“The gift from the sea”: through land reclamation, China keeps growing and growing

Yangshan Deep Water Port: not so long ago, this land didn't exist. Image: Wade Shepard.

China has undergone more than three decades of unprecedented rapid growth. Literally. The country is expanding.

Hundreds of square kilometres are added onto China each year, as coastlines are extended farther and farther out to sea. Massive amounts of land are being reclaimed to build new cities, ports, resorts, and industrial zones.

Dubbed by the domestic media as a “gift from the sea,” land reclamation has become an all out developmental free-for-all in China, with every coastal province having large-scale projects under way. 

“Land from the sea creates 'cheap' space for agriculture, industries, and urbanisation,” says Harry den Hartog, the author of Shanghai New Towns, who is currently researching land reclamation in China for the Netherlands’ Delft University. “For planners, this is a 'tabula rasa,' where you can build whatever you like on a white sheet of paper.”

Reclaiming land is nothing new in China. Since the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), sediments have been trapped from rivers or from the coast to make more land for farming, salt production, and aquaculture. Hong Kong has been reclaiming land since the 1860s. The surface area of Macau has been increased 1,000 per cent with artificial land. In the current era, cities all across China are creating new land to develop for urbanisation initiatives – and the profits are huge.

Nanhui New City, Shanghai, stands on reclaimed land. Image: Wade Shepard.

According to Liu Hongbin, a professor at the Ocean University of China, reclaimed land can result in a ten to hundredfold profit. Last August, a plot of reclaimed land in Qianhai sold for $1.77bn, bringing the new special economic zone's total earnings through land sales up to $37.4bn. Another record breaking land sale in Hainan saw an artificially created parcel go for over $1.5m per m2. So, the economic impetus for land reclamation is clear: making land makes money.

In 2010, the coastal city of Longkou, in Shandong province, found its urbanisation ambitions stunted by the sea which hemmed it in. The local government whined for a while about how many millions of dollars in revenue was being lost each year because of the lack of new development land, but then devised an ambitious plan to remedy the situation: they would remove 440m m3 of soil and stone from a nearby mountain and dump it into the bay.


A few years and over $3bn later, seven new islands rise above the water’s surface, providing an additional 35.2km2 of urban construction land that could be sold off to developers at a premium rate. By 2020, some 200,000 people are expected to live on these new islands, which will by then sport arrays of new apartment complexes, resorts, offices, golf courses, and industrial parks. The local government hopes that the annual yield from this additional development will be in the ballpark of $50bn.

If you look at a satellite image of Shanghai you will notice an askance hook nose-like protrusion hanging off the tip of Pudong. That protrusion is artificial; it was land that was created for a 133km2 new city called Nanhui, which is touted to eventually become a “mini-Hong Kong.” Reclaiming enough land to build this city that was designed to house 800,000 people only took five or six years.

Large-scale “land manufacturing” projects are currently underway all the way up and down China’s 18,000km of coastline. A few examples:

  • Tianjin port, the largest in north China, was constructed on 107km2 of land that was reclaimed from Bohai Bay.
  • An expanse of land twice the size of Los Angeles has already been reclaimed by Tangshan to create the Caofeidian new economic zone. There are plans to add on an additional San Francisco-sized portion by 2020.
  • In Guangdong Province, Dongguan and Shantou are tacking on 44.6km2 and 24 km2 respectively, while the new Qianhai FTZ, in Shenzhen, is being built on 15 km2 of land taken from the sea.
  • Sanya created something dubbed the “Oriental Dubai” by building an artificial archipelago for luxury hotels and an international cruise ship port.
  • Taizhou is currently expanding by more than twice the size of Paris into the sea.
  • Yuhuan county manufactured land for a new area the size of Milwaukee.
  • Jiangsu Province is currently reclaiming 21 parcels of land from the Yellow Sea, totalling 1,817 km2. That’s the size of London and Munich combined.

New growth at Nanhui New City. Image: Wade Shepard.

More controversial than China extending the bounds of its own country is China reclaiming land in places where its jurisdiction is questionable. Along with China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, and Taiwan have also claimed parts of the Spratly Islands, in the South China Sea.

Under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, submerged oceanic features cannot be claimed as the domain of any country, but China found a loophole. It would dredge up sediment and dump it upon the submerged shoals in question, thus turning them into islands which could then be claimed – destabilising the entire region in the process. 

There are three main ways to reclaim land from the sea. The first is to excavate soil and stone from the mainland, shipping it out, and dumping it on the current coastline or at the edges of existing islands.

The second is hydraulic reclamation, which consists of dredging soil from the sea floor, mixing it with water, and then shooting it through a hose upon the desired reclamation site.

Last but not least, you can put up barrier walls outside of the mouth of a river, and then allow the area in between to silt up naturally – incrementally moving the barrier farther out until the desired amount of sediment has been collected.


Besides creating a valuable resource where one didn’t exist before, there are other advantages to reclaiming land. Taking land from the sea provides development-obsessed local governments the option to avoid demolishing yet more rural villages and relocating tens of thousands more people. Although China generally has no qualms about forcibly moving its citizens around the country like pieces on a game board – upwards of 4m people each year are booted from their homes to make way for development projects – reclaiming fresh land is often vastly cheaper, easier, and doesn’t carry the same potential for a social backlash.

Another reason is that China is at the point of breeching its so-called “red-line” – the 120m hectares of arable land that must be left available for agriculture. This food security quota isn’t adjusted when land is added onto the country – so filling in the sea with soil is a way to get more development land while leaving existing farmland intact.

“Farmland is extremely precious, especially along the coast where the cities are growing,” Fanny Hoffman-Loss, one of the architects that oversaw Nanhui, explains. “So it seemed to make sense to build into the sea.”

As one might expect, accompanying the huge profits inherent to land reclamation comes a huge environmental toll. Wetlands, mangrove forests, reefs, and coastal flats are eradicated as sediment is piled on top of them. This has the potential to wipe out entire populations of native plant and fish species, decimate the local fisheries, and increase the newly created area’s vulnerability to pollution, drought, flooding, and, especially, rising sea levels.

On top of this, the new cities and industrial zones that will be built on the new land will serve as new sources of pollution, dumping untold amounts of waste directly into the marine environment.

Yangshan Deep Water Port is another area of Shanghai built on reclaimed land. Image: Wade Shepard.

What’s more, many of these aquatic expansion projects may not even be built on solid ground. “A very big issue is that due to the high development pressure there is often not enough time for new land to become firm,” Delft’s Harry den Hartog explained. “The consequences can be serious, like damage to buildings and roads, which makes it not sustainable at all.”

During the 11th five year plan (2006-2010), China’s land reclamation frenzy was at its height, and under the auspices of the central government 700km2 of land – roughly the size of Singapore – was being created each year. But since then, the amount of land being reclaimed has been dialled back. In an attempts to prevent what was looking like a “land reclamation bubble” the amount of land that could be legally be created nationwide was reduced to 200km2 each year.

But that’s still a massive amount. And there is a loophole in the rules. Land reclamation projects below 50 hectares do not need central government approval, and are therefore not regulated. So municipalities and developers are now simply making many separate sub-50 hectare parcels, and then patchworking them together into vastly larger yields. Some of these have totalled 1,000 hectares.

Beyond this, China's National Development and Reform Commission has found that all of the country's coastal provinces have illegal reclamation projects in the works. And as the penalty – a fine – is often vastly less than the potential profit it is apparently still good business to build first and deal with the consequences later.

So while the central government has made attempts at regulation, large-scale land reclamation in China rolls on. Entire new cities, ports, and industrial zones continue sprouting up from places that were once only open water, as the country grows larger and larger each day. Where China will stop, nobody knows.

Wade Shepard is the author of "Ghost Cities of China".

Images courtesy of the author.

 
 
 
 

So why is Peterborough growing so quickly?

Peterborough Cathedral. Image: Jules & Jenny/Flickr/creative commons.

The latest instalment of our series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities.  

The 2001 census put the population of Peterborough at 156,000. Some time before next spring, it’s projected to pass 200,000. That, for those keeping score, is an increase of about 28 per cent. Whether this makes it the fastest growing city in Britain or merely the second or the fourth – the vagueness of Britain’s boundaries means that different reports reach different conclusions – doesn’t really matter. This is a staggering rate of growth.

Oh, and since austerity kicked in, the city council has had its grant from central government cut by 80 percent.

Expansion on this scale and at this rate is the sort of thing that’d have a lot of councils in our NIMBY-ish political culture breaking out in hives; that seems to go double for Tory-run ones in Leave-voting areas. This lot, though, seem to be thriving on it. “I think the opportunity in Peterborough is fantastic,” says Dave Anderson, the city’s interim planning director. “We’re looking at growing to 235,000 by the mid-2030s.”

More striking still is that the Conservative council leader John Holdich agrees. “I’m a believer in ‘WIMBY’: what in my back yard?” he says. He’s responsible, he says, not just to his electorate, but “to our future kids, and grandkids” too – plus, at that rate of growth, a lot of incomers, too.

All this raises two questions. Why is Peterborough growing so quickly? And what can it do to prepare itself?

If you’re a little uncertain exactly where Peterborough is, don’t worry, you’re in good company. Until 1889, the “Soke of Peterborough” was an unlikely east-ward extrusion from Northamptonshire, far to its south west. Then it was a county in its own right; then part of the now-defunct Huntingdonshire. Today it’s in Cambridgeshire, with which it shares a metro mayor, the Conservative James Palmer. When I ask Holdich, who’s giving me a whistlestop tour of the city’s cathedral quarter, to explain all this, he just shrugs. “They keep moving us about.”

Sitting on the edge of the Fens, Peterborough is, officially, a part of the East of England region; but it’s just up the road from East Midlands cities including Leicester and Nottingham. I’d mentally pigeonholed it as a London-commuter town, albeit a far flung one; but when I actually looked it up, I was surprised to discover it was closer to Birmingham (70 miles) than London (75), and halfway up to Hull (81).


The more flattering interpretation of all this is that it’s on a bit of a crossroads: between capital and north, East Anglia and the Midlands. On the road network, that’s literally true – it’s where the A1 meets the A47, the main east-west road at this latitude – and railway lines extend in all directions, too.

All of which makes Peterborough a pretty nifty place to be if you’re, say, a large logistics firm.

This has clearly contributed to the city’s growth. “It has access to lots of land and cheaper labour than anywhere else in the Greater South East,” says Paul Swinney, director of policy at the Centre for Cities. “Those attributes appeal to land hungry, low-skilled business as opposed to higher-skilled more knowledge-based ones.”

That alone would point to a similar economy to a lot of northern cities – but there’s another thing driving Peterborough’s development. Despite being 70 miles from the capital, the East Coast Main Line means it’s well under an hour away by train.

In 1967, what’s more, the ancient cathedral city was designated a new town, to house London’s overspill population. The development corporation which owned the land and built the new town upon it, evolved into a development agency; today the same role is played by bodies like Opportunity Peterborough and the Peterborough Investment Partnership.

The city also offers relatively cheap housing: you can get a four-bed family home for not much over £200,000. That’s fuelled growth further as London-based workers scratch around for the increasingly tiny pool of places that are both commutable and affordable.

The housing affordability ratio shows average house prices as a multiple of average incomes. Peterborough is notably more affordable than Cambridge, London and the national average. Image: Centre for Cities data tool.

It’s made it attractive to service businesses, too. “London has probably played quite a big role in the city’s development,” says Swinney. “If you don’t want to move too far out, it’s probably one of the cheapest places to move to.”

The result of all this is that it has an unusually mixed economy. There’s light industry and logistics, in the office and warehouse parks that line the dual-carriageways (“parkways”) of the city. But there are also financial services and digital media companies moving in, bringing better paying jobs. In a country where most city economies are built on either high value services or land-hungry warehousing businesses, Peterborough has somehow managed to create a mixed economy.

Peterborough’s industrial profile: more services and less manufacturing, and more private and fewer public sector jobs, than the national average. Image: Centre for Cities.

At the moment, if people think of Peterborough at all, they’re likely to imagine a large town, rather than the fair-size regional city it’s on course to become. Its glorious 12th century cathedral – the hallmark of an ancient city, and at 44m still by far the highest spot on the horizon for miles around – is stunning. But it’s barely known to outsiders, and at least twice on my tour, the council’s communications officer proudly announces that the Telegraph named her patch as one of the best towns to live in within an hour of London, before adding, “even though we’re a city”. 

So part of the council’s current mission is to ensure that Peterborough has all the amenities people would expect from a settlement on this scale. “What the city needs to do is to adopt the mind-set of a slightly larger city,” says Anderson. Slightly smaller Swansea is developing a new music arena, of the sort Peterborough doesn’t have and needs. He frets, too, about retail spend “leaking” to Cambridge or Leicester. “Retail is now seen as a leisure activity: in the core of the city it’s important that offer is there.”

To that end, the early 1980s Queensgate shopping centre is being redeveloped, with John Lewis giving up a chunk of space to provide a new city centre cinema. (At present, the area only has road-side suburban multiplexes.) There’s major office, retail and housing development underway at North Westgate, as well as work to improve the walking route between the station and the commercial centre, in a similar manner to Coventry.

Fletton Quays. Image: Peterborough Investment Partnership.

Then there’s the city’s underused riverside. The council recently moved to new digs, in Fletton Quays, on the far bank of the River Nene from the centre. Across the river from the Embankment, the city centre’s largest green space, it’s a pretty lovely spot, of the sort where one might expect riverside pubs or restaurants with outdoor seating – but at the moment the space is largely empty. The Fletton Quays development will change all that, bringing more retail space and yes, new homes, too.

Jobs in Peterborough are unusually distributed around town: in many cities, most jobs are in the central business district. Image: Centre for Cities.

The big thing everyone agrees is missing, though, is a university. It already has the University Centre Peterborough, where degrees are provided by Anglia Ruskin University. The plan is for the site – a joint venture between ARU and Peterborough Regional College – to go its own way as an independent institution, the University of Peterborough, in autumn 2022. That should help provide the skills that the city needs to grow. A growing student population should also bring life and cash to the city centre. 

How big could Peterborough get? Could its enviable combination of good location and cheap housing and grand ambitions combine to make it the modern equivalent of Manchester or Liverpool – one of the great cities of the 21st century?

Well, probably not: “I think the optimum size for a city is probably about 250,000,” says Holdich. But that’s still a whole quarter bigger than now, and the council leader even discusses the possibility of refitting his dual-carriageway-based-city with some kind of light rail network to service that growing population. Peterborough’s not done growing yet.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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