The city master plan in transitional China

In 2011 China’s urban population exceeded its rural population. Chinese cities have been changing very rapidly. This evolution leads scholars to question the relevance of the master plan as an instrument of urbanisation and to study how local governments adapt their policies to central directives. 

After following a Soviet model of urban planning until the late 1970s, China chose to adopt traditional (Western) urban planning. However, this model was not well adapted to the rapid economic development in China. Since the late 90s, China has been trying to develop its own type of urban planning, one that suits its transitional characteristics1.

In a very interesting paper published in 2011, Qian Zhu (University of Waterloo) studied the case of Nanjing 2, and argued that local governments use master plan directives to carry out their pro-growth strategies.

In this article, the author explains, first of all, the statutory aspect of city master plans: “The City Master Plan reflects the central-local government policy visions of the ideal direction for a city’s growth in terms of demographic, economic, and social objectives”.

Qian selected Nanjing as his case study because this city, unlike to Beijing or Shanghai, did not benefit from special policy programmes. Moreover, Nanjing, which was overshadowed by Shanghai, had devised several strategies in order to survive competition from its gigantic neighbour. According to  Qian, the preparation of a city master plan is very time consuming and so master plans are quickly out of date. For example, the Nanjing master plan for 1991-2010, was only officially validated in 1995. However, Qian also noticed that in 2001, after being revised, the new version of the master plan showed more flexibility, was more adapted to market uncertainty and tried to answer social challenges. Despite these improvements, the goals defined in the master plan were not all attained. For example, new townships did not manage to attract the number of inhabitants specified by the master plan.

Qian lists several reasons that may explain disparities between master plan objectives and urban realities.

  • First, he points out that Nanjing had suffered from political instability, with 10 successive mayors over the previous twenty years. Each of these mayors had a different strategy for Nanjing, and this was reflected in the implementation of the master plan.
  • In Nanjing, local government was confronted with the problem of dealing with central government interests, which were widely represented through central government owned companies and through the presence of the military. As a result, the implementation of the city master plan was out of the hands of the local authorities.
  • The author states that large projects -usually government supported- did not respect the master plan.
  • Competition between districts was strong, resulting in the duplication of several projects (e.g. industrial parks).
  • Tension among the numerous local administrations sometimes slowed down the implementation of the master plan.
  • Other factors disrupted the master plan, such as the emergence of market forces, as well as the activities of land developers, who had their own agenda.

Qian concludes that the presence of both old and new institutions makes the city master plan less efficient. For the author, two different solutions might solve this problem. One possibility is the complete reform of the master plan. The other, which Qian prefers, would involve greater coordination among local stakeholders, including the authorities, private entrepreneurs and inhabitants.



Cite this blog post
Sebastien Goulard (2013, March 25). The city master plan in transitional China. URBACHINA. Retrieved April 12, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/v2e5

  1. Gu Chaolin, Yuan Xiaohui and Guo Jing (2010), China’s master planning system in transition: case study of Beijing, 46th ISOCARP Congress 2010 []
  2. Qian, Z. 2012. Master Plan, Plan Adjustment and Urban Development Reality under China’s Market Transition: A Case Study of Nanjing. Cities []

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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