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This essay considers China's emerging role as a “laboratory” for innovation in achieving urban sustainability. Its purpose is to highlight, in the context of the Sino-American Symposium on Future Issues Affecting Quality of Life, aspects of Chinese urbanization which contribute to China's increasing global significance as a site for natural experiments in urban sustainability. Such experiments are relevant not only to the future quality of life in China, but also to the growing number of countries participating in development partnerships with China. The essay begins with an overview of urban sustainability and China's particular urban challenges. We then focus on three aspects of Chinese urbanization which stand out as distinct in fostering urban innovation and in serving as appropriate laboratories for the development of innovative practices in urban sustainability for the global south— the pace, scale and governance of urbanization. We use examples from the city of Taiyuan, Shanxi Province, to ground the discussion in a specific place, while acknowledging that, although Taiyuan serves well to illustrate many key points, it is only one case and cannot serve as a basis of generalization about China as a whole.
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Learning from Taiyuan: Chinese Cities as Urban Sustainability
Piper Gaubatz , Dean Hanink
PII: S2666-6839(20)30027-4
Reference: GEOSUS 19
To appear in: Geography and Sustainability
Received date: 31 January 2020
Revised date: 25 May 2020
Accepted date: 24 June 2020
Please cite this article as: Piper Gaubatz , Dean Hanink , Learning from Taiyuan: Chi-
nese Cities as Urban Sustainability Laboratories, Geography and Sustainability (2020), doi:
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This is an open access article under the CC BY-NC-ND license.
Learning from Taiyuan: Chinese Cities as Urban Sustainability Laboratories
Authors Names and Affiliations:
1) Piper Gaubatz (corresponding author) Department of Geosciences, University of
Massachusetts Amherst, Amherst, MA, 01003, USA (
2) Dean Hanink, Department of Geography, University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT, 06209, USA
Comment [ZZZ1]:  
is the name of the
University. The Postal Address requires
 
in Massachusetts.
China aspires to global leadership in sustainable urban innovation.
The pace, scale, and governance of Chinese cities are well-suited to natural experiments.
Chinese urban sustainability practices are relevant to cities in the developing world.
This essay considers Chinas emerging role as a laboratory for innovation in achieving
urban sustainability. Its purpose is to highlight, in the context of the Sino-American Symposium
on Future Issues Affecting Quality of Life, aspects of Chinese urbanization which contribute to
Chinas increasing global significance as a site for natural experiments in urban sustainability.
Such experiments are relevant not only to the future quality of life in China, but also to the
growing number of countries participating in development partnerships with China. The essay
begins with an overview of urban sustainability and Chinas particular urban challenges. We
then focus on three aspects of Chinese urbanization which stand out as distinct in fostering urban
innovation and in serving as appropriate laboratories for the development of innovative practices
in urban sustainability for the global south the pace, scale and governance of urbanization.
We use examples from the city of Taiyuan, Shanxi Province, to ground the discussion in a
specific place, while acknowledging that, although Taiyuan serves well to illustrate many key
points, it is only one case and cannot serve as a basis of generalization about China as a whole.
Keywords: Sustainable urbanization, Urban geography, Urban systems, Belt-and-Road
Initiative, Taiyuan
Declaration of interests
The authors declare that they have no known competing financial interests or personal
relationships that could have appeared to influence the work reported in this paper.
We gratefully acknowledge the Timothy Light Center for Chinese Studies of Western Michigan
University, and Professor Timothy Light, for inviting us to participate in this project.
1. Introduction
Taiyuan, a large city at the heart of Chinas primary coal-mining region, was named one
of the worlds top ten most polluted cities by the Asian Development Bank in 2013 (Staedter,
2013). In 2017, residents of this large city were stunned by a near-total ban on the use of coal by
both individuals and businesses within the city. The October 1, 2017 ban on coal use came as air
pollution in this city reached new highs. The story of this city's grappling with both the
problems and the possibilities introduced by rapid growth and new connections with the global
economy offers illustrates the prospects for cities in China and across the globe in the 21st
century. Environmental challenges can be severe in Chinese cities such as Taiyuan, but broad-
ranging remediation and counter-measures can be deployed relatively quickly. In the context of
the Sino-American Symposium on Future Issues Affecting Quality of Life, we provide an
overview of the potential for Chinese cities to serve as a testing ground for new approaches to
sustainable urban development. We illustrate our observations with short vignettes from the
experience of Taiyuan, capital of Shanxi Province.
The global literature on urban planning and, more recently, urban sustainability, has long
been dominated by research and examples from the global North, especially North America and
Europe (Wu, 2015). Case studies from China, however, have become common in many different
professional publications. Would developing countries in the global South be better served to
adopt Chinese innovations in order to achieve sustainable urban development? Our purpose in
writing this essay is to consider distinctive aspects of Chinese urban development that might
Taiyuan to provide concrete illustrations of broad concepts.
Comment [GeoSus2]: I checked the
news. Heavy fog had very close
relationship with the car pileup crash.
While, air pollution may not the only reason
for the heavy fog or car crash.
Could you remove this sentence please?
Comment [GeoSus3]: These kinds of
words  
for scientific paper. Some readers may
believe that this is racial discrimination.
Comment [ZZZ4]: I ha ve removed this,
but please note: (1) this was a direct quote,
not my own words. (2) native speakers of
English would be unlikely to associate this
 
contribute new approaches appropriate to furthering the worlds quest for sustainability. Given
that Chinas environmental and sustainability challenges have been well-documented, and there
are numerous published case-studies of Chinas experiments with sustainable development, we
neither provide a comprehensive summary of that research, nor add new research to those
growing bodies of literature, but rather offer a framework for understanding the utility of those
bodies of knowledge. We focus on three particulary relevant areas of distinction: the pace of
urbanization, the scale of urbanization, and urban governance and policy.
The essay begins with an overview of key topics the characteristics of Chinese cities in
a global context, the potential for Chinese cities to serve as the locus for natural experiments, a
brief discussion of urban sustainability, and a brief overview of specific sustainability challenges
faced by Chinese cities. The second section presents our three themes: pace of urbanization,
scale of urbanization, and urban governance. The final section discusses the challenges and
possibilities in thinking of China as a global urban laboratory in the context of those three
themes. To offer continuity and grounding of the discussion in a real place, we begin most
sections with a short illustrative vignette from the city of Taiyuan and/or the surrounding region.
2. Chinese cities and Urban Sustainability
2.1 Positioning Chinese cities in global context
Although cities take up about two percent of the worlds land area, their significance and
impact are huge: more than half the  population lives in cities, and this proportion is
expected to rise to about two-thirds by 2050. Seventy percent of the worlds GDP is generated by
cities, but cities also are responsible for about 70% of the worlds waste, 70% of the greenhouse
gas emissions, and about 60% of global energy consumption (United Nations Habitat Program,
2016). Not only are cities significant in planning for sustainability, but Chinese cities, in
particular, are significant. More than one in ten people living on earth today lives in a Chinese
city, and one in five urban dwellers lives in a Chinese city. Chinas urban population, more than
800 million people, is larger than the total population of Europe and is about 2.5 times the total
population of the United States (World Bank, 2019). Considering this sheer weight of numbers,
the multiplier effects of Chinas approach to urban planning, management and development not
only in China but also as an export to more than 60 countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America,
and the growing influence of China on the global economy, the future of Chinese cities will have
a major impact on global efforts to achieve the sustainable development goals adopted by the
United Nations in 2015 (Bryan et al., 2018; Cheng and Ge, 2020; Xu et al., 2020). China is both
one of the worlds largest emitters of greenhouse gases (Fleming, 2019), and at the same time, a
key contributor to global efforts to achieve sustainability (Huang et al, 2015, 2016; Sun et al,
2018; Xu et al., 2020).
The speed of Chinas urbanization and its coincident shift from a rural economy to one
based in cities is remarkable (Gaubatz, 1999; Wu and Gaubatz, 2013; Wu et al., 2014; Huang et
al., 2015, 2016; Li et al., 2019). In 1960 only 16 percent of Chinas population, or about 107
million people, lived in cities; that proportion had increased marginally but was still less than 18
percent when Chinas era of economic reform commenced in 1978. Since that time, however,
the urban proportion of the country's population has more than tripled: rising to 38 percent by
2002 and nearly 60 percent today (World Bank, 2019). Nearly every city in China has
experienced extremely rapid urban growth, with growth in sheer numbers of residents
particularly significant in the eastern region, and expanding development, or sprawl, especially
significant in small- and medium-sized cities in the central and western regions (Gao et al.,
Comment [GeoSus5]: Please provide
Comment [GeoSus6]: Please provide
2016). This transition from rural to urban has accompanied Chinas transition from an economy
and society largely cut-off from the global community to one of its major power players. As
China becomes increasingly connected to the rest of the world, the Chinese approach to a wide
range of urban and environmental issues, from transportation planning to migration policies
matters at all scales, from local to global.
China has made a firm commitment to the global effort to achieve sustainability through
improving the environment. In 2015, China identified nine areas of particular priority for
implementing the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, from
safeguarding equity and social justice to protecting the environment and addressing climate
change. Key among these is a pledge to coordinate development between urban and rural areas
and among the three dimensions of sustainable development (United Nations, 2016). Chinas
to sustainability throughout the countries where Chinese development projects have been
deployed as part of Chinas Belt and Road initiative.
2.2 A natural home for natural experiments
A couple of hours drive from Taiyuan stands the village of Dazhai, Shanxi, once a
commune made internationally-famous in the 1960s by Chairman Maos Learn from Dazhai in
Agriculture campaign. The designation of exemplary models and experiments has been a key
facet of Chinese development practice throughout the history of the PRC. During the early
years, exemplary communes and enterprises, such as the Dazhai commune and the Daqing coal
mine, were praised as models to be emulated. Widespread propaganda-campaigns extolling their
accomplishments served not only as a means of translating the states development goals into
local-level aspirational models but also as a way to disseminate planning practices and models
(in this case, in agriculture and rural development) (Meisner, 1978; Zhang and Wei, 2011;
Brehm and Svensson, 2020). Such models have become fundamental instruments for supporting
Chinese political, economic, and social goals, as well as serving as a mechanism for
benchmarking success in meeting those goals (Brehm and Svensson, 2020). In the first
decades after the founding of the People's Republic of China, industrial development was the
primary mechanism for urban planning and development (Wu, 2015). The central government
supported 156 large-scale industrial projects in the first Five Year Plan (19531957); ten of
these were located in Taiyuan and played a significant role in setting the basic framework for
future expansion of the city (Wang, 2002). Although there was little urban planning in the
conventional sense in China before the start of the Reform Era at the end of the 1970s (Wu,
2015), the legacy of the exemplary model-focused campaigns of the 1960s and core projects
established by the central state can be seen in contemporary urban planning. China has deployed
a number of "model, 
economic reform at the end of the 1970s, focused on establishing model communities to be
emulated throughout the country (Canon, 2005; Gaubatz, 2008). This began with the designation
 
controlled experiments with new economic models for a wide range of functions, from
production to global trade. A plethora of experimental zone policies has followed, from
Economic and Technological Development Zones to Science Parks, High-Technology Parks, and
International Business Incubators. National-level programs were mimicked by provincial and
municipal programs, and experimental zones proliferated by the thousands, ultimately earning a
new nickname for their creation Cartier, 2001; Wu, 2015) 
commitment to achieving environmental sustainability during the Reform Era has sparked a
National Garden Cities in 1990 to the Zero-Waste Cities program announced in 2019. As in the
s, green/eco-city projects have proliferated during the 21st century with
well over 250 cities claiming a green/eco-city project (Table 1; Wu, 2015).
Another way to interpret these programs, however, is as a wholehearted engagement with
xperiments in this case, in the fields of economic
is an experiment which is deployed within a
Unlike the laboratory or RCT, in a natural experiment, it is not possible to generate a true control
sample, nor is it possible to control all of the variables. In essence, they are observational studies
that t the outcomes are compared with
places/situations in which the experiment was not deployed. Historians of science often point to
a mid-19th century London cholera epidemic as one of the first
applications of the natural experiment method (Dunning, 2008, 2012; Leatherdale, 2019).
Despite the fact that a natural experiment, by definition, takes place outside of a controlled
laboratory environment, it has become common to refer to organized efforts to analyze and
understand the urban environment through natural experiment research 
nd the University of
 The UN Habitat program also has an initiative fostering
problems, throughout the world (Krebs, 2016).
In these contexts, we argue that over the course of the past 70 years, China has developed
an approach to urban planning and development that emphasizes the use of urban experimental
models and pilot projects in fostering innovation. In regard to urban ecology, this has been
-inspired, transdisciplinary philiosphy for studying and managing
urban systems Thus, when China engaged
with the new global concern with sustainability (see below), it was well-prepared to become a
primary locus for experimentation in new, sustainability-oriented approaches.
2.3 urban sustainability challenges
Taiyuan, once a Dragon
Cthe site of one  first major environmental protection conferences in 1978
(Edmonds, 1994; Fig. 1). Yet in the 21st century, it is perhaps best known as an example of
extreme environmental degradation. Resource-production cities, 
, 2016). While the resource cities were
far from the centers o
for energy and resources accelerated 
readily accessible fuel-
(Wang et al., 2020). With its location near the center of a province which derives 70% of its
GDP from coal, iron and steel production, and chemical manufacturing, and supplies nearly a
has been severely degraded. The city
 its groundwater, the
primary source of drinking water, was contaminated, and there were high concentrations of
heavy metals in the soil south of the city (Morgenstern, et al, 2005; Liu et al, 2014; Falke, 2016;
Li et al., 2018). By the end of the twentieth century, these problems were widely acknowledged,
and an ongoing struggle to overcome this environmental degradation began through a complex
and ever-changing coalition of local, provincial and state government efforts and partnerships
with a wide range of international actors, such as the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank,
and the United Nations.
As in the case of Taiyuan, the rapid pace of change and the vast expansion of the Chinese
urban system pose many challenges for sustainability. Many 
though others stand out as relatively
unique. The OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), for example,
lists a series of challenges facing China in its continued urbanization, including an over-reliance
the problem of dual (migrant and native) labor markets and other, related, forms of
discrimination; environmental and resource challenges, such as pollution and agricultural land
conversion; and the need for better planning, which should more consistently anticipate urban
problems rather than ignore them or only address them after the damage occurred (OECD, 2015).
To this list we add environmental challenges such as management and mitigation of solid waste
Comment [ZZZ7]: Note I rejected the
change here (deletion of south) because
 
and water (both flooding and water supply), mitigation of climate change-related hazards, and
rising energy requirements, economic challenges such as dual labor markets and the need for
infrastructure to support development, and a range of social challenges, from socio-spatial,
economic and gender inequality to public safety, health care, and delivery of social services
(McGranahan et al., 2007; Chan and Yao, 2008; Jiang, 2009; Chen and Lees, 2018; Huang et al.,
2019). Table 2 summarizes these in the context of the three pillars of sustainability.
3 Conditions for urban experiments: pace, scale and governance
In consideration of the role China can play in providing a robust set of natural
experiments for building sustainable urbanism, we focus on three aspects of Chinese
urbanization, and the urban governance system.
3.1 Pace: rapid urban growth and the Chinese economy
Taiyuan grew from about 1.1 million registered residents in 1980 to 2.5 million in 2000,
and nearly 4 million today, with an economy driven by its dual roles as the capital of Shanxi
Province and the heart of a major coal-mining region. Although rates of energy consumption
had grown slower than GDP in China between 1980 and 2000, the 2001 entry of China into the
ensified, bringing a
rapid deterioration of air quality and other environmental hazards (Tang et al., 2014; Fig. 2).
Rapid urban growth and rapid increases in environmental hazards have occurred in many
Chinese cities. In China as a whole, the urban population grew from about 107 million people in
1960 (18 percent 
percent of its population) while its per capita GDP grew in real terms from about 1,483 Chinese
Yuan to more than 56,382 Yuan (in constant units) during the same period (World Bank, 2019;
Fig. 3). Much of this growth occurred after the introduction of economic reforms in 1978, when
city dwellers accounted for only 35% of the population.
T i
manufacturing and services increasing to about 92 percent as agriculture,
forestry, etc.) share declined from nearly 27 percent to about eight percent from 1990 to 2017
(NBS, 2019). Sect
manufacturing and later toward services, have been typical of economic change in many
countries in their economic development (e.g. Fisher, 1939). In most countries, however, the
process was driven by demand shifts initiated by income-raising productivity increases in
agriculture, and then higher productivity and higher incomes in manufacturing in an historical,
typically long-term process. The shifts were rapidly accelerated in China, however, by two
policy actions. The first was a series of reforms initiated in 1978 that
eventually altered the structure of agricultural production and modernized and reorganized
industry in ways that greatly improved productivity and eventually enabled profit-making and
privatization. 
Organization (WTO) in 2001. China was a successful exporter before its membership in the
WTO, but that membership had an impact in changing the destinations and composition of its
exports. Soon after its membership commenced, its leading true export market (excluding Hong
Kong) switched from Japan to the United States, and its leading export sector changed from
consumer goods to capital goods (World Bank, 2019). To a great degree, the shift from
agriculture to manufacturing in China was driven by export markets rather than income gains
 of export-led
growth in other countries.
manufacturing and services, in its economic focus corresponded to a shift in an aggregate
production function of diminishing returns to scale of production:
Q = A Lα Kβ, α+β < 1, (1)
where Q is output, A is total factor productivity, L is labor, K 
elasticities associated with the labor and capital factors, respectively, toward an aggregate
production function with increasing returns:
Q = A Lα Kβ, α+β > 1. (2)
considerably by the reforms. The labor supply for manufacturing, in particular, was increased
1954), and rural-to-
(Xing and Zhang, 2017). Capital formation was greatly enhanced by the inflow of private capital
and also by government subsidies to production.
An increase in the sum of the elasticities, α+β, likely resulted from the economies of
scale, or agglomeration economies, realized from growing spatial concentrations of
industrialization in selected cities that yielded increasing internal economies of scale (Krugman,
1991), as well as external localization economies achieved by sharing specialized technology,
labor, and services. Further, increasing city sizes yield external urbanization economies of scale
due to access to concentrations of infrastructure, education, and knowledge in general
(Henderson, 1999, 2009).
Population and economic growth are not the only aspects of rapid change in Chinese
cities. From physical form to eating habits, nearly every aspect of urban life has changed over
the past forty years. Cities that once boasted few structures over two-stories tall are now home to
urban residents who once prized bicycles as the best
transport option now drive cars or ride ultra-modern mass transit. Obesity and old age are now
significant challenges in cities that faced food shortages in living memory and whose life
expectancy has increased dramatically in recent years. The speed of these changes especially
in the 21s century is familiar to the experience of cities in the global South but alien to most
cities in Europe and North America.
 two advantages as a locus for natural
experiments in sustainability. First, to the extent that sustainability planning is often a particular
challenge in rapidly expanding cities, where development outpaces planning and regulation,
experimentation within the context of rapid change is appropriate to the experience of many
contemporary cities in the global South. Second, the rapid pace of development in China means
that experiments can be deployed, refined, re-deployed, and analyzed much more rapidly than is
possible in slower-growth contexts. This accelerated pace of change, in general, and project
implementation, in particular, generates a laboratory-style ability to conduct real-world trials of
planning experiments.
Comment [ZZZ8]: Note 
  see, for
example, the MLA and Chicago Manual of
Style cited at
3.2 Scale: city-size and growth
-coast centers of engagement with the global economy
and the massive rural-to-urban migration flows which have accompanied it. Yet, by 2007, at
was composed of migrants working in
construction, manufacturing, and the service sector (Li et al, 2009). The unprecedented pace of
Chinese urbanization has been complemented by an unprecedented scale in terms of both the
urban system as a whole and the size of individual cities (McKinsey, 2009; Farrell and Nijkamp,
This growth has occurred primarily as a result of internal rural-to-urban migration and the
reclassification of once-rural land to urban (Liu et al., 
planning law, which called for strict controls on urban population growth in large cities
largest cities and provincial capitals, in particular, have swelled to accommodate migrants and
new economic activities. In fact, although there is growth at all levels of the urban hierarchy, the
largest cities in China (>10 million population) are growing at a significantly faster rate than
small and medium-sized cities (Lin, 2007; Hsing, 2010; Farrell and Nijkamp, 2019). Systems of
urban classification also contribute to national-level planning and management of the urban
3.2.1 Size Matters: The Official Chinese City Classification System
city classification schemes may be merely conveniences or analytical tools in other countries, in
China such classifications often lead to real differences in access to economic and policy support
for development, as well as in influencing investment preferences within the domestic and
international business communities. In this sense, the classification schemes provide a strong
representation of the Chinese urban system and its future prospects. They also mean that
experimentation in new urban sustainability practices can be linked specifically to different sizes
and types of cities. Three classification systems in common use include 1) the Chinese
g to population size, GDP, and political status, and 3)
the future-
planned urban system, which would be topped by a new class of cities.
official classification system for cities was changed in 2014 to accommodate the
 The new system creates three classes of cities, by size,
above the two million mark. This new approach includes, in addition to the population within
officially--up areas of surrounding
, and includes people who have lived as registered
inhabitants of the city for at least six months. According to this scheme, the 2010 census yields
three cities with populations -
Shanghai, Beijing, and Shenzhen. 
populations of 510 million, T5 million
(including Taiyuan), and forty-Tpopulations of 13 million (Qi et
al, 2016).
These official designations of size are key because Chinese policies and central state
investment apply differently to cities in different size classes. For example, a number of central
state programs have been aimed at fostering development in officially-designated small and
medium-sized cities. For example, the National Urbanization 
Development and Reform Commission in April 2019 provided for removal of residency
restrictions for migrants to cities smaller than 3 million people, and relaxation of restriction in
cities with populations between 35 million. This easing of restrictions, tied directly to city size,
would make it easier for rural-to-urban migrants to access social services and other benefits of
urban residence in those cities (Ouyang, 2019).
3.2.2 China’s Urban Tiers
Taiyuan is commonly referred to as a second or third-tier city. Chinese cities are
unofficially ranked by the business and policy communities in tiers based on multiple factors.
Most typically the cities are classed into four tiers, on the basis of a combination of 1) Gross
Domestic Product (GDP), 2) Political/Administrative level, such as cities directly under the
central government Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, Chongqing), provincial capitals, prefectural
capitals, and county-level cities, 3) population of the metropolitan area, eg, >15 million, 315
million, 150,0003 million, and <150,000. The tier rank is an average of the rankings in each of
these categories. In this system, Beijing, Tianjin, Chongqing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou
constitute the first-tier. Whereas much of the east coast of China and the North China plain
comprise solid zones of second and third-tier settlements, Taiyuan is ranked as a second-tier city
surrounded by fourth-tier cities. The only other second-tier city completely surrounded by
fourth-tier cities is Chengdu, Sichuan. The rest of the second (and first) tier cities are contiguous
with second and third-tier cities. This suggests the relative isolation of Taiyuan as a large city
surrounded by an extensive, mountainous coal-mining region (SCMP, 2016). At the same time,
it suggests that Taiyuan may be perceived as a more desirable location for investment and
business operations than the surrounding cities.
The tier system, like the official size classification system, may translate into real
differences in access to investment. The tier system is ultimately a framework within the
business community for directing and re-directing investment funds. Recently, for example,
there has been much discussion in the international business literature about the lower-tier cities,
China as the upper tiers become saturated (Morgan Stanley, 2018; Carter, 2019; Shiao, 2019).
This recent interest in third- and fourth-tier investment may ultimately dovetail with the central
governments interest in dispersing development toward the small- and medium-sized cities.
3.2.3 Future scale: China’s aspirational city cluster plan
national urbanization plan of
2014, while supporting the idea of redistributing investment and development to small and
medium-sized cities, also lays out a future trajectory for the Chinese urban system which is
urban megaregions with coordinated economic and
infrastructure development. Most of these are named after several cities or a geographic region,
such as the Chengdu-Chongqing cluster or the Pearl River Delta cluster. Taiyuan is the only
 In this scenario, Taiyuan
would eventually develop into a massive urban region on equal-footing with other super-regions
of urbanization and economic activity. This new class of cities would take advantage of
economies of scale in equalizing the distribution of resources between the large existing
conurbations of eastern China and emerging new conurbations in the interior and western
regions. As in the official classifications of cities by size, the designation of massive urban
clusters will also influence and direct development funds, both from the state and from business,
as well as planning activity. It will also provide a concrete and systematic way to experiment
with urban mega-regions similar to those developing in other parts of the world.
Ultimately, the organization of the Chinese urban system into different schemes on the
basis of size, whether in terms of population, land area, or economy intersects with urban
planning and governance systems that likewise operate within a system of spatial scales.
3.3 Governance: national, regional, and metropolitan planning policies
In February 2018, Taiyuan one of first three
National Sustainable Development Innovation Demonstration Zones
Guilin. These first three of ten demo
2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This designation
illustrates the continued role of the central state and national urban planning policies in
promoting urban innovation.
The global movement toward sustainable development, including the New Urban Agenda
level urban planning as a path toward success in achieving sustainable urban development.
or partial national urban policies (UN Habitat, 2014; OECD, 2016; OECD/UN Habitat, 2018).
Although the Chinese planning and administrative structure has significantly decentralized
during the Reform Era, national plans remain powerful drivers of local action, and the support of
the central state is still key in implementing large-scale projects (Wu, 2015).
Two aspects of Chinese national planning are worth noting as relevant to the
implementation of natural experiments in urban sustainability. First, Chinese national planning
strategies engage directly with using urban development to address regional and urban-rural
imbalances in development. National spatial planning in China addresses both inter-regional and
rural-urban imbalances, but inter-regional planning has a much longer history of emphasis (The
Economist, 2019). Soon after the inauguration of the Reform Era at the end of the 1970s, China
embarked upon a national development strategy that strongly favored the development of the
would lead the entire country to greater prosperity. By the late 1990s, however, it was clear that
some regions were lagging behind. A succession of new national programs to re-direct resources
at a regional scale was deployed, such as the  policy (1999), and the 
 policy (2004). The current development policy also
encourages urban development in Western and Central China, largely through integrating those
areas more closely with Eastern China and by promoting the growth of smaller and medium-
sized cities, rather than concentrating on already large centers (MLIT, 2017).
At the same time, recent reforms aimed at reducing rural-urban imbalances in China are
also foster experimentation. During the reform era, several hundred million rural Chinese have
migrated to cities, which has had massive impacts on both cities and the countryside. A recent
national priority on rural poverty alleviation has brought these issues to the forefront of national-
scale priorities. At the local scale, rural-urban planning in the interest of local economic balance
is relatively new in China, although it has been ongoing in Shanghai since the 1980s, and in
Chengdu and Chongqing since 2003 (Li and Fang, 2018; Chen et al., 2019). Chinese cities often
have the advantage of administering a surrounding rural area in addition to the urbanized area
itself. (In comparison, for example, the contiguous urbanized areas of the United States are
typically fragmented into multiple distinct jurisdictions). This administrative structure provides
an opportunity with experimentation in more sustainable urban-rural relationships. In the city of
Taiyuan, multiple administrative bodies are tasked with both urban and rural administration, such
as the Taiyuan Urban and Rural Planning Bureau, the Taiyuan Urban and Rural Administration
Committee, and the Taiyuan Urban and Rural Bureau of Law Enforcement. With unified urban-
 2020) called
for limits on the downtown population, and an urban growth boundary designed to preserve
agricultural land (Taiyuan, 2020).
3.4 China as an urban laboratory
At a national scale, the contemporary Chinese approach to sustainable urbanization is
characterized by fast pace and adaptability, building on economies of scale, and using
governance systems to support experimental development. 
sustainability in its urban system the largest in the world will have far-reaching
Comment [ZZZ9]: Rejected wording
 
 
 
 
implications and relevance for global efforts toward sustainable urban systems, not only to the
very real extent that a more sustainable China will contribute to more sustainable global
environmental systems, but also in the use of Chinese-style development as a model for urban
and infrastructural development, especially in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. China was
relatively exceptional in the pre-reform era, and thus may not have served as an appropriate
model. But with increasing globalization and global influence, what happens in China is
becoming increasingly relevant to global efforts to achieve sustainable urban systems.
From the landmark national environmental conference held in Taiyuan in 1978, to the
declaration of the Taiyuan National-Level Innovative Sustainable Development Zone in 2019,
Taiyuan has been the site of both severe environmental degradation and social and economic
hardship and creative efforts to solve these problems. While proposed solutions do not always
succeed, and Taiyuan continues to struggle between the desire for rapid economic growth and
the need to control that growth for the sake of environment and society, Taiyuan, as all of China,
continues to serve as a testing ground for remediation and innovation.
Urban experiments have already been deployed in a l (Table
1). Because China has the fiscal and political capacity to implement new development and new
policy quite rapidly, it has proven to be an effective testing ground for cutting edge sustainable
technologies, policies, and practices. For example, the idea of building a comprehensive and
sustainable -
have been successful, each has contributed to the growing body of knowledge regarding what
Eco-city project, touted as the
after it was initially announced due to a lack of political support, disagreement over financing,
and mismanagement (Wu and Gaubatz, 2013). But the experience of Dongtan led to more careful
nurturing of political alliances for the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City (SSTEAC) project.
SSTEAC was begun at about the same time as Dongtan, and planned for a similar size.
Sustainable development is a complex undertaking involving careful linkages between political,
economic, social, and ecological systems. While not perfect, the SSTEAC project, with its high-
level political partnerships, fostered success in the political and economic realms and has served
as a model for similar projects (Wu, 2015).
to managing the urban system may be instructive, in particular, for the developing world.
Although China has devolved power and resources from the central government to provincial,
urban and district governments during the Reform Era, nonetheless the ability of the central
government to designate places for accelerated investment and special policies remains a
powerful force in efforts to manage a massive and rapidly growing and changing urban system.
-planning and development
projects is vast and encompasses all scales of government, an array of public-private
partnerships, and many different sectors of the private economy. Although there can be
significant implementation gaps between plans and development, implementation of projects
which contribute to overarching goals, such as meeting the U.N. sustainability targets, can be
surprisingly quick.
4 Conclusion
Like many Chinese cities, Taiyuan is engaged in an extended struggle for sustainability
that directly engages with the rapid pace and scale of urban development and the need for
effective governance. It is trapped between the need for rapid development and its deleterious
consequences and a desire for forward-thinking, innovative solutions. It has one of the most in-
demand bike-share systems in the country, and has followed a course of rapid and often
innovative development in a wide range of sectors, from industrial location to transportation. Yet
on days when the air pollution level is higher than the norm, such as the day poor visibility due
to air pollution led to the catastrophic 2015 highway crash, bike-share use declines dramatically
(Li and Kamargianni, 2018). This illustrates the need for a complex, multi-faceted set of
policies and practices to achieve sustainability goals. 
many Chinese cities, will serve as a natural experiment to inform planning for urban
sustainability. Failures and successes can both contribute to the development and strengthening
of effective models for sustainable urban development. China has committed to both increasing
sustainable practices and pursuing unprecedented urban and economic development strategies
both at home and abroad. The ways in which China approaches the broad range of sustainability
challenges it faces will have far-reaching and lasting impacts on the fate of cities and urban
citizens throughout the world. So too, will China-standing experience of disseminating
knowledge through pilot programs, demonstration projects, and designated exemplars.
China is currently engaged in a massive and rapid expansion of its influence across Asia,
Africa, and Latin America through it (BRI). More than sixty
countriesd thousands of cities, will be
influenced directly The BRI represents a
meteoric rise in connections between China and the world. Even in Taiyuan, a city removed
reach well beyond industrial investment, from a program to host scholarship students from the
BRI countries at 
Exchange. 
efforts to manage urban networks may be one its most influential exports to economies emerging
during this era of heightened awareness of environment and equity. Chinese planners, designers,
economists, and other experts have engaged in efforts to generate effective urban networks
throughout the BRI countries. Many of these projects follow models first tested in China. It will
take time to determine whether or not they can succeed in the myriad of different economic,
environmental, political, social, and cultural contexts of the BRI countries.
domestic challenges may be as instructive as its successes in
bringing about increased global sustainability in urban development. The BRI is particularly
focused on the improvement of transportation, energy, and other infrastructure to facilitate trade
and global manufacturing networks, such as gas and oil pipelines, railroad development, and port
improvements. Jin most
measures of development despite continuing efforts to foster development in cities below the top
tier, the improvements in transportation and other infrastructure networks through the BRI may
foster increasing concentrations of development and growth in the largest cities in the BRI
countries, as connectivity improvements generate spatial concentration of economic activity
(Frankopan, 2017; Shier, 2018; Gill et al., 2019). Taiyuan is only one of many Chinese cities
engaging in knowledge-sharing with BRI countries, from hosting conferences to providing
education opportunities
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(High resolution files shared separately with editor)
Figure. 1. Taiyuan at Night, January 2019
By WFan - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Figure. 2. Smoggy Taiyuan, 2011
By Francisco Anzola - Smoggy Taiyuan, CC BY 2.0,
Figure. -2018. Source: Worldbank 2019b.
Table 1. National-level Environment-focused Model Cities Programs. Source: Adapted from
Riva and Henaut 2016; Huang et al. 2016; MEE 2020).
Name of Program
National Civilized City
National Pioneer Demonstration Zone in Sustainable Development
National Garden City
National Hygienic City
Green City
Eco-demonstration Community
National Environmental Protection Model City
Eco-county, Eco-city and Eco-province
National Ecological-garden city
National Healthy City
Low-carbon City
National Ecoogical Civilization Pilot Demonstration Zone
Low-carbon Eco-city
National Ecological Civilization Pioneer Demonstration Zone
Sponge City initiative
National Sustainable Development Innovation-Demonstration Zones
Zero Waste Cities Pilot Program
2013; OECD 2015; Guardian 2017; United Nations 2016 and 2019.
Environmental Challenges
Economic Challenges
Social Challenges
Environmental pollution
Over-reliance on export
markets, cheap labor and
cheap land
Discrimination (migrants v.
locals) in labor market
Agricultural land conversion
Dual labor markets (migrant
and local)
Urban sprawl
Need for infrastructure to
support economic growth
Growing elderly population
Solid waste management
Housing supply
Need for institutional
capacity and resilience
Flooding/water supply
Need to coordinate urban and
rural development
Public safety
Extreme weather events and
other climate-change related
Resource management
Health care
Rising energy requirements
Delivery of social services
Domestic labor migration
Graphical Abstract
... This city is an important political, economic, cultural and transport exchange center in Shanxi Province. In last thirty years, its urban area has experienced rapid urbanization and obvious changes of land use (Gaubatz & Hanink, 2020). ...
Urbanization caused by intensive land-use change is the main driving force of environment degradation. The development and protection of ecological corridors to connect green natural features has been recognized as an effective means for improving the resilience of cities. It is especially important for the cities which are in the rapid urbanizing process. In this paper, we used high-resolution spatial data to extract the distribution of ecological corridors by using the Least Cost Path model for the city of Taiyuan, China. Then, a prediction of the urban area for the year 2035 was achieved by using the SLEUTH model. Finally, we analyzed the negative impact of urban expansion on the corridors under current urbanization trends. Our results show that the regional corridors are mostly distributed in the western mountainous area, connecting large natural areas. There are also three ecological corridors crossing the city from the east to west. According to our prediction, Taiyuan will mainly grow southward along the urban edge and road network. As a result, two ecological corridors in the central and southern parts of Taiyuan will be largely occupied, especially the corridors in Xiaodian district which account for 72.51% of the total occupied corridor area. To avoid further conflict, the urbanization intensity along the sides of the corridors should be restricted to maintain corridors of a certain width. Our research findings can provide urban planners insightful suggestions for conservation and restoration of ecological networks and assist in spatial planning.
... The rapid economic and urban development of Taiyuan, like many Chinese cities, requires massive water resources consumption [13]. However, the city faces the most severe water scarcity problems. ...
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Public acceptance is the basic premise for the implementation of stormwater reuse projects anywhere in the world. Based on the theory of planned behaviour, this study constructed a hypothesized model of urban residents’ intention to use recycled stormwater for non-potable residential purposes. Having received 669 valid questionnaires from urban residents in Taiyuan City, a Structural Equation Model was used to analyze their acceptance intention to use recycled stormwater. Results of the study showed that the degree of human contact with recycled stormwater influenced respondents’ acceptance intention to use it for that purpose, which is consistent with previous studies. The impact of factors, including valuation of stormwater, emotions, perceived health risks, or trust in government, on respondents’ acceptance intention to use recycled stormwater was found to be not significant, which adds to the inconsistent literature. The unique contributions of the study to literature include that altruism and social and cultural norms were found to have significantly positive impacts on residents’ acceptance intention to use the water, while social and cultural norms demonstrated a more significant impact. This finding is perceived to relate to the collectivism of Chinese culture; however, to what extent the relation could be requires further research to verify. The study also makes contributions to methodology by using social networking (WeChat Moments) to collect data in social science studies.
... Most cities under Shanxi's jurisdiction have implemented measures to promote the reduction of CH 4 emissions from coal mining. Taiyuan is actively carrying out urban transformation and has achieved remarkable results (Gaubatz and Hanink, 2020). Jincheng built a pilot mine for the mining of coal and gas together, and it successfully passed the project acceptance (Yang et al., 2020). ...
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... Cities are the largest consumers of global resources and the largest producers of waste [16]. This makes them a crucial element of the concept of sustainable development [17][18][19][20][21][22][23][24]. Sustainable cities and societies have become goal number 11 of the UN's concept of sustainable development. ...
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... In the 20th century, Shanxi Province was known for its extreme environmental degradation, including poor air quality, polluted surface water and groundwater, and heavy metal contaminated soil (Falke, 2016). Yet by the early 21st century, these problems were acknowledged, and many environmental policies have been put into effect to overcome this environmental degradation (Gaubatz and Hanink, 2020). Shanxi Province has implemented the integration of coal resources since 2004. ...
Shanxi Province of northern China is a typical mining concentration and arsenism area. Years of mining activities have resulted in serious regional groundwater problems in Shanxi. Therefore, it is of great significance to know the health risk of groundwater arsenic on residents under the background of mining activities. Kriging interpolation was used to illustrate the spatio-temporal dynamics of the health risks on groundwater arsenic based on a ten-year investigation. The groundwater arsenic concentrations decreased over time and the distribution of high arsenic concentrations shrank. High arsenic concentrations were mainly distributed in the northern and middle basin areas. The forecasted area of high risks in coal mining areas was 5623 km², which was larger than that in non-coal mining areas. The residents living around mining areas were more vulnerable to exposure to groundwater arsenic. Further, the output map outlines the high-risk zones in order to protect the safety of drinking water for residents. This study may be helpful for the policy-makers to adopt a lower limit for groundwater arsenic to the worst affected regions and groups.
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Chinese planning in the post-reform era is primarily concerned with stimulating economic growth through urban developments. For cities, land sales revenue is an important source of income and a key driver of gross domestic product (GDP) growth, which is a core criterion for government career promotions. City planning involves creating an investment-friendly built environment through nonstatutory spatial plans that can be used for place promotion. Furthermore, economic growth helps to consolidate the state's political power. Through the state's monopoly of land, local states are able to use land as collateral to deliver large urban projects and reap the greatest financial benefits. The urban governance of strategically important projects is also designed with a view to stimulating growth. Planning powers are assigned to development-oriented state organizations whilst social responsibilities such as relocating residents are delegated to district and subdistrict governments. National-and regional-level planning has been strengthened in the past decade to address rampant urban
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To address global challenges1–4, 193 countries have committed to the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)5. Quantifying progress towards achieving the SDGs is essential to track global efforts towards sustainable development and guide policy development and implementation. However, systematic methods for assessing spatio-temporal progress towards achieving the SDGs are lacking. Here we develop and test systematic methods to quantify progress towards the 17 SDGs at national and subnational levels in China. Our analyses indicate that China’s SDG Index score (an aggregate score representing the overall performance towards achieving all 17 SDGs) increased at the national level from 2000 to 2015. Every province also increased its SDG Index score over this period. There were large spatio-temporal variations across regions. For example, eastern China had a higher SDG Index score than western China in the 2000s, and southern China had a higher SDG Index score than northern China in 2015. At the national level, the scores of 13 of the 17 SDGs improved over time, but the scores of four SDGs declined. This study suggests the need to track the spatio-temporal dynamics of progress towards SDGs at the global level and in other nations. Systematic methods for evaluating progress towards the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals are developed and tested using 119 indicators at China’s national and subnational levels during 2000–2015, showing improvement overall.
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A wide variety of settlement systems exist, ranging from small villages to large metropolises. However, spatial analyses are typically confined to the mere presence or absence of built-up land, and the changes therein, while more subtle differences between various settlement systems are ignored. In this paper we study the spatial distribution of Chinese settlements in terms of their built-up land, cluster density and cluster size, as well as the changes therein between 1990 and 2010. Subsequently, we use these three properties to delineate settlement systems, and analyze the observed change trajectories between 1990 and 2010. We find that roughly 70% of all built-up land and more than 50% of all new built-up land added between 1990 and 2010 is included in village landscapes, which challenges the current focus on studying mega-cities. We also find that settlement changes mostly follow small and incremental steps towards more dense urban systems, following multiple different development trajectories. Specifically, rural villages seldom convert into urban systems directly, but typically increase gradually to towns and sub-urban landscapes. Settlement systems provide a first step towards a comprehensive understanding of human settlements and their change trajectories, which can inform targeted land use planning and the development of policies that more explicitly accounts for diversity in settlement types.
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As a country transitions from a lower order of development to a higher order of development, it undergoes a structural transformation. Accordingly, the spatial economy transforms from a system organized around smaller economic units distributed throughout the countryside, to one comprising larger economic units concentrated in dense urban areas. While historically this process unfolded at a rather gradual pace, it is now being redefined by the unprecedented pace and scale of the contemporary urban narrative. This has presented new patterns of urbanization. Utilizing comparable datasets for China, Nigeria and India this paper examines the evolution of national urban systems under conditions of rapid urbanization. In doing so, it scrutinizes three key dynamics: the spatial distribution of cities, the rate of growth by city size class and the size hierarchy of cities. The results are compared to see if uniform patterns emerge. The findings of this paper suggest a certain degree of heterogeneity among national urban systems; and in some instances contrasting patterns can be observed. We thus caution against a ‘one size fits all’ approach to interpreting the urban transition in developing countries. The findings of this paper have implications for both theory and policy. Keywords: National urban systems, Developing countries, Spatial Lorenz curve, Urban growth rate, Rank size distribution
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China’s rapid urbanization has attracted wide international attention. However, it may not be sustainable. In order to assess it objectively and put forward recommendations for future development, this paper first develops a four-dimensional Urbanization Quality Index using weights calculated by the Deviation Maximization Method for a comprehensive assessment and then reveals the spatial association of China’s urbanization by Exploratory Spatial Data Analysis. The study leads to three major findings. First, the urbanization quality in China has gradually increased over time, but there have been significant differences between regions. Second, the four aspects of urbanization quality have shown the following trends: (i) the quality of urban development has steadily increased; (ii) the sustainability of urban development has shown a downward trend in recent years; (iii) the efficiency of urbanization improved before 2006 but then declined slightly due to capital, land use, and resource efficiency constraints; (IV) the urban–rural integration deteriorated in the early years but then improved over time. Third, although the urbanization quality has a significantly positive global spatial autocorrelation, the local spatial autocorrelation varies between eastern and western regions. Based on these findings, this paper concludes with policy recommendations for improving urbanization quality and its sustainability in China.
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In the literature on urban studies, the size distribution of cities has been attributed to a random growth process where transportation externalities, congestion costs, and capital formation all play a crucial role. However, the classic economics models do not fully capture the impact of political institutions, particularly fiscal decentralization, on urban size distribution and fail to explain the political economy of urban agglomeration. As a major transitional economy, China’s economic decentralization, in conjunction with political control, portends a more complex environment for urban agglomeration and offers a new ground to analyze its institutional roots and policy implications. This study employs a panel data analysis of Chinese provinces between 1994 and 2015 and finds a pattern where more decentralized regions (provinces) are associated with stronger dominance of large cities for the whole study period. However, the period between 1994 and 2003 displays a different pattern wherein fiscal decentralization is negatively associated with urban agglomeration. Such phenomena can be attributed to the heated competition among local governments and the absorption of resources by dominant cities under the framework of fiscal decentralization in China, particularly in the recent years. More effective coordination is called upon to mitigate the unintended outcome of fiscal decentralization without proper control in shaping urban hierarchy in China and the findings provide lessons for other developing countries.
There is a concern about the increasing prevalence of health problems related to the ingestion of fluoride (F⁻) in the developing world. Drinking water is one important source of F⁻, and the concentration of F⁻ needs to be known to ensure the safety of drinking water. In this study, F⁻ levels in drinking water were investigated across Taiyuan in Shanxi Province, China. Spatial-temporal distribution characteristics and potential associated health risks were analyzed using GIS. We collected 485 samples from shallow wells without any defluoridation treatments between 2008 and 2016. After analyzing the samples of F⁻ content we found that mean F⁻ levels of urban areas (0.61 ± 0.39 mg L⁻¹), suburban areas (0.70 ± 0.87 mg L⁻¹) and for all of Taiyuan city (0.63 ± 0.56 mg L⁻¹) were in optimum range based on the recommendation by USEPA. However, individual locations within industrial areas (e.g. Gujiao District) had higher F⁻ levels (1.06 mg L⁻¹). A concerning result showed that 12.37% of tested locations had F⁻ concentrations larger than 1.0 mg L⁻¹. We calculated F⁻ Health Risk Indices (HRIsF) and found that highest were associated with suburban areas, especially in the year 2009 and 2010. However, from 2008 to 2016, overall F⁻ levels and HRIsF of the sampled groundwater in Taiyuan City showed a decreasing trend. HRIsF in suburban areas was higher than urban areas, possible due to the heavily prevalent coal mining industry in those areas. Specific policies should be formulated to address HRIsF.
We find that high‐speed railway connection in China has led to a reduction in GDP per capita for connected peripheral prefectures. We use the least‐cost path‐spanning tree network to address the non‐random route placement issue. We find that the reduction of GDP per capita is driven by significant contractions in capital input, industrial output and skilled labor outflow. We present evidence to support a trade‐based channel in light of falling transportation costs between peripheral and metropolitan regions. Our finding highlights the importance of the cost of human transport. This article is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.
In particular research domains, the randomized control trial (RCT) is considered to be the only means for obtaining reliable estimates of the true impact of an intervention. However, an RCT design would often not be considered ethical, politically feasible, or appropriate for evaluating the impact of many policy, programme, or structural changes common in public health research. As such, researchers must use alternative yet robust research methods for determining the impact of such interventions. The evaluation of natural experiments (i.e. an intervention not controlled or manipulated by researchers), using various experimental and non-experimental design options can provide an alternative to the RCT. The following review highlights (a) the importance of evaluating natural experiments; (b) design considerations associated with evaluating natural experiments; (c) methods for reducing bias in natural experimental studies; and (d) the potential benefits of targeted systems to enable natural experiments in emerging priority domains moving forward.