Mangrove forests are some of the most carbon-rich habitats on earth, but unintentional urban shifts continue to threaten these sensitive and essential environments. Policies to conserve and restore these ecosystems can provide high carbon benefits, especially in areas where mangrove loss has been most dramatic. Urban designers have noticed the threats to mangrove populations and are developing solutions that not only restore lost mangrove cover, but honor and create amenities around them. Cities like Hong Kong and Shenzhen are making dramatic improvements in their mangrove forest health.
Mostly found in countries with tropical and subtropical climates and ample rainfall, mangroves refer to plants including trees, palms, and shrubs and are generally found by swamps, riverbanks, and coastal areas. To the uninformed eye, mangroves seem like any other abundant, sometimes-smelly, and not particularly attractive form of greenery, but are actually an incredibly important eco-defense system throughout the region. Mangroves provide natural storm and monsoon protection, prevent soil erosion, provide habitat for aquatic life, birds, and other plants, and absorb almost eight times more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than any other ecosystem.
Sadly—and dangerously—mangroves are misunderstood and often under-valued in many countries, and are frequently destroyed in favor of new coastal development and deforestation for manufacturing. This fact, compounded with the environmental impacts of pollution and climate change, has led to their numbers dropping at an alarming rate. In Mumbai, Shenzhen, and Hong Kong, designers and city planners have developed solutions that not only restore lost mangrove cover, but honor and create amenities around them.
In Shenzhen: Restoring Habitat and Creating a New Coastline
Shenzhen, now the fourth largest city in China, saw its mangrove forests shrink from 530 hectares to just 130 hectares (along with many of the endangered species the habitat supported) as the city morphed from a series of adjacent fishing villages into a giant manufacturing hub over the course of just a few decades. Finally acknowledging that converting so much of the city’s natural areas into primarily manufacturing zones was impacting both the local environment and citizens’ quality of life, the government of Shenzhen partnered with the SWA Group to do a massive overhaul of Shenzhen’s bay.
The result has been a revitalized waterfront that, as part of a series of land-based initiatives throughout the city, has changed the perception of Shenzhen from one of a bustling and highly industrial metropolis to a lush, livable city that will be as known for its cosmopolitan quality as it is for the products that come out of it. As is the case in Hong Kong, the revegetation of Shenzhen’s coastline is creating an important public amenity while also mitigating some of the environmental destruction that caused the mangrove loss in the first place, in this instance restoring the marsh land that had been previously been depleted.
In Hong Kong: Blending Ecotourism and Recreation with Conservation
Shenzhen’s urban neighbor, Hong Kong, has developed a program that replenishes lost mangrove cover while boosting advocacy and education around the ecosystem for both residents and visitors. The Hong Kong Wetlands Park is a 64-hectare urban wetland wonderland that has become a popular tourist destination and a natural counterpoint to the city’s towers (the site has seen millions of visitors pass through since it opened in 2006).
While many cities treat their mangroves as an overgrown and neglected backyard that they hope to hide away, the Hong Kong Wetlands Park turns its revegetated mangroves into a front yard to the city, proudly putting them on display by creating an adjacent floating boardwalk specifically for the purpose of viewing and interacting with four of the eight species of mangroves found in Hong Kong, as well as the birds, fish, and other wildlife that they attract.
In Mumbai: Honoring the Mangroves While Improving Equity and Connectivity
Architect Neville Mars went to Mumbai in 2008 to spend a year examining urban design trends and solutions as part of the BMW Guggenheim Lab. In the process, Mars immersed himself in the community and discovered that some of the biggest urban challenges weren’t actually around traffic congestion, as many had suspected (95 percent of Mumbai residents don’t even own a car), but the greater issues centered around both water pollution and connectivity—water and sanitation problems plague the city, and in slum areas, as Neville describes it, the water is “literally pitch black.”
Mars developed a solution that would uncover and heal the mangroves and create an alternate transportation channel between disconnected slums and the rest of the city. The proposal, the Landlink Design Prototype, would use an abandoned pipeline stretching across two of the densest sections of the city to be converted in a rickshaw highway. As Mars explains it:
“Basically, if you’re on the ground, [the mangroves] are this really large natural resource that are essentially invisible because they’re surrounded by heavy infrastructure and roads. If you’re driving on these roads, you see them at the heart of this megacity. The water pipeline is the only thing that cuts through them, and the only way to experience these mangroves is to traverse over them from one slum to the other. So we tried to figure out why the mangroves were in such bad condition and it became clear that the relatively new sea link infrastructure built with funding from the national government was actually slowing down the water flow through the mangroves and, as such, increasing the sedimentation and preventing the natural habitat from running its course, increasingly becoming polluted and filling itself up with sedimentation.”
While the Landlink Design Prototype has yet to be implemented, the idea is as imaginative as it is practical, and is grounded in thorough design research and public consideration. From local slum area residents to academics to public officials, the collective hope, for the sake of both the mangroves and the people of Mumbai, is to see more projects like this become a reality.
The Landlink Design Prototype, the Shenzhen Bay Waterfront, and the Hong Kong Wetlands Park demonstrate how governments, designers, and the public can work together to create and implement solutions that honor the interaction between our natural and built urban environments. With projects like these, the most complex and economically promising region in the world can start to undo some of the environmental damage of rapid economic growth to the mangroves and restore arguably the planet’s most natural-capital rich ecosystem.
Sean O’Malley, Managing Principal at SWA Landscape Architecture
Sean O’Malley is a landscape architect and urban designer with over 27 years of experience in projects including community planning and urban design, site planning, landscape design, and construction. He combines his experience in both environmental and large-scale urban design to formulate comprehensive land-based solutions that respect and respond to the environment they inhabit. Since joining SWA in 1988, Sean has been involved in a variety of design and planning projects throughout the United States as well as Mexico, Canada, China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, India, Australia, Croatia, Russia, and France.