Increasing demand for land resources at the coast has exerted immense pressure on vulnerable environments. Population and economic growth in coastal cities have combined to produce a scarcity of suitable space for development, the response to which has frequently been the reclamation of land from the sea, most prominently in China. Urbanization is a key driver of such changes and a detailed investigation of coastal land reclamation at the city scale is required. This study analyzed remote sensing imagery for the period 1990 to 2018 to explore the trajectories of coastal land reclamation in nine major urban agglomerations across the three largest deltas in China using the JRC Global Surface Water (Yearly Water Classification History, v1.1) (GSW) dataset on the Google Earth Engine platform. The results are considered in the context of major national policy reforms over the last three decades. The analysis reveals that total land reclaimed among nine selected cities had exceeded 2800 km2
since 1984, 82% of which occurred after 2000, a year following the enactment of China’s agricultural ‘red line’ policy. Shanghai exhibited the greatest overall area of land extension, followed by Ningbo and Tianjin, especially in the period following the privatization of property rights in 2004. In analyzing annual trends, we identified the developmental stages of a typical coastal reclamation project and how these vary between cities. Scrutiny of the results revealed voids in nighttime light satellite data (2014–2018) in some localities. Although these voids appeared to be characterized by construction, they were occupied by vacant buildings, and were therefore examples of so-called “ghost cities.” In China, as elsewhere, continual land reclamation needs to be considered in relation to, inter alia, sea level rise and land subsidence that pose significant challenges to the vision of sustainable urban development in these three deltaic megacities.
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