The changing relationship between rivers and cities throughout history and the new role of riverfronts for the urban development of the global city.


Many global cities around the world besides Shanghai, London and New York, are in the process of regenerating their waterfronts. They reclaim abandoned industrial sites, docks and warehouses; construct river promenades, public spaces, green belts, parks and spectacular cultural landmarks. The regeneration of waterfronts is a global pattern of contemporary urban development. But what drives this development? Why is it happening at this point in time? And why are these riverfront projects so similar in their goals when aiming to plan for the people?

This article proposes a comprehensive view of this pattern from a historical perspective. The main argument of this proposition is that the relationship between rivers and cities fluctuates over time and that the next change is upon us. This work has structured the relationships between the rivers and cities into three distinct phases: first, the pre-industrial phase, second, the industrial phase and third, the post-industrial phase. This paper discusses each phase in detail and provides illustrative examples using the context of Shanghai as well as other cities. This approach allows for contextualization of the contemporary trends in waterfront renewal. The aim of this article to present a framework comprised of observations for the discussion on the importance of riverside renewal in the global city.
KEYWORDS: global cities, riverfront, urban regeneration
Currently, the largest urban renewal project in Shanghai is an ongoing regeneration project on the east and west banks of the Huangpu River. This is a project that dates back to 1990 when the Central Committee and the State Council announced New Economic Development Zone for Pudong. The opening of the once rural east side of the Huangpu river to economic development and foreign investments triggered an unprecedented construction boom and marks Shanghai’s renaissance as a global city. This project is an aspiration which is expressed in the iconic skyline of Lujiazui, which nowadays represents Shanghai. 
The construction of Pudong moved the Huangpu River into the geographic center of the city, changing the once asymmetric pattern of development. Historically the river marks the city limit. Shanghai’s Old Town is located on the west side of the Huangpu River, which is where Shanghai’s historical skyline is currently viewed on the Bund. However, the venue of the Shanghai Expo in 2010 was located on both sides of the river, between Lupu Bridge and Nanpu Bridge. From an urban planning viewpoint, this location is a statement for the new role of the river as the center of the city. The Expo held in 2010 also acted as an example for the regeneration of the banks east and west of the river, as this is where some of the old industrial heritage buildings were integrated into the program. Just a decade earlier, during the regeneration of Shanghai’s smaller river, Suzhou Creek, industrial buildings were considered worthless and demolished to make space for new buildings. Shanghai is putting the riverfronts at the center of city development.
The most prominent revitalized industrial heritage building that came out of the Expo 2010 was most certainly the Power Station of Art. This project is strikingly similar to the Tate Modern Gallery in London, which programmatic was an unused power station located on the river, which was then renovated as a modern art museum. The opening of Tate Modern in the year 2000 and the instant success of the project proved that the feasibility of renovated former industrial sites along the river can act as a main urban attraction. But the similarities between Shanghai’s and London’s urban riverfront development have additional urban programmatic similarities. The urban planning concept behind the London Olympic Games of 2012, which akin to the Expo 2010 in Shanghai aimed to urban regeneration in East London. For 2020, London is planning the city riverfront for the public, done by redeveloping the Thames banks with more public spaces, affordable offices and new homes. 
Throughout history, the majority of urban settlements have been located next to rivers. It is this relation of cities and rivers that gave birth to the great ancient civilizations. The rivers Tigris and Euphrates gave birth to world’s first literate urban civilization and the ancient city of Uruk, immortalized in the Gilgamesh epos. The river Nile gave birth to the Egyptian culture and the ancient city Memphis, now called Cairo. The Yangtze River and the Yellow River gave birth to the ancient cultures of China and its many cities. The reasons behind the location are the following: first, water is essential to all forms of life and cities are placed next to rivers because they supply fresh water for people and livestock as well as water for the irrigation of fields. Second, water is essential for hygiene, to wash bodies, food, clothes and other necessary items. Besides, the flow of rivers is also utilized to carry waste and sewage out of the city. Third, waterways are used for transportation of people goods and resources. This is why all great economic centers are placed in such a location.

Shanghai, for instance, is a city with an outstanding strategic location. The Huangpu River is a natural harbor that allows access not only to the mainland of China via the Yangtze River but also to the outside world via the Chinese Sea. It is this strategic location that triggered the rapid development of Shanghai in the middle of the nineteenth century after China was forced to open to the world’s trade network by the Nanking Treaty in 1843. Before that year, Shanghai had a secondary location at the edge of the Chinese Empire. The Huangpu River at times being a threat as pirates would sail upstream and attack the walled old city.

However, after the opening in 1843, Shanghai was suddenly put in the economic center of the world.Shanghai became the world’s gate to China and China’ gate to the world. The Huangpu River became the main transportation route and access point of people and goods to and from Shanghai. Piers and warehouses started to proliferate on the river bank, laying the foundation for the economic rise of Shanghai.


Locations of similar strategic value - a river located close to a river mouth that opens inland and overseas - is shared by many other cities of global significance: London, New York, Rio de Janeiro, Hamburg, just to name a few.


The relation of cities and rivers changes radically in the industrial era, especially in Shanghai. Shanghai is the cradle of China's industrialization. The first railroads, factories, and power plants were built here. The modern production methods would change the face of the city. For example, Shanghai’s Yangpu district which is located on the northeast side of the Huangpu River. The southern part of the district is located just four kilometers downstream from the Bund. After the treaty of 1843, one sixth of Yangpu was selected to become an international settlement. In the years to follow factories, shipyards and warehouses rose up along Yangshupu Road, in particular, the Cotton Mill, the Paper Making Factory, the Shipbuilding facilities , the Water Plant, and the Yangpu Power Plant. It is not a coincidence that many of those industrial facilities were erected at the waterfront. Many early industries, like the cotton, textile, and paper industry, require large amounts of water for their production, while for example power plants depend on a supply of large quantities of coal, which is transported via waterways on ships.


The industrialization devastated the relation between rivers and cities all around the globe, as the population of cities exploded, resulting in more urban wastes, while more and more factories polluted the waterways. The most notorious example in this regard is the Great Stink of London from 1858 when the River Thames turned into a stinking sewer which caused outbreaks of cholera and killed hundreds of people. The disaster was the starting point of London’s modern sewage system. Late 1990, before that the water was black and smelled so bad during summerThe pollution of rivers through industries remains a large problem in cities around the world, especially for developing countries.

However, the situation has changed for cities like Shanghai who entered a post-industrial phase, which means that the inner city areas have been largely de-industrialized. For instance, the Yangpu District is undergoing a transformation from an intensive industrial base towards an innovation and business demonstration hub. Still, there are 33 protected historical buildings in the district, with a concentration of industrial structures along the Huangpu River. The concentration of protected industrial buildings is a valuable resource and an opportunity for the renewal of the riverfront. This heritage has the potential of preserving and showcasing the industrial age and the spirit of Shanghai. This spirit, the ethos of Shanghai, is the characteristic Haipai culture. The ethos of Shanghai is not only manifested in the historic skyline of the Bund, but also in the abandoned industrial buildings that line the river banks until today. They are waiting to be integrated into the new riverfront development. Many proposals for their Reutilization have been developed in the past years, but most were rejected. We believe the reason is that they were conceptualized as single plots and without the consideration or full understanding of their context, which is the changing role of the Huangpu River.


The economy of post-industrial cities in a globalized world is fundamentally different from the economy of industrial cities. This difference drives the new relationship between the city and the river. The industrial city depends on the supply of natural resources. Factories settle next to rivers because that location gives them access to such resources: water could be taken directly from the river, while resources could be transported in large quantities by ship. The role of industrial production is however diminished in the post-industrial city. A new economy has risen in the past decades: a knowledge and service based urban industries that drive the economy of global cities today. These industries depend mainly on the access to human resources, a talented and well-educated workforce. In one word: people.


Global cities like London, Shanghai and New York aim to regenerate their riversides from industrial wastelands to public spaces with the principle of “people-centered” development because they follow the new economic rationale, which is to attract people. Rivers have lost their original meaning for cities, which was the support of life, hygiene, and transportation. But they have gained a new meaning, which is to increase the quality of urban life. Rivers have become an important tool for city marketing and place making. Waterfronts and riverfronts play an important role for city marketing because they are the best stage for the city to present itself. It is no coincidence that almost all global cities present their image to the world by pictures of iconic skylines and landmark buildings with water in the foreground. This image is the unique signature and identifier of the city in a global world. Imagine Hong Kong, London, New York, Shanghai, Sydney, or Singapore and you see water. The first goal of city marketing is to make a city known.


The term global city goes back to the book of the same name by Saskia Sassen. She defined global cities as cities that have a role beyond the national borders. A global city is a city with a specific role in the global economy. Shanghai is competing with other global cities for global investment, global companies, and global talent. To be competitive Shanghai has to be, like all other global cities, attractive. This is the second goal of city marketing, which is much more difficult to achieve. The push for riverfront regenerations in global cities is a strategy to increase the quality of life by creating public space with a focus on culture, leisure, and health.


How much a clear vision of urban planning matters can be demonstrated on the basis of the first river regeneration project in Shanghai, the renewal of Suzhou Creek. The river flows through Shanghai from Qingpu District into the Huangpu River, where the famous Waibaidu Bridge crosses, China’s first all-steel bridge. Originally named Wusong River, the waterway gained importance as a trade route to Suzhou after the opening of Shanghai in 1843. At the beginning of the last century, Suzhou Creek was a popular destination for outings; the water was clean and rich of fish. But later the conditions changed for the worse. With a growing population and increased industrial development, a large quantity of sewage and industrial wastewater polluted Suzhou River, turning the water into a stinky, unhealthy and run down environment.


Heavy industries were moved out of downtown areas throughout the 1990s, leaving behind vacant factories and warehouses alongside the river banks. In 2000, the Suzhou Creek Rehabilitation Project[i]authorized a program to divert and treat the sewage, to improve the flood control and to clean the water. As the water quality improved the plots left and right of the river became attractive plots for real estate projects. Suzhou Creek witnessed a boom of culture and creative industries around the turn of the millennia, as design firms, galleries and artists moved into old warehouses and factories. But the value of these old industrial buildings wasn’t recognized. Mostly neglected instead of integrated, the heritage buildings were considered a problem, not a resource. They were at large demolished to make space for modern high-rise buildings. The world famous art colony M50 is one of the remaining places from that period. The regeneration of Suzhou Creek didn’t follow a strong urban vision but gave in to short-term profit gains. Instead of creating one unified landscape for the public, the riverfront was compartmentalized and privatized. This laissez-faire principle didn’t allow for a continuous river promenade or attractive public facilities but lead to the development of gated residential compounds. The potential of Suzhou Creek as a riverfront where the city shows its face and allows residents to connect to their city has been lost in the process. This failed river development is a case worth studying to learn from the mistakes that have been made.

The term global city goes back to the book of the same name by Saskia Sassen. She defined global cities as cities that have a role beyond the national borders. A global city is a city with a specific role in the global economy. Shanghai is competing with other global cities for global investment, global companies, and global talent. To be competitive Shanghai has to be, like all other global cities, attractive. This is the second goal of city marketing, which is much more difficult to achieve. The push for riverfront regenerations in global cities is a strategy to increase the quality of life by creating public space with a focus on culture, leisure, and health.

Local authorities seem to have learned the lesson, as there are efforts on the way to undo some of the mistakes. With the recent administrative unification of Zhabei District and Jing An District into the larger New Jing An District. Suzhou Creek suddenly moved into the center of this districts. The city planning is now initiating a new round of Suzhou Creek renewal. The goal is to transform the riverfronts into a public walking and cycling destination.


Shanghai has recently published an Urban Masterplan for the year 2040. The plan defines the urban development goals for the next three decades.

Zhuang Shaoqin, director of the city’s planning, land and resources administration, states: "By 2040, Shanghai aims to become an excellent global city, an international economic, finance, trade, shipping and scientific innovation center, as well as a cultural metropolis [an] innovative, humanistic and eco-friendly city." This statement positions Shanghai as a global city with an economy relying on knowledge-intensive industries. Clearly, the city understands that it must attract and cater the needs of the global elite. Similar to global cities everywhere Shanghai prioritized the regeneration of its shorelines.


By 2020, Shanghai aims to have 45km of continuous public areas along the riversides of the Huangpu River. This area is located up- and downstream of the historic Bund, where the skyline of Pudong and Puxi face each other over the water. The plan stretches up to Wusong Kou in the north and to Minhang district in the south. These areas will be redeveloped as amenities for enterprises and institutions. The central area will be a place for exercise, recreation, tourism, and sightseeing. The regeneration of the Bund, Shanghai’s number one tourist destination, has been completed before the Expo 2010. The North Bund is undergoing redevelopment with an orientation for water transportation, trade, and finance. The East Bund is oriented to education, R&D, and innovation. The South Bund is positioned to become a location for high-end business and media culture. Finally, the West Bund is becoming a destination for art and culture, as well as a sport and leisure destinations. On the Pudong side, the planning is not yet completed. A competition held last year has unveiled the idea of creating a triple path running along the river. The "main path" features activities and installations; the "sports path" is dedicated to the most active users like joggers and cyclists, and the "discovery path" is created for sightseeing purposes of the city and of the river.

Apparently, the city planning learned from the mistakes made during the renewal of Suzhou Creek. The riverfront development alongside Huangpu River has a clear focus on the public and seeks an overall vision for the project. Currently, the project is happening at an uneven pace. On the Puxi side, different segments of the riverfront are at a different stage of development. After the completion of Bund in 2010, some sporadic projects happened along Huangpu River. The Cool Docks and the Wharf are two popular projects and the South Bund. The cruise terminal on the North Bund has been completed. Several culture venues (museums and galleries) opened at the West Bund, some river promenades are open to the public in this segment as well.


Observing the West Bund development certain challenges are evident: The functions are scattered and not dense enough to generate a strong attraction point. Important support functions, especially commercial functions like restaurants, bars and cafes are lacking. The access to the area by public transportation is insufficient, making the area reliant on individual traffic. Overall the area is not well connected to the city itself, making the area feel like an off the beaten track location, while it should be a central destination. The link to the overall riverfront development is currently missing. The existing projects alongside Huangpu River feel like singular projects and don’t have a connecting identity yet. If this weakness will be overcome in the future remains to be seen. We also want to remark, that the current design of the promenades lacks human scale: the promenades are wide like a boulevard; they lack furniture and diversity in the design.  


In conclusion, the regeneration of riverfronts is also a rehabilitation of rivers.

After times of illness, stench, and abandon now cities are working on their relationship to their rivers.

Post-industrial cities are being modeled and connected. The cities which become global city are not only based on the tertiary sector but more on advanced services and information.  

The social pattern in these cities has consolidated the polarization of high and low skilled labor, creating a group of talented, creative and innovative people: the global elite.

That is why global cities are now focusing on urban life quality: to make the city reflecting the preference of their target group of people and retain top global talents. Riverfronts are the key in this urban regeneration process as it is aimed to improve the quality of life in cities.

Urban planners around the world are working towards the goal of turning riverfronts into places where urban life can flourish.

To achieve this goal, the following strategies for the urban designer should be the guiding principles:


Public Space: Rivers in global cities are a meaningful presence as long as they are accessible, open, connected and vibrant. The river should be seen as the center of a network that connects to the city through public spaces, various traffic systems, boulevards, green belts, and so on. Like the branches of a tree or the arms of a river system. This river network will allow for the necessary accessibility.


Public Functions: The river network should be lined with public functions: parks, museums, and galleries, sports fields, open air stages, and so on. In addition, the network should integrate commercial functions like restaurants, cafes, bookshops and so on to attract people and invite them to stay.


Outstanding Views: Iconic riverfront developments are the signature, the face and the image of global cities. This image value of cities is already an important factor in city marketing and will become even more crucial to the steady rise of social networks in the digital age.


Integrate Old Buildings: The River is the memory of a city, materialized in historical landmarks, old docks, warehouses and industrial buildings. Integrating old buildings into the new development will not only continue the history but also accelerate the development.


Urban Design Code: To guide the overall development and to ensure that riverfront regenerations represent the city adequately, an urban design code should be established. All sites in the riverside area should follow this code and they should be planned with attention to detail. An urban design code is necessary to ensure that the overall development doesn’t feel fragmented but like one piece. New architecture developments should follow design guidelines over profit goals.


Shanghai is on its way to implement the vision of a public and people-centered riverside but it needs to be clear about own identity and develop the river accordingly. 

With the urban renewal focused along the riverside, Shanghai will slowly solve the city dichotomy historically marked by the river. East and West sides of Huangpu River will be two faces of one city center. The river will be the city statement for the culture, the leisure and all the events that represent the spirit of the city.

East and West will meet along Shanghai Huangpu River.


[1] “2020 Vision: The Greatest city on earth”, Greater London Authority, 2013

“The Vision for the tidal Thames”, Thames 2035, Port of London Authority, 2016


[2]“Vision 2020 New York City Comprehensive Waterfront Plan”


[3] Sassen, S. (2001). The global city: New York, London, Tokyo. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.


[4] ADB (Asian Development Bank) Suzhou Creek Rehabilitation, Profiles/LOAN/32121013.ASP


[5] On 4 November 2015, Zhabei District merged with Jing'an District

[6], 2016


[7] Shanghai Master Plan 2016 – 2040,


[8] Shanghai 13th Five Years Plan for Huangpu River, Shanghai Government, 2016