Developing the Littoral Gradient – Urbanism on Reclaimed Land

By Fadi Masoud, Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture and Urbanism, John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design

21 Chinese Case Studies of Urban Districts Built on Reclaimed Land. Image Credit: Developing the Littoral Gradient Atlas (Masoud / Ryan)

21 Chinese Case Studies of Urban Districts Built on Reclaimed Land. Image Credit: Developing the Littoral Gradient Atlas (Masoud / Ryan)

Seemingly infinite, sand is the second most consumed natural resource on the planet. Like the presence of water, only a marginal percentage of sand grain (water-withered flat sand grains) is considered suitable for construction and recreation. 40 billion tons of a year goes into urban development, twice the amount of sediment carried by all the worlds’ rivers combined. In large quantities, sand is engineered into the most fundamental of all infrastructures, and a precursor to any development – land itself. Along with concrete – the most ubiquitous material in city building – “land reclamation” from water bodies and coastal plains is the largest consumers of this resource.

Development on Reclaimed Land on the Bohai Bay near Tianjin. Image Credit: Matthew Niederhauser and John Fitzgerald: Future of Suburbia Exhibition – MIT Norman B. Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism

Development on Reclaimed Land on the Bohai Bay near Tianjin. Image Credit: Matthew Niederhauser and John Fitzgerald: Future of Suburbia Exhibition – MIT Norman B. Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism

As part of an ongoing research project with collaborators at the MIT Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism and Professor Brent Ryan (MIT), my research team aims to map and showcase decades of coastal urban expansion through artificially constructed terrains. While the relationship between cities, coastlines, and resilient planning and design has now long been established, this research looks at land reclamation as an untapped lens for evaluating and developing adaptive forms of future coastal urbanism.

Coastal plains comprise about 8% of the surface of the Earth, and are among the world’s most densely populated and most industrialized areas. Today about half the world’s population lives within 100 km of the coast or an estuary, where eight out of the ten largest metropolitan regions are currently situated. The demand for additional land for housing, industry, and recreation along the coasts is becoming steadily more acute, to which costal expansion through land reclamation has been devised as the preferred solution.

Climate change has exacerbated the vulnerability of coastal communities as result of erosion and storm surge; as such, the process of coastal land reclamation for urban development has acquired an unprecedented capriciousness. The research shows that the success of projects built on reclaimed land has proven to be variable. In some places the cost of new land has not added up to the value of the original master plan, leaving behind acres of undeveloped plots. In other cases the high value of coastal properties result in exclusive development projects that limit affordability and diversity of built form. In both instances, increased exposure to the sea’s forces, the rising stock of the construction material, and the cost of the maintenance of artificial terrains, is putting into place a reconsideration of the value of these developments and the process of land reclamation itself.

Caofedian in Bohai Bay: At over 400 km2 is one of the world’s largest land reclamation projects. Image Credit: Developing the Littoral Gradient Atlas (Masoud / Ryan)

Caofedian in Bohai Bay: At over 400 km2 is one of the world’s largest land reclamation projects. Image Credit: Developing the Littoral Gradient Atlas (Masoud / Ryan)

Nowhere is this phenomenon more evident than in Asia, and particularly China, where coastal land reclamation has been heavily associated with real estate development and the protection of agricultural land. In the last 60 years, China reclaimed 13,380 km2 of land and expanded its coastline by almost 2,000 km. Adding to the global pressure on sand for development, Forbes Magazine (2014) estimates that China produced and consumed about 60 percent of the world’s cement, pouring more concrete in 3 years than the Unites States consumed in the entire 20th Century.

With advantaged geographic location, copious economic opportunities, and large influxes of floating populations, Chinese coastal cities are planned as drivers for local, regional, and national economic development. Currently 15% of all construction activity is happening along coastal cities. As coastal cities seek opportunities for continued territorial expansion, and vie for enhanced competitiveness in the global economy, one outcome of China’s political economy of development has created vast areas of infilled, underutilized coastal lands that continue to replace dynamic ecosystems.  As a result, along China’s 18,000 kilometer shoreline, at least 11 coastal provinces and 39 coastal municipalities are carrying out decades-long land reclamation projects supported by the central government.

However, this landfill-for-new-development model is fraught with economic, social, and environmental complications. The goal of economic gain and urban growth has blinded the government to social issues and environmental risks. Landfill projects have erased many coastal villages causing inland floods, pollution, loss of habitat and biodiversity. Despite the known consequences evident in past land reclamation projects, it is clear that China will continue expanding into the ocean in the near future.

Sample of Four of the 36+ International case studies of urban districts built on reclaimed land drawn and analyzed by Daniels Students: Vancouver’s False Creek (Kaytlin Pelletier) and Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong (Grace Shaine Wong).

Sample of two of the 36+ International case studies of urban districts built on reclaimed land drawn and analyzed by Daniels Students: Vancouver’s False Creek (Kaytlin Pelletier) and Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong (Grace Shaine Wong).

The first phase of the research funded by the Samuel Tak Lee MIT Real Estate Entrepreneurship Lab will result in a first of its kind case-study “atlas” of coastal development projects built on reclaimed land. A beta version of the online atlas examines 21 Chinese case studies of urban projects built on reclaimed land. A seminar taught at the Daniels Faculty in the Winter of 2017, asked students to expand the scope of the research by looking at global case studies of urban districts built on reclaimed land throughout the centuries.  LAN2700HS: Landscape Architecture Topics: Terra-Sorta-Firma: Urbanism on Reclaimed Land used research, drawing, and modeling, to assess and evaluate the “sustainability”, “resiliency”, durability, and robustness of select global urban projects built on reclaimed land. Exploring urban districts that range from the Back Bay Fens in Boston, to Battery Park in New York, Jurong Island in Singapore to Silvertown in East London, and from Beemster in The Netherlands to Yas and Palm Islands in the UAE, and the East Bayfront and Lower Donlands in Toronto.

Instead of approaching coastal development as a matter of defense or retreat, we view the integration of social, technological, ecological, and developmental pressures as an occasion to design and propose novel, resilient, adaptive, and profitable real-estate developments on new forms of dynamic and flexible reclaimed land in China and beyond.