Climate change threatens to create major problems in the rapidly urbanising Pearl River Delta. Steffen Nijhuis, Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment, is carrying out important research into adaptive planning methods for the area and is setting up a research laboratory for delta urbanism.

A head-on clash is looming between people and nature in the densely populated metropolitan area of about fifty million inhabitants. The enormous cities that have sprung up in a short period of time are not only under threat from rising sea levels and excessive rainfall. The rapid growth of such metropolitan areas as Guangzhou, Dongguan, Shenzhen and Hong Kong is having a major impact on the landscape. Ecological systems and historical structures are rapidly undergoing a major overhaul. And the speed at which urbanisation is taking place in the Pearl River basin means that seasonal flooding is now having even greater consequences. “A responsible, sustainable approach to development planning can prevent many problems,” explains Steffen Nijhuis, project leader of the ‘Sustainable Deltas’ project. “We would therefore like to cluster the spatial developments at various levels of scale and provide spatial frameworks that allow for flexible implementation.” The vast dynamics of the region make the Pearl River Delta a particularly interesting area of study for the planning and design of deltas worldwide.

Water and ecology are not the only issues in the Pearl River Delta. Social problems are also looming. Generic urban-development models that are being applied fail to address specific local qualities and social needs. Nijhuis: “Such developments are seriously damaging the spirit of the region, making it difficult for residents to identify with it. Making the area sustainable is a problem at various levels.”

TU Delft is working on the project in close collaboration with the University of Sheffield and the South China University of Technology (SCUT). With a grant of almost 800 thousand euros from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO), the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC), the three universities are looking first at mapping out the problem. Quite literally: by producing maps (including interactive ones) and then linking these to historical, environmental and socio-economic data. This will provide insight into spatial relationships and increase awareness of the issues at hand. Visual aids must also facilitate communication with decision makers in the Chinese delta region, who are expressly involved in the research project.

The Pearl River Delta Urban Sustainable Environments Laboratory (PRiDe USE laboratory) that they want to establish in Guangzhou should not only become a meeting place for researchers. Spatial planners and policy makers also need to use it for asking questions. The laboratory will develop tailored planning and design principles for the region. This is not necessarily to improve resilience, by raising the height of dykes, for example, but to ensure that the Pearl River Delta becomes an adaptive delta, emphasises Nijhuis. “There are various scenarios for the effects of climate change and urban transformation and, ideally, we can respond to each of them.”

The Sustainable Deltas programme will run until January 2021 and is supported by researchers from the Netherlands (2), Sheffield (3) and China (10). The research should result in at least five PhD theses and various scientific publications. The intention is for the PRiDe USE laboratory to develop into a permanent research institute for delta issues worldwide.