City building in China: Implications for urban form efficiency

Douglas Webster

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

1 Scopus citations


Current Chinese city-building processes can be viewed from a land efficiency perspective and through the prism of the key actors, particularly (1) local governments (municipal, urban district, county), (2) the national government, which has become increasingly interventionist in response to energy efficiency, agricultural land protection, and housing-affordability issues, (3) developers (ranging from small-scale, local to large-scale, international developers), and (4) China's emerging civil society. Two cases, Xi'an and Tianjin, are illustrative. Xi'an was a staid interior city from 1949 until the late 1980s. Over the last two decades, however, the city has been impacted by global industry, particularly by tourism (after the discovery of the Terracotta Warriors) and by software development drawn by a strong educational base and the Xi'an High Technology Development Zone (XHTDZ). The second case, Tianjin, is an established coastal city and a former treaty port, whose economic growth was modest over the last twenty years (in Chinese terms), but it has recently been designated by the current (Hu Jintao) Chinese government as a priority target for urban development as part of a larger-scale focus on the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei megapolitan region. The two case studies are presented from different perspectives. The Xi'an case study focuses on the role of actors, while the Tianjin case study focuses on land-use issues resulting from the behavior of key actors. The research underlying this chapter is driven by the Chinese national government's concern to achieve more efficient land use in metropolitan areas measured in terms of energy consumption, human travel time, unit infrastructure investment costs, logistics (distribution) costs, and loss of fertile agricultural land. In regard to the last, China's national target is to protect 121 million hectares of agricultural land nationwide in perpetuity.1 As such, the chapter emphasizes understanding the potential of vacant land within the built-up city, rural-urban land conversion, and the degree and spatial distribution of nodality. Of particular concern is the role of drivers affecting the foregoing, particularly land markets, transportation systems (routes, mode, alignment with land use and employment), and large-scale public investments, e.g., construction of urban subcenters. This chapter is a follow-up to research the author undertook earlier on city-building in Bangkok (Webster 2000). Comparing China with Bangkok and other East Asian extended urban regions raises the question: is the Chinese city-building process substantively different from earlier city-building processes in East Asia, or is it simply at an earlier point on the trajectory?.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationGlobal Urbanization
PublisherUniversity of Pennsylvania Press
Number of pages22
ISBN (Print)9780812242843
StatePublished - Dec 1 2011

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences


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