Abstract Indoor and outdoor seedling emergence experiments were conducted to thoroughly investigate germination patterns as affected by reclamation and urbanization, the ecological characteristics of soil seed banks, and their relationships with environmental factors in both urbanized and reclaimed regions of the Pearl River Delta in coastal wetlands. The germination rate of the soil seed bank was higher in the indoor experiment compared with that in the outdoor experiment, whereas the number and destiny of the germinated seedlings were greater in the outdoor experiment. The species diversity and number, as well as the richness and evenness indices, were higher in the urbanized region compared with the reclaimed region. However, the dominance and Sørensen similarity indices were greater in the reclaimed region compared with those indices in the urbanized region. Higher salinity and Cadmium (Cd) levels could inhibit seed germination; however, their suitable ranges (i.e. [0–2000mgkg−1] for salinity and [0–4.0mgkg−1] for available Cd) can activate seedling emergence, and more seedlings germinated under the intersectional levels at 0.34mgkg−1 available Cd and 778.6mgkg−1 salinity. Seawater intrusion caused by the sea level rise will possibly result in the salt-tolerant community in this area due to increasing salinity.