Can urban public space revitalize culture in the next wave of urbanization?

Wenzhou Tech City Postindustrial Waterfront: resonates with the memory of the place

By Peiwen Yu

As a city historically known for its vibrant Commerce, charming landscapes and cultural heritages, Wenzhou is undergoing an urban transformation towards upgraded industrial structure and renewed lifestyle. Situated at the south-eastern coast along East China Sea, one of the densest urban regions in the world, Wenzhou’s upcoming Technology City is environed to be an innovative and livable new town within the next 10 years. Located in east urban extension zone of Wenzhou, the Tech City occupies 28 square KM land area, between majestic Oujiang River and rocky Huangshi Mountain. With surging talents and capital sources, The Tech City is seeking to establish a unique and competitive urban identity that attracts high-tech businesses and talented people to work and live. SWA Group was hired to design the 10 KM long postindustrial waterfront park – a major public space for this future city.

Image above: the 10 Kilometer-long, transformed waterfront design is intended to achieve ecological, social, and economic benefits supporting the growth of Tech City’s innovation industry


One of the biggest challenges faced by many rapidly constructed new towns in China is the disconnection with the country’s historical heritage. When China was opened up to the world in the 1970s, the government leader spurred the migration of more than half of China’s 1.4 billion people to cities for work. The modern design and international style are introduced to cities, building skyscrapers, to the fascination of the Chinese people. However, the type of places that are uniquely designed with Chinese cultural context was fast disappearing from towns and villages. The lead landscape architect, Peiwen Yu, believes the new phase of urbanization calls for contemporary placemaking that has the ability to evoke the past through interpreting historical references of art, culture, and architecture. The new cities will then create places that are deeply rooted in context, sustaining a sense of belonging and nostalgia for homeland.

Image above: Wenzhou’s famous tourist attraction – Yandang Mountain, and the Nanxi river

Traditionally, Wenzhou is a prefecture-level coastal port city in southeastern Zhejiang Province, facing the East China Sea. The city’s history can be traced back to the Neolithic Age (7000 years ago). With charming natural landscapes comprising of mountain ranges, meandering rivers, and mesmerizing coastal sceneries, Wenzhou has attracted tourists around the country and the world. Wenzhou’s moderate subtropical climate and four distinct seasons have earned a name for the city that means “mild and pleasant land” in 675 AD. Historically a treaty port along China’s “Golden Coast”, Wenzhou is popularly known for trade, business acumen and entrepreneurship of its people. It is also a hometown for over 500,000 oversea Chinese, many of them bring a western lifestyle back home, and the influence has over time created tourism spots with European small town characteristics.

Wenzhou Tech City Waterfront, located along a 10 KM long postindustrial shoreline by the Oujiang River, will be developed as the primary public space system for the new city. The waterfront parks afford great opportunity to shape the city’s identity and transform the postindustrial shoreline into a public venue for recreation, entertainment, healthy living, and tourism development. The transformed waterfront will establish a brand of healthy living environment that attracts people and businesses. The design is intended to establish an iconic waterfront, which supports the growth of the innovation district with an ecological, culturally resilient and functioning public realm of regional authenticity.  The waterfront design has gone through in-depth studies to incorporate rich and context-sensitive design vocabularies into a programmatic concept, space design, and materials selection.

The diagram above shows park nodes/destinations along the 10 KM shoreline highlight diverse programs and park spaces responding to adjacent urban land use/open space needs of the Tech City communities.

The waterfront design responds to the regional ecological framework of Huangshi Mountain and the Oujiang River by creating and enhancing a visual and ecological network. The park’s spatial layout reflects the proposed urban structure, with the emphasis of visual corridors towards the river and mountain. Special landscape treatment is given to the key intersections between the waterfront and city grid. While the design language of the waterfront reflects the contemporary style of the new city, it also introduces the riparian environment theme into the urban landscape through streetscape bioswales/green corridor planting and design vocabulary.

After the relocation of industrial land uses away from the waterfront, old industrial structures are preserved for adaptive reuse as urban public venues with recreational and entertainment programs.

Phase I of the waterfront park development is the 1 km long Urban Balcony Park adjacent to the financial district /urban core, connecting with the main green corridors toward the Huangshi Mountain. Comprehensive programs and rich spaces fill in the postindustrial dock and levee, creating a major tourism and recreational destination for the overall waterfront. The Urban Balcony Park features large event lawns, an amphitheater, viewing hill, park visitor center, multi-functional levee promenade, garden pedestrian bridge, ferry terminal and a series of outdoor art/sculpture gardens that take advantage of the postindustrial dock space.

Taking the flood protection elevations into consideration, the design proposed various public spaces at both the levee/protected elevation and the water edge/lower promenade elevation, providing different waterfront experiences in connecting with Oujiang River. The levee elevation promenade consists of pedestrian, jogging and biking trails that run along the waterfront. Landscape site furniture, planting, and focal point installations are designed with compelling themes interpreted from the postindustrial and natural heritage of the site. Plenty of recreational spaces, seating, and shade create a continuous waterfront corridor for daily exercise and sightseeing activities at the formerly industrial waterfront.

Former industrial docks are preserved and redeveloped into a sculpture garden and art wall spaces outside of the levee, at the lower promenade level. The landscape material palette adopted Wenzhou’s indigenous masonry wall material and construction, and the industrial vocabulary of the site, creating a unique and memorable material experience in the new Tech City.

Image above: Stonewall construction are used everywhere in rural villages in the Wenzhou region. It inspired the waterfront design at lower promenade art wall to express the local material and construction method with a contemporary design interpretation. 

 Image above: An old pier structure at the former industrial terminal is preserved and redeveloped as urban public space with recreational and entertainment programming. The phasing diagrams show how adaptive reuse is achieved through landscape design.

Many key landscape nodes designed along the waterfront reflected the local heritage, industrial past, river navigation, and geographic history. The selection of construction materials, plants, and urban furniture take inspiration from postindustrial characters, local architectural vernaculars, landscape patterns, and climate conditions.

As a new public space for the future city, the waterfront park provides various recreational/leisure programs to support the coming innovation district.

Planning and design of public space well consider the needs of different age groups, whole-of-family experiences and people working on the campuses. The plan creates an open space and destination network that supports the growth of the innovation district. The waterfront park is designed to be the city’s big outdoor lounge. Outdoor workstations will provide informal work and meeting space, where people meet, share ideas and get inspired. Design a playful public space that integrates fitness programs with the landscape elements. Make exercise enjoyable and part of the daily experience

The plan also establishes a convenient pedestrian network and reconnects the formerly industrial waterfront back to the city. The three main waterfront circulation corridors (pedestrian promenade, bike path, and jogging path) continue through the entire park, connecting with city-wide cycling and jogging loop systems. They can be easily identified by special landscape treatment, including paving patterns, planting schemes, and wayfinding systems, and conveniently accessible from public transit, water-based transformation, and adjacent urban neighborhoods.

As the initial development phase of Tech City, the waterfront park provides unique design solutions to Tech City’s most important public space. The park is responsible for the environment, honors the site’s industrial history, and fulfills the open space needs of the coming innovation district. The old industrial waterfront is reinvented to have a vital contribution to building a livable and functioning public realm for the future city.

Graphics courtesy SWA Group

(Peiwen Yu is the lead landscape architect of the Wenzhou Waterfront project)

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