Critical perspectives for examining urbanization and sustainability in China

Peilei Fan
Michigan State University, USA

The rapid urbanization of China is an event unparalleled in human history.  Fueled by a near-continuous rural-to-urban migration, the country’s urban population has leaped from a mere 18% in 1978 to 54% in 2013.  The effects of this process are evident in a variety of ways; for example: satellite images of the Earth at night have revealed the intense increase in the illumination of China, indicating the fervent expansion of urban built-up areas.  Traveling through the country exposes one to the uninterrupted urban/suburban landscapes of the many urban agglomeration clusters, such as the Yangtze River Delta (Shanghai-Nanjing-Hangzhou), the Pearl River Delta (Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong), and the Bohai Sea Region (Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei). Remote sensing images reveal the alarming rate at which agricultural land is being subsumed by this wave of growth.

What does all this mean to researchers who study China’s urbanization and sustainability?  Given the unprecedented nature of this event, it is of critical importance that China’s urbanization be proceeded with a careful analysis of the forces driving this process as well as an evaluation of, and policy recommendations for, its societal and environmental consequences.  Yet, how can we, as a community, push our research further and become more integrated with general urban studies?  To do so, I propose we equip ourselves with three less emphasized, but none-the-less critical perspectives: global comparative, environmental and cultural/historical.

Global Comparative

2015-05-27-Irkutsk-UrbanRedevelopmentMany researchers have focused on comparing Chinese cities to each other, with little reference to cities in other countries.  In order to better understand these processes, we need to develop a body of comparative research utilizing two groups of countries and cities:

  • Countries who have also experienced economic transition from a centrally -planned to a market-oriented system (e.g., Russia and Vietnam); and
  • Countries in East and Southeast Asia that are linked with China via cultural ties such as through the influences of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism.

Two projects recently funded by NASA’s Land-Cover / Land-Use Change Program (LCLUC, Karen Seto’s “Synthesis of LCLUC Studies on Urbanization: State of the Art, Gaps in Knowledge, and New Directions for Remote Sensing Science”, which compares China’s urbanization with that of India and my own “Urbanization and Sustainability under Global Change and Transitional Economies: Synthesis from Southeast, East, and North Asia (SENA)”, which places China in a comparative context with other transitional economies such as Cambodia, Laos PDR, Myanmar, Vietnam, Mongolia, and Siberia in Russia, should help increase the amount of research done from this perspective.


2014-07-10-Beihai-OldTownUrban and rural environmental degradation have regularly appeared as major headlines in Chinese and international media outlets.  Most major Chinese cities have experienced severe smog in recent years, with schools and companies forced to suspend operations due to hazardous conditions. The image of millions of people wearing masks during their daily commute has become common place in international media outlets. While attention has been mainly focused on the acute symptoms of urban environmental problems, it is equally, if not more important, to evaluate the fundamental aspects of urban environmental quality.  There are still many questions that have yet to be answered; for example: how do changes in the quality of the urban environmental affect average urban citizens, e.g., the availability of and access to green space and/or urban parks?    Who has better access to these spaces, and what are the social implications of possible disparity in access?  My research team has recently conducted one such case study on public green space accessibility in Shanghai through developing a new composite index called ‘Green Wellness Index (GWI)’, which can reflect the wellness of a residential area evaluated by the quality of a green space and its accessibility to the resident in the area.  We found that Shanghai had expanded rapidly in recent decades, especially from 2000 to 2010, with most urban land conversion taking place in the urban periphery.  Shanghai and its urban periphery have improved their GWI from 2000 to 2010. However, the urban periphery still fell behind the average GWI of the city as a whole. More such research is urgently needed.


2015-06-16-Vientiane-ReligionCurrent driving forces of urban analysis in China have focused mainly on socio-economic forces, especially the influence of the establishment of land and housing markets and the persistent impact of planning policies at central, regional, and local levels.  It is yet to be recognized that diverse cultural and historic factors can significantly affect urbanization processes and patterns.
For example, religious and ethnic conflicts in Urumqi and other cities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region have gained international attention in the past decade.   The violent conflicts have not only severely shaken the economic development outlook for the city, but also affected urban spatial patterns and deepened the divide between the Han and Uyghur ethnic communities.  Beyond the borders of China, as mentioned before, a cultural perspective can also provide a unique comparison of urbanization with some countries in East Asia that share deep cultural ties due to the prevalence of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism, from Japan, South Korea, Taiwan in East Asia, to Vietnam, Hong Kong and Singapore in Southeast Asia.


These three perspectives can serve not only as a conceptual framework for studying China’s urbanization, but have the potential to be adapted and refined to study urbanization in other countries, in particular transitional economies and non-western societies.  If the proposed three perspectives can be adopted by the increasing scholarly mass in this subject, there is hope that China’s urbanization studies can be integrated and contributed significantly to the general studies of urbanization and sustainability.


Dr. Peilei Fan is an Associate Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at Michigan State University.

Header image: View from cableway over Yangtze river in Chongqing city, China.  Credit: Pyty /


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