The Evolving Urban Form: Quanzhou


Quanzhou? Quanzhou (pronounced "CHWEN-JOE"), despite its urban population that is approaching 5 million this urban area is so unfamiliar to Westerners and the rest of the world as to require an introduction. Quanzhou is a prefecture ("shi") in China's Fujian province. Fujian is just to the north of Guangdong, home of Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Hong Kong's former province (before the British) and just to the south of Zhejiang, the large rich province at the south flank of the Yangtze Delta (which abuts Shanghai). Quanzhou is also adjacent to Xiamen, one of the original special economic zones established by the legendary reformer Deng Xiao Ping.

Quanzhou has more than 8 million people in an area similar in size to that of Los Angeles County (4,400 square miles or 11,200 square kilometers). Continuous urbanization spreads through 8 of Quanzhou's 11 political subdivisions.  

In Situ Urbanization: Quanzhou has experienced an unusual urban development pattern. Yu Zhu, Xinhua Qi, Huaiyou Shao and Kaijing He at Fujian Normal University have documented an "in situ" urbanization (or urbanization in place, rather than by expansion from a core) that involves conversion of rural areas in place to urban areas, with agricultural employment being replaced by non-agricultural employment. A similar process has been identified in the Indian state of Kerala and some other prefectures in south China. These could be the first natural examples that defy the expansion of urban areas from a core to the periphery that has been the rule since human kind gathered in settlements.

Quanzhou: The Ultimate: Quanzhou appears to be the most extensive case of in situ urbanization in the world. The older multistoried and single family detached farm houses have become integrated into an urban fabric, though many are falling victim to demolition. Like the economic dynamos of Shenzhen, Dongguan and Guangzhou in Guangdong to the south, Quanzhou has become a major manufacturing center for exports and urbanization is intensifying.

A Low Density Urban Area for China: The result of in situ urbanization has been a very low density urban area by Chinese standards- something more akin to what some Western planners decry as “sprawl”. Currently, the continuous urbanization of Quanzhou covers an area of more than 500 square miles (1,300 square kilometers) with an estimated population of more than 4.5 million people. At more than 9000 persons per square mile (3,500 per square kilometer), Quanzhou is a quarter more dense than Los Angeles, similar in density to Paris but slightly more than half as dense as Shanghai. Even at its   core, Quanzhou has comparatively low density compared to other Chinese urban areas. For example, the highest density local jurisdiction (Licheng) has a population density similar to that of the city of San Francisco (approximately 18,000 per square mile or 7000 per square kilometer). The three central jurisdictions of Shanghai are 8 times as dense.

This low density pattern does not extend to nearby urban areas. For example, the core areas of Fuzhou, (Fujian's capital), just 100 miles up the 8-lane freeway are four times as dense as the core of Quanzhou and the urban area more than double the density.

Balanced Population Growth: Because it is urbanizing in place, Quanzhou’s population density is increasing throughout the large urban divisions. There is plenty of vacant land throughout the urban area for development, while redevelopment is also taking place at the usually hectic Chinese pace.

The historic core jurisdictions of Licheng and Fengze grew approximately 30% between the 2000 and 2010 censuses. The largest nearby urban jurisdictions, Jin Jiang and Shi Shi combined for a population increase of approximately 34%, while the outer metropolitan jurisdictions grew only 3%. The outer jurisdictions have far more rural land and are less attractive to residents since low automobile ownership makes them less accessible (see table). There was a population loss of 6 percent in the rural jurisdictions, which is typical for China, as people move for better lives to the urban areas.

Quanzhou (Fujian) Population Trend by Sector
Sector 2000 2010 Change % Change
Jurisdictions with Substantial Urbanization
Historic Core: Licheng & Fengze      690,000      898,000    208,000 30%
Near Urban (Jin Jiang & Shi Shi)   1,978,000   2,660,000    682,000 34%
Outer Urban & Exurban   2,785,000   2,864,000      79,000 3%
Balance of Prefecture (Principally Rural)   1,830,000   1,719,000  (111,000) -6%
Total   7,283,000   8,141,000    858,000 12%
Note: Urban extent estimated at over 4.5 million in 2010

A Multi-Centric Urban Area: As would be expected in such a low density urban area, Quanzhou is multi-centered, following the pattern of urban areas like Los Angeles, Houston, and Mexico City. The largest center is the historic core, which is divided between Licheng and Fengze (Photograph: Historic core). This core is genuinely historic, with the Kaiyuan Temple (Buddhist) complex dating from 686 AD. Two similar towers (one shown above) were built during the Song Dynasty.

Historic Core

But the historic core has substantial modern development. There is extensive new residential high rise and mid-rise development on an island in the Jin river, which is the southern border of Fengze, just north of Jin Jiang. The new high speed rail station is located far from this core and more remote than the major airport, which is located in Jin Jiang.

There is another strong center in Shi Shi, which is 12 miles (20 kilometers) southeast of the historic core. Shi Shi has a large stock of medium rise buildings and has a small, though dense core (Photograph: Shi Shi core). There are also a number of large residential developments under construction in Shi Shi and major parts of the old core are under redevelopment.

Shi Shi Core

Jin Jiang is the largest of the jurisdictions in the metropolitan area, with nearly one quarter of the population. It is located just across the Jin River from Fengze. Jin Jiang also has a commercial core (Photograph: Jin Jiang core), though it is less concentrated than the historic core and the core of Shi Shi. Jin Jiang is also home to the airport serving Quanzhou. New, large multi-building high-rise residential development are under construction in many areas of Jin Jiang.

Jin Jiang Core

Vanishing Old China: Quanzhou may be the best place to see remnants of China's urbanization that preceded the rise of places like Shanghai, Beijing, Wuhan and Chengdu. All three of the largest urban jurisdictions are modern, but each has areas with the dusty roads one would expect to see in a lower income nation. At the same time, Quanzhou is on its way to becoming one of the large, prosperous urban areas of China. Already its gross domestic product and the population of its urban extent exceeds that of Fuzhou, the provincial capital. Most typical throughout urban Quanzhou are the multiple building high rise residential developments typical of all large Chinese urban areas. At the same time, there are wide expanses of demolition, where the remnants of the older buildings remain, as sites are readied for more modern projects.

Replicability? The process of in situ urbanization requires very high rural densities that can equal or exceed the 1000 per square mile or 400 per square kilometer standard used to delineate urban areas by census authorities in Canada, France, the United Kingdom, the United States and some other nations. There would simply be too much space between villages and houses in the rural areas of places like Kansas, Saskatchewan or the Ukraine. As a result, it situ urbanization is likely to remain the rare exception. However, if the world, especially Europe, were to follow the integrative urban-rural model suggested by Thomas Sieverts at the University of Darmstadt (Cities without Cities), something like in situ urbanization would be the result.

Lead Photo:
Zenguo Tower at Kaiyuan Temple, Licheng district of Quanzhou (all photos by author)

See the attached file for 100 more photos of the region.

Wendell Cox is a Visiting Professor, Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, Paris and the author of “War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life

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