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The Urbanization of Rural China

Type of project
Basic research

About the project

The “Urbanization of Rural China” research framework is a system of empirical case studies of the development of villages and village-systems done by PhD students from AHO and CAFA. Chinese villages are being demolished or gentrified as a part of large-scale rural policies. The politically expressed intention is to bring wealth to the countryside and bridge the huge economic gap between urban and rural. These actions should also been seen in relation to future strategies for redistribution of ownership of land and possible industrialization of Chinese agriculture.


Chinese urban structure and urban language was an established system until the international aggression against China and the internationalisation around 1900. This established urban languages sustained in most cities until after the revolution, and in villages in the countryside until today.

The vast Chinese urbanisation due to the modernisation of Chinese economy and society and the new role of Chinese production in the world economy, have drastically transformed Chinese cities. Generally a whole range of World megacities has arisen in the country, mostly in the eastern and coastal areas. These cities have the characteristics of complex urban regions containing the central city with a developed generic pattern, vast areas for industrial production, housing areas situated at different locations related to centrality, infrastructure and landscape, reflected in their marked value. These agglomerations also sustain patchwork of agricultural production, villages incorporated in the regional system and town/cities that has merged into the urban regional system.

In terms of economy these patterns of Chinese development have been extremely successful. They have been governed by a liberal and marked oriented way of handling land-use and building permission. The scarcity of housing has led to a situation were even relatively low housing quality has been given high marked value.

In terms of
– sustainability,
– the need to reduce CO2 emission,
– the ability to handle urban ecology and urban landscape,
– urban architectural quality outside the CBD and prestigious cultural investments,
– ability to handle heritage and historical structures,
– the development of an economically speaking sustainable infrastructure,
– and the general qualities of urban life,

the success-story of Chinese mega-urbanism might be disputed.

The character and principals for urban growth in China have of course been an essential discussion in Chinese politics. Evaluating the economical, urban and social consequences of the open door policies The Chinese Government from the mid 1990s introduced the concept of the development of medium and small-scale cities, resulting in models for New Town development. This model dealt with the expansion of the urban population, but at the same time intended to disperse economical development and to modernise both public and private services.

In the 20 year period from 1994, until the party congress of 2013, a large number of New Town developments have been achieved in China – statistics tell that the number has been doubled from 1500 to around 3000.  In terms of urban structure and architecture these new towns reflects the generic models for large-scale urban development and mega-city urban typology. In terms of planning they have been developed by traditional master-plan schemes defining infrastructure and land-use, stressing the principals for functional segregation.

The New Town model has been adapted all over China, but has been most effective as a part of urban regional development, where the New Town has a role within an established marked for production, housing and services.

Many of the urbanising countries are characterised by:
– large population,
– low general income,
– limited resources,
– rapid development in an inefficient way.

From an UN- Habitat point of view one could even say that the Chines urban challenge has Globally speaking certain typical characteristics.

The 18th Party Congress in 2013 underlines that in order to be able to handle urban growth in an operational way, at least half of the increase of the urban population in China during the next 10 – 20 years should happen in small and medium cities. In order to achieve this aim there is a need to develop planning models for small and medium city development that:
– are more efficient and renews the role of planning and urban government,
– are less resource demanding,
– establishes a better and more fruitful equilibrium between public and private investment.

There is also a need to establish a new set of intentions for the development of these cities:
– the intention of sustainable urban development,
– the intention of a more complex and better integrated role of the singular city/town/village in the regional urban system,
– the intention of a high quality urban environment,
– the intention of general accessibility to urban quality.

And this means in terms of planning:
– new ways of handling planning processes,
– a greater multitude of strategies and flexibility in development processes,
– a new approach to urban regulation,
– new ideals for architectural, infrastructural and landscape development.

Processes for modernisation of the Chinese countryside are needed to bridge the economic gap between urban and rural China. Different strategies are used to modernise the villages like:
– gentrification strategies,
– tourism,
– modernisation of agriculture,
– industrialisation strategies.

In terms of the environment the common strategy is to move the villagers out of the traditional environment to property developed “new villages” that in reality are normal housing areas. In the countryside the policy of tearing down traditional environments still persists.

These policies have to be seen in relation to the strengthening of the economy and the social infrastructure in the Chinese countryside. On the other hand the strategies are also related to the really substantial questions in Chinese rural policies: the questions of future ownership and control of the land, and the character and degree of industrialisation of Chinese agriculture.