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Shanghai Huangpu River Industrial Legacy


Shanghai from harbor to global city
With the Nanking Treaty in 1842, Shanghai became the port city which linked the Yangtze River Delta to the rest of the world. Since then, the banks of the Huangpu River, the mother river of the city, developed with more and more factories, shipbuilding yards, and city utility plants to take advantage of the river as a transportation link and as a supplier of water for the industrial processes. The river banks at that time were densely constructed and therefore inaccessible, polluted and messy.

First in the 1990s with the opening of the Pudong area for development, and later with the Expo in 2010, the most polluting industries started to relocate, initiating a massive urban restructuring of the city. Today, every central district is undergoing the riverfront regeneration. Polluting factories have been relocated outside of the city and riverside spaces are being reclaimed for new uses.

To enhance the process, and to bring Shanghai to the reputation of an excellent global city comparable to New York City and London, the city government has prioritized the upgrading of riverfront areas. The first goal is to connect all of the stand-alone initiatives on both sides of the Huangpu River, into 45 km of continuous public space from Yangpu Bridge to Xupu Bridge.


The remaining industrial buildings along Huangpu River
This research examines this buildings stock currently kept and distributed along both sides of the Huangpu River along the 45km span of public space. [1] It provides a snapshot of the amount, the location, and their main characteristics.

Along the central city’s 45km Huangpu Riverside there are a total of 140 industrial heritage buildings, whereby 52 are listed as protected industrial heritage buildings by the city government (Shanghai Planning and Land Resources Bureau, 2015). The remaining 88 riverside industrial buildings have not been assigned to the official categories of heritage architecture, but has been recognized as heritage buildings nonetheless for its historical and architectural significance (Shanghai Municipal Administration of Cultural Heritage, 2009). [2] [3]

Most of them are found in the Huangpu District, which is the most central location at the intersection of Suzhou Creek and the Huangpu River. In second place is the Yangpu District, as it was historically Shanghai’s first industrial area. Here, there is also a larger ratio of protected to non-protected heritage buildings.

According to our research, the more developed districts have a greater proportion of buildings under protection.


The age of the heritage industrial buildings
90% of the current heritage industrial buildings along the Huangpu River were built before 1937.
However, the number of industrial buildings constructed in the time period varies and can be attributed to different historical phases of Shanghai, whereby the city experienced major political and economic events that affected its industrial and urban development trends overall.

1840-1912: the old Shanghai
This is the time when the city transformed from an agricultural village to one of China’s principle trading ports. With Shanghai’s beginning of the industrial revolution, many of the industrial buildings started being built.
1842 Treaty of Nanking opened up Shanghai for the first time to foreign and private capital investments that set up industry all along the river

1912-1937: Shanghai in the Republic of China
More than half of the heritage industrial buildings were built in this time (90% altogether with the previous stage), while the city is growing and strengthening its industrial development.
1912 the Republic of China was established that gave way to a period of political stability that allowed Shanghai’s economy to further develop. In 1927 the government introduced The Greater Shanghai Plan and in 1929 acquired the north east area of the city along the Huangpu River.

1937-1949: War Time
Shanghai’s rapid industrial development lasted several decades until it was halted by political turmoil. Due to the war, all industrial and urban development stalled.
With the Battle of Shanghai in 1937, during the 2nd Sino-Japanese war, and then WWII until the end of 1945, Shanghai developed along with the foreign concessions and their dynamics.

1949-1978: Shanghai in Communist China
After the war, the industrial development resumed, but most of it shifted under national investment.
1949 the People’s Republic of China was established, whereby all foreign capital was expelled and the industries were nationalized. The implementation of the original Greater Shanghai Plan did not continue, giving priority to re-construction of damaged buildings and the construction of new roads.

1978-now: Contemporary Shanghai
1978 economic reform re-introduced foreign capital and investments which provided the opportunity for Shanghai to develop into a global financial and trading center. However, from this time the city economy continues to shift away from industrial city to global city development.
In 2000, the GDP produced by tertiary sector exceeded the one produced by the secondary sector for the first time. Factories were demolished and relocated away from the city. Only a selection remains as remnant of Shanghai’s rich industrial past.


A variety of building typologies
This research categorizes the different types of heritage industrial buildings according to their spaces and former function. Altogether, these heritage buildings represent nowadays a variety of forms that are not found in new developments while holding significant historical and architectural art conservation value.
Factories. The dominant typology built for production purposes. They typically have large open spaces, high ceilings as well as other unique structural features.
Office and commercial buildings. As the second largest group, these buildings are mostly found along the Bund that served many of the foreign companies that were historically agglomerated there. Some of them also have acclaimed foreign architectural features having been built by international developers.
Warehouses. Typically, but not exclusively, large buildings used to support manufacturing or logistic functions.
Docks. Generally defined as a group of buildings, platforms and structures located along the shores.
City Utility. Buildings, facilities and equipment built to produce and distribute city power, water, gas and so on.
Residential. The smallest group built to support the operations of industrial sites by housing its migrant workers.
The Shanghai Water Plant – located in Yangpu District, the city’s first water plant gained an addition of the Waterworks Museum which allows its striking architectural design to be exhibited by the public.
Minsheng Pier Silo 80,000 Tonnes – located in Pudong, this former grain warehouse is in the midst of regeneration into a cultural space that opened up for its first exhibition to the public in 2017.
The Cool Docks – located in Huangpu District, this former dock space transformed into a commercial and entertainment plaza.


As reminders of its industrial foundations, the heritage industrial buildings with their structures and equipment represent a valuable resource for the renewal of the city. What kind of opportunity do they carry?
Built for industrial uses, these buildings often offer unusual sizes, structures, and spaces.
In a different way than new developments, they have the potential to express an identity that is unique to the city’s history and its residents. New adaptive reuse projects demonstrate how underused spaces can be reactivated, adding new programs to the city, boosting development of their surroundings and reclaiming the city’s riverside for people.
In our upcoming articles we will deepen the understanding of the heritage industrial buildings potential and propose a methodology for their understanding within the city regeneration process, and in view of their integration to the city networks.

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