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Nested maps

Nested maps: reality representation as a first action against easement process

Marlène Leroux is preparing a Ph.D. dissertation entitled “Densifying rural territories: China, from massive growth patterns to more sustainable urban planning” under the supervision of Prof. I Devanthéry-Lamunière (EPFL) and Prof. J.C. Bolay (Unesco Chair, CODEV)

The author’s doctoral research is primarily focused on analysing the issue of rural urbanisation as a key sustainable development challenge based on the conviction that rural areas today must be studied on their own account and no longer simply understood as the counterpart to urban areas1.

In China, vast rural areas are currently undergoing “modernisation” via the application of a generic, expansive urban model. This modernisation is evidenced in the creation of new towns and road infrastructures a process that simultaneously homogenises the complex reality of both rural practices and regional characteristics, flying in the face of natural resource availability and significant climatic and cultural disparities2. This forced coexistence of urban models conceived ex-nihilo (top-down) and the reality of a rural area (bottom-up) generates interactions and major tensions, too.

This post will draw on one of our case studies: the modernisation currently under way on Chengdu Plain. This area is a major agricultural production centre that functions with a mixed traditional rural system and industrial activity, supported by a dense fabric of rural villages(linban) spread across the territory. The region is currently undergoing transformation and urbanisation on a massive scale a process that has been amplified by the need for reconstruction following the devastating earthquake of May 2008 (7.8 on the Richter scale). This is a region that has experienced major human and material losses; its modernisation and reconstruction are a response to economic, social and political challenges.

Analysis of the “nested” maps allows us to observe the reality of a region at a given time and different scales. The first sample represents a region with a diameter of 500 km around the area of study i.e. a surface area of 200,000 km2 (20 m ha). This allows us to locate our case study on the national scale (proximity to major urban hubs, industrial centres, major communication routes, etc.) and also in terms of major landscape features (coastal areas, mountain chains, major rivers, etc.). It should be noted that 250 km is the distance that can be travelled in all day’s journey; in our view the impact of elements beyond this distance is no longer related to their geographic proximity.


The 100 km sample, i.e. a radius of 50 km around the area of study, allows analysis at a more local scale, situating the study zone within its more immediate context. Yet on this scale it is the network of waterways connected with the irrigation system that comes to the fore. The Min river, which has its source at the end of the Himalayas chain, divides into channels which fan out across the whole of the plain. From the original riverbed, the river is divided to obtain a fine network of irrigation channels. Thanks to the central Chinese subtropical climate (humidity, heat) a wide variety of crops can be grown and cropping frequency is high. The soil, which has always been fertile, is constantly enriched by sediments carried in the river water. This exceptional irrigation system gives the region its distinctive identity and has defined the way the area has developed for hundreds of years.

Finally, the 2 km sample covers the micro-local context, on a scale appropriate to walking and “soft” mobility. This scale permits precise observations of relations between the built environment, farms, fields and forests, allowing us to begin the process of identifying and classifying the elements that constitute the reality of the Chinese rural condition.

The first step would be to consider these emerging areas in a more positive light and to look for ways of optimising them, ways of integrating the existing infrastructures with new development projects. This means engaging with the reality of the rural areas concerneda reality located somewhere between [idealised] memories of a sophisticated rural idyll and megacity fantasies. Just as we inventorise our built heritage (listing, classifying and grading historic monuments) or even disused railway sites3), every element of the landscape, every rural infrastructure, every local custom should first of all be identified, catalogued and documented and then (as the second phase of the process) be given a value. These gradings would correspond to specific rules and procedures to be observed. The aim is not to depict a rural landscape that is frozen in time but to create a series of diagnostic tools and frameworks for action. Having been recorded and valued in this way, the topography, the water system, the paths, walls, the waste disposal sites greenhouses, vegetable gardens, could be preserved, reused or destroyed but at any rate they have been taken into account. The design decisions resulting from this process are then taken in view of the facts and not as a consequence of deliberate, convenient oversight.

This process of classifying rural territories, following a methodology as sophisticated as that used for urban areas, should be carried out using appropriate representational methods. The tools for this diagnostic process have yet to be devised, yet the process of innovation is already underway4. Only once these diagnostic tools are in place will it be possible to establish strategies for developing urban scenarios that are sustainable, realistic and practicable, via the creation of new planning tools5. These planning tools would need to be able to take national aspirations and ambitions into account while at the same time optimising local resources. The futures of urban areas and rural areas are inescapably intertwined. Prospective analysis of the globalisation phenomenon from the perspective of rural areas is crucial here: these rural areas may contain within themselves the potential to shape new identities, enabling China to generate a new, integrated model of regional intervention that will be absolutely vital in the long term6.

  1. Woods, M. (2010), Rural, Andover, Taylor& Francis []
  2. Friedman, J. (2005), China’s Urban Transition, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press []
  3. Devanthéry-Lamunière, I. (2008 []
  4. Vigano, P. (2012), Les territoires de l’urbanisame, Genève, Métispresse []
  5. Mostafavi, M., Doherty, G. (2010), Ecological urbanism, Baden, Lars Muller Publishers []
  6. Hassenflug, D.  (2010), The urban code of China, Bâle, Birkhauser []

Sebastien Goulard

Ph.D. in political science (EHESS, Paris); M.A. in social sciences (EHESS, Paris); M.A. in international relations (IRIS, Paris), B.A. (Hons) in international political studies (ESE - Nottingham Trent University)

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