Humanity faces a major global challenge in achieving wellbeing for all, while simultaneously ensuring that the biophysical processes and ecosystem services that underpin wellbeing are exploited within scientifically informed boundaries of sustainability. We propose a framework for defining the safe and just operating space for humanity that integrates social wellbeing into the original planetary boundaries concept (Rockström et al., 2009a,b) for application at regional scales. We argue that such a framework can: (1) increase the policy impact of the boundaries concept as most governance takes place at the regional rather than planetary scale; (2) contribute to the understanding and dissemination of complexity thinking throughout governance and policy-making; (3) act as a powerful metaphor and communication tool for regional equity and sustainability. We demonstrate the approach in two rural Chinese localities where we define the safe and just operating space that lies between an environmental ceiling and a social foundation from analysis of time series drawn from monitored and palaeoecological data, and from social survey statistics respectively. Agricultural intensification has led to poverty reduction, though not eradicated it, but at the expense of environmental degradation. Currently, the environmental ceiling is exceeded for degraded water quality at both localities even though the least well-met social standards are for available piped water and sanitation. The conjunction of these social needs and environmental constraints around the issue of water access and quality illustrates the broader value of the safe and just operating space approach for sustainable development.