Growing Green?: Shanghai’s ‘Green’ Agenda

Urbanization, which has been a major cause of pollution, has also led to remediation efforts in these cities, because it resulted in both being centers for innovation, population, high personal income, and investment.

Zhao et al., 2006

In dealing with polluted waterways, Shanghai has explored ways from the obvious (water infrastructure) to the subtle (restructuring of agricultural industries). With growing concern for remediation and eco‐restoration efforts amidst urbanisation (Zhao et al., 2006), the problem of water pollution has also became a problem of biodiversity and conservation. Yan (2003) suggests that ideas of ‘green’ and ‘natural’ ways are how cities seek to create sustainable urban centres to address a variety of urban problems. As I explore this idea in Shanghai, I believe that there is a need to consider certain hidden implications for using such an approach.

Shanghai has engaged with this method by employing eco-engineering methods for her polluted waters. Through releasing chubs and carps into its waters, oxygen barges, and aquatic plants, Shanghai seeks to naturally purify her water through replicating ecological processes.

Hypothetical example of how aquatic plants “draw” pollutants out of the river (arrows) in the process of transpiration and growth (Wang et al., 2015).

These ecological restoration and management methods are but some means in which Shanghai champions her biodiversity and conservation objectives. There seems to be a greater commitment to protecting and repopulating species and increasing ‘green’ spaces in urban Shanghai.

Increasing green spaces from 1980 – 2015 in Shanghai’s city centre (Wu et al., 2019).

Better yet, Shanghai is transforming and branding herself as an ‘eco-city’ through her skyscrapers, another ‘green infrastructure’.

Shanghai is all tall, modern, and ‘green’.

A city in the forest or a forest in the city?

However, is ecological modernism a win-win situation for biodiversity and urbanisation? This remains highly contested. Whilst ‘green infrastructure’ is supposedly for ‘economic development and population growth, health and wellbeing, biodiversity, and climate change’ (Wright, 2011: 1009), more often than not, the former two objectives take precedence in the hierarchy of priorities. 

In Shanghai, environmental concern seems to remain at the forefront of her ‘green’ initiatives. Conceptually shifting from “green spaces in the city” to “the city within green spaces”, the Shanghai Municipal Government (2002) plans to create an urban environment promoting harmonious interactions between people and nature, through building an integrated system with nature supporting the city’s functions.

However, these narratives hide certain facts: green spaces are diminishing rapidly in the suburbs as urbanisation occurs or Chinese sturgeons are on the brink of extinction from construction of massive hydroelectric dams.

Diminishing green spaces in Shanghai suburbs from 1980 -2015 (Wu et al., 2019).

The difference in managed green spaces in the city centre and suburbs reflect what Wu et al. (2019) suggests is the true priority of the government – developing good quality of life in densely populated city centres – over promoting her ecological agenda. The same could be said about the cost to biodiversity when shifting to cleaner, hydroelectric energy sources in Shanghai. These outcomes, as Wright (2011: 1011) argues, occur naturally when dealing with green infrastructures narratives, as they are driven by ‘powerful, socio-economic interests than environmental interests acting in the policy arena’.

It is worth considering why this occurs so easily Shanghai. I believe this lies in the political actors (or lack thereof) available on the scene. There is a significant lack of environmental NGOs in Shanghai, which can be traced to one main reason – the state control stemming from Maoist governmental traditions in China (Shapiro, 2001, as cited by Wang et al, 2005).

The portrayal of successful environmental agendas leading to an ‘eco-city’ has also fed into citizens’ belief that there is is significant progress in environmental protection via legal instruments, environmental regulations, and implementation of various projects. Lee (2007) suggests that this has generated an idea that there is no role for environmental NGOs to play in Shanghai’s ecological scene. 

Collectively, state control and ‘green’ narratives has resulted in a lack of environmental activism and individual responsibility from Shanghai’s citizens. As ‘urban non-human nature is never apolitical, but instead acted upon and discursively maintained to serve particular interests, or produce particular outcomes’ (Reed, 2007, as cited by Finewood, 2016: 1003), I believe that perhaps there is a need for Shanghai’s citizens to step up and diversify the scene.


Finewood, M. H., 2016. ‘Green Infrastructure, Grey Epistemologies, and the Urban Political Ecology of Pittsburgh’s Water Governance’, Antipode, vol. 48, no. 4, pp. 1000–1021. 

Lee, S., 2007. ‘Environmental Movements and Social Organisations in Shanghai’, China Information, vol. 21, no. 2, pp. 269-297. DOI:

Wang, X., Wang, S., Peng, G., Katz, D. S. W. & Ling, H., 2015. ‘Ecological Restoration for River Ecosystems: Comparing the Huangpu River in Shanghai and the Hudson River in New York.’, Ecosystem Health and Sustainability, vol. 1, no. 7, pp.1-14. DOI:

Wright, H., 2011. ‘Understanding Green Infrastructure: The Development of a Contested Concept in England’, Local Environment, vol. 16, no. 10, pp. 1003–1019.

Wu, Z., Chen, R., Meadows, M. E., Sengupta, D. & Xu, D., 2019. ‘Changing Urban Green Spaces in Shanghai: Trends, Drivers and Policy Implications’, Land Use Policy, vol. 87. DOI: 

Zhao, S., Da, L., Tang, Z., Fang, H., Song, K. and Fang, J., 2006. ‘Ecological Consequences of Rapid Urban Expansion: Shanghai, China’, Front Ecol Environ, vol. 4, no. 7, pp. 341-346.

上海市政府 [Shanghai Municipal Government], 2002. 上海市城市绿地系统规划 (2002-2020) [Shanghai Urban Green Space Planning (2002-2020)]. Available at: [Accessed 05 November 2020]. (In Chinese).

严玲璋 [Yan, L. Z.], 2003. ‘可持续发展与城市绿化 [Sustainable Development and Urban Greening]’, 中国园林 [Chinese Garden], no. 5, pp. 44–47. (In Chinese).

3 thoughts on “Growing Green?: Shanghai’s ‘Green’ Agenda

  1. This is a really enjoyable read on Shanghai’s green agenda! I like how you connected the issues surrounding Shanghai’s GI to UPE concepts, especially in the last paragraph where you made the connection between the image of a successful GI agenda and the dilution of perceived responsibility among residents.


    1. Hello! Thanks for the comment & glad you enjoyed it! (‘: I was quite surprised to find out how strongly Shanghai citizens believe in the success of these urban ‘greening’ methods – didn’t mention above but I think her citizens are creating a new problem with overfishing in their waterways despite it just being the start of a slow revival of biodiversity. But of course, I think this whole successful ‘green’ image/diluted responsibility can be generally applied across different populations – I’ve really only questioned ‘green’ schemes when I stop to properly research into them……


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