examines how Shanghai's coastal and waterfront developments have changed over the past two decades under the influence of shifts in Chinese state capitalism towards what is called an Ecological Civilization. Two cases along the waterfronts of Shanghai – one on former docklands, and one on Chongming Island ¬– have been examined to test how both lines of thinking can enrich each other, and if a sustainable transition can be done more efficiently and convincingly in a centrally controlled society than in a non-autocratic (liberal) society. What lessons does the Chinese approach in Shanghai offer for elsewhere, and how can different approaches and practices reinforce each other in the field of spatial planning and strategies for a sustainable transition? This dissertation emphasizes that ecological civilization thinking can offer hopeful starting points for sustainable transitions but can only work well if 'checks and balances’ are included. It gives suggestions to improve the accessibility, inclusivity, and vibrancy of Shanghai’s waterfronts, and mitigate ecological degradation in the context of an urban delta.