Over the past century, Delta cities have undergone significant spatial changes. We now know that in the long term, these don't always work out for the best. When the values we attach to water change, it is inevitable that they will impact on each other, concludes Yuting Tai in her doctoral research.

Delta cities are often densely built as they are popular places to live and work. But changes in our climate have made them increasingly liable to flooding. The biggest challenge we face is to find a balance between water safety and spatial quality, and a consensus between all those involved. This is certainly true of the Chinese Pearl River Delta, the focus of her research. “Spatial plans, such as five-year plans, don't take account of all the relevant parties”, explains Yuting Tai. “There’s no culture of consultation in China.”

The doctoral candidate studied the values embedded in the major changes that have taken place in the provincial capital, Guangzhou, through the centuries. Water has economic, social and ecological value. After all, it provides the space for shipping and trade and enables cities and nature to flourish. In delta regions, water determines safety policy: how can you ensure that areas are not constantly being flooded?
In the early twentieth century, the southern Chinese city had a canal plan similar to that in other delta cities. It helped to discharge water and prevent flooding. The canal belt with water-side loading and unloading facilities linked the city to the rivers and the sea. Together, they served as the main shipping route for foreign trade: the maritime Silk Road. “At this time, there was synergy between the various values attached to water”, concludes Tai.

Filling in the canals

This synergy was lost in the industrial period that started around 1920. The rise of industry, which took place at the same time as the end of Imperial China, led to modernisation and fast-growing urbanisation. Centralised water management and zoning plans for land use became dominant forces. The canals were filled in to make way for cars and dykes were built to help control the water. As a result, the land became separated from the water. 
The communist coup only served to reinforce this. Under the motto , ‘man can conquer nature’, Mao cleared the way after 1949 for land reclamation and the re-routing of rivers. The resulting environmental damage was considerable – rather like the damage caused here by the Delta plan. Radical engineering solutions robbed the delta region of its ability to adapt to changes in natural circumstances. 
In 2018, we are now left wondering how Guangzhou will face up to the challenges of global warming and ongoing urban development? The city’s capacity to adapt has been seriously eroded by a century of battling against nature. Flooding is becoming more frequent. And this is set to worsen in the next decades as sea levels continue to rise and weather becomes more extreme. How can the Guangzhou delta turn the tide and ensure that all the values attached to water are brought into alignment?

Land prices

On a more positive note, in recent years the local authorities have been given more room to find their own solutions, says Tai. For the first time ever, a recent initiative called the ‘Sponge City’ programme has given more leeway to urban planners than engineers. In addition, there are plans to dig new lakes and reinstate the canals. This is partly thanks to local government aims to push up the price of waterside land. Since the ‘Open Door’ politics of the 1980s, policy on land is the main source of revenue for municipal governments. Here too, there is no cohesive strategy.
The morphological analysis that Tai made in her doctoral research 'Changing Values on Water in Delta Cities. The case of Guangzhou in China's Pearl River Delta', shows where the various values clash with each other. It can be used to pinpoint where things need to change to become more adaptive. Closer cooperation between the parties involved is essential. “Unfortunately, China does not have a tradition of cooperation between sectors. The separation of the different sectors has caused the problem”, explains Tai. “The focus must shift from pure physical planning to planning methods that incorporate all the values. Perhaps China would benefit from something that the Netherlands has been using for centuries: the 'polder model'.” 

Published: September 2018