Located in the eastern part of the Guangzhou’s Huangpu District, the 24.12-kilometer long Nangang River is a river with typical Lingan ecology. It originates from the mountainous habitat of the Muqiang Reservoir in the north, passing through the core area of Huangpu, and flowing into the Pearl River in the south.

A response to the “Happy Rivers and Lakes” national initiative, this project aims to transform Nangang River, the only pilot river project in the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area, and establish it as an example for innovative water management models. The project, which is in a highly urbanized area, is fully supported by the Water Affairs Bureau of Guangzhou Municipality, Financial Investment and Construction Project Management Center of Guangzhou Development District, and Guangzhou Huangpu District Water Facilities Management Institute, in collaboration with partners including Guangzhou Urban Planning & Design Survey Research Institute, Guangdong Hongwei Ecological Planning and Design Institute Co., Ltd., and the Pearl River Hydraulic Research Institute.

As the designer of the key demonstration section of the project (Yongshun Avenue to Lihong Second Road), AECOM adopted “Four Happy Strategies” as the overall design approach. By focusing on ecological restoration and biodiversity enhancement, we integrated nature-based solutions (NbS) and highlighted distinctive landscape features of Lingnan throughout the project. The river is expected to become a “Happy River” that embodies the unique essence of Lingnan.

Four strategies for a ‘Happy River’

1. Ecology as the foundation

During the project initiation phase, the AECOM team coordinated and worked across practices including ecological, planning, landscape, and hydraulic works. By using comprehensive research methods such as macro watershed studies, on-site surveys, and ecosystem building, the team studied the natural ecological patterns of Nangang River ‒ “mountains, water, forests, fields, and gardens.” Based on the “natural law of food chain,” the team identified four major ecological segments and twelve core target species. Using low-intervention habitat design methods, the team created 24 resilient and diverse habitat areas, including sandbars, river valley beaches, farmland wetlands and waterside forests. These enhancements improved water quality and conditions for biological reproduction, establishing a strong connection between local species and indigenous habitat, and creating an ecological landscape of “clear water, green shores, birdsong, and fragrant flowers.”

Through systematic treatment, water quality in the Nangang River basin significantly improved, and biodiversity gradually recovered. Many Class-II protected species such as silver pheasant, greater coucal, and black-winged kite are now frequently seen in the area, making it a true “bird paradise.” Indigenous species like the stone moroko have returned, and fish species that require high water quality to survive, such as the chineserasbora and the aphyocypris normalis, are also making a comeback. Today, the Nangang River features clear water, green shores, herons nesting, and swimming fishes, creating a vibrant and lively environment.

2. Technology as an enabler

The design leveraged a “four predictions” scheduling platform, which uses digital twin technology for flood prevention and drainage, based on flood control, river dam improvement, and reservoir construction. This system could coordinate and use intelligent tools to make decisions for reservoirs, dams, and pumps under different hydrological conditions. With the real-time flood and waterlogging risk map of Huangpu District available, the intelligent scheduling system achieves automatic monitoring, comprehensive management, and hydraulic regulation, enhancing the defense capabilities against extreme weather. The area that lies in the South of Xiangxue Avenue, was transformed into a sponge wetland that can be used as a popular science exhibition. To achieve that, the team reused treated wastewater from the midstream water purification plant to replenish the site and created a series of purification processes. Overall, the team combined natural restoration with low-carbon technology to transform the space into an ecological sponge system, and create a “Twin Nangang River” to help build a low-carbon and green resilient city.

As an important waterfront green belt in the eastern innovation zone, the current Nangang River riverbanks, with its high-quality water resources and healthy living environment, attract numerous individual talents. The basin is home to approximately 1,300 large and medium-sized enterprises, and eight national-level innovation industrial parks, including the Huangpu Laboratory. The area has attracted 111 academicians and gathered 1,260 high-level talents, ranking first in the city. It is the most vibrant science and technology innovation zone in the east of Guangzhou, supporting the technological “backbone” of the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area. The project team seamlessly integrated and placed interactive science and technology exhibition boxes along the banks, echoing the atmosphere of science and technology, and showcasing the history and achievements of government-enterprise collaboration.

3. Vitality as a catalyst

By creating an interconnected greenway system and coordinating “land-river-water” corridors, the team turned the riverside into an accessible space for citizens of all ages, and an area for various activities such as viewing, leisure, fitness, entertainment, and science education, all of which complements the city function.

The original space under the elevated bridge on the left riverbank was relatively enclosed, dimly lit, and inconvenient for passage, with low visibility and utilization. After the transformation, this space was revitalized into the Nangang River Joyful Park, covering a total area of 12,000 square meters. The park was divided into four parts: children’s activity area, fitness activity area, comprehensive services area, and ball game activity area. The facilities are well-equipped, making it an exemplary example for utilizing under-bridge space in Huangpu District and a new model for a city park.

Currently, the area along Nangang River are primarily residential lots, with some spaces supporting science and education and commercial-residential use. Nestled against the mountains and facing the water, it offers a livable and enjoyable environment for approximately 433,000 people, accounting for 34% of the total population of Huangpu District. The flourishing development of the city, industrial growth and transformation, and life satisfaction are the best evidence of the effectiveness of environmental management of the Nangang River. It is also a true reflection of the importance of the river in the economic development of Huangpu District.

4. Lingnan culture as a finishing touch

The Shuixi and Shuidong villages in the Nangang River basin have a history of over six hundred years. These ancient villages thrive by the water and its residents live by groups, which is typical in Lingnan. The design fully explores the rural culture of the Nangang River by highlighting the tourism landmarks such as Luogang Xiangxue and Yuyan Academy, and leveraging resources such as the Maritime Silk Road and dragon boat culture. It also combines the modern spirit of ecological protection and technological innovation to make Nangang River a unique cultural and tourism experience.

The riverside space adopts an integrated approach, using a consistent design language and core storytelling for the design of the pedestrian bridges, street furniture, signage systems, lighting, and other elements throughout the entire 24-kilometer watershed.

Built and shared by the community

Throughout the transformation of the Nangang River into one of the “Happy Rivers and Lakes” in the land, the team consistently adhered to an inclusive and open-minded approach. Through the model of “joint managed by departments, joint building by enterprises, and shared by the community,” the government, enterprises, and citizens are able to participate together in water management. The team has organized multiple public participation workshops, where residents and stakeholders discussed design proposals and construction models. They also held the “Happy Nangang River” photography competition, encouraging citizens to share their stories about “Me and the Nangang River,” enhancing public engagement.


With the revitalized “Happy Nangang River,” the community by the river now seamlessly connects to the ecological waterfront, achieving harmony between people and water.

Thanks to the coherent efforts of all parties and the active participation of citizens, the transformed Nangang River has become an ecological and happy river in the heart of the city, setting a new model for the management of small watersheds in large cities. To revitalize the negative space, and integrate the natural river into urban life, the AECOM team fully consider ecological protection and landscape design, allowing citizens to experience happiness at their doorstep.

© Photo credit: Zelin Yao, Phyllics Lun, Liqiang Mo, Yuqin Zheng, Bozhao Wu, Weiping Wu, Zhiyuan Liao, Bingjian Ou, Hanbiao Li, Yinyan Li, Zhiyan Zhang