The Evolving Urban Form: Tianjin


Tianjin is located on Bohai Gulf, approximately 75 miles (120 kilometers) from Beijing. It was the imperial port of China, by virtue of that proximity. Tianjin also served as one of the most important "treaty ports" occupied and/or controlled by western nations and Japan for various years before 1950.

Tianjin is pivotally located along the East coast corridor between "Dongbei" – the northeast (the provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin and Liaoning, which are also referred to as Manchuria) and Jinan, Nanjing, Shanghai and points south. Both the most direct expressway route (interstate standard) and high speed rail line from Shanghai to Dongbei cross through Tianjin rather than larger Beijing.

Tianjin is one of four centrally administered provincial level municipalities, along with Shanghai, Beijing, and Chongqing. While Tianjin has grown strongly in recent years, it has been one of China's largest cities for decades. According to the United Nations, the 1950 Tianjin urban area was the second largest in China, with 2.5 million residents, trailing only Shanghai which had 4.3 million. Beijing trailed Tianjin by a third, at 1.7 million.

Population and Growth

Since 1982, the total population of Tianjin has expanded by nearly 90 percent, from 7.9 million to 14.7 million in 2013 (Exhibit 1).  Population growth has accelerated over that time. Between 2000 and 2010, the population rose 2.7 percent annually, more than double 1.2 percent rate of the 1990s. The rate of increase was even higher between 2010 and 2013, at 4.5 percent.

Between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, the inner core district (Heping qu), experienced a population loss of 12 percent. But the rest of the municipality increased, accounting for 101 percent of the growth. The balance of the core captured 18 percent of the growth, while the suburban ring attracted 27 percent. By far the greatest growth was in the outer districts, which accounted for a solid majority of the growth (Exhibit 2). This peripheral domination of growth mirrors the experience of other large Chinese cities, such as Shanghai, Beijing, and Chongqing, which have seen their core areas decline in population, with most growth occurring in the outer sectors.

A New Megacity

Tianjin is one of the world's newest megacities (urban area over 10 million population). This has occurred because of the strong post-2010 population growth. In the next Demographia World Urban Areas (early 2015), Tianjin will have an estimated built up urban area population of 10.9 million. With an urban expanse covering 775 square miles (2,007 square kilometers), Tianjin has an urban population density of 14,100 per square mile (5,400 per square kilometer).

With the urban area expanding geographically, Tianjin fits the international trend of cities, in growing strongly, yet experiencing declining overall urban densities. Chinese urban planners have told me that it has been an intended objective of policy to reduce population densities, to give people more living space. This is despite the preachments of US and European urban planners for whom higher densities often are embraced as an "Article of Faith."

Tianjin's Urban Form

Despite their comparatively high density, Chinese cities are anything but compact. Most are polycentric in urban form, with central districts have widely spaced commercial buildings (the most notable exceptions may be Shanghai, Chongqing, and Dalian, but even these are somewhat polycentric). Tianjin, along with "in situ" urbanization Quanzhou, may be the least compact of the major cities.

Tianjin has a broad central business district (CBD), populated with tall, commercial buildings and residential structures (Exhibits 3 & 4). As is the case in many Asian cities (such as Bangkok, Guanzhou-Foshan, Xi'an and Beijing, the tall commercial buildings tend to be highly dispersed, rather than close together as is the custom in Canadian and American cities. In between the dispersed tall buildings are lower rise buildings, both commercial and residential.

Currently the tallest building in the CBD is the Tianjin World Financial Center (Exhibit 5), at 76 stories (1,105 feet or 337 meters). This is somewhat taller than New York's Chrysler Building, which was the second tallest in Gotham for years. However, another taller building is near completion, the Tianjin R&F Guangdong Tower (Exhibit 6), which is well on the way to its 91 floors (1,535 feet or 468 meters). However,even this building is not as tall as three others under construction in other Tianjin centers.

A second central business district is developing in the Binhai new area, near the port and 30 miles (50 kilometers) south of the Tianjin CBD. The Rose Rock International Financial Center will reach 100 floors (1,929 feet or 538 meters). This, however, is only the second tallest under construction. The CTF Tower is also under construction and will reach 96 floors (1,740 feet or 530 meters), nearly as tall as the new World Trade Center in New York (1,776 feet or 541 meters).

Finally, the tallest building in Tianjin, Goldin Finance 117 is under construction approximately 9 miles (15 kilometers) west of the Tianjin CBD in a virtually new business center. This building will exceed the heights of all but three of the completed skyscrapers in the world (Lead Photo).

Altogether, Tianjin will soon have five buildings of more than 90 floors, a record few if any cities will soon equal.


Tianjin has more than its share of modern Chinese high rise commercial structures and residential buildings. But, perhaps to a greater extent than any other Chinese city, Tianjin exhibits the architecture of the foreign powers to a greater degree than some other treaty ports (such as Fuzhou, Dalian, and Wuhan). The city of Tianjin has meticulously preserved many of these structures, not only commercial and residential buildings, but also churches.

The Tianjin CBD has a number of low rise streets with European architecture. Some of the most impressive are across the Hai River from the Tianjin Railway Station. There is also a long pedestrian street beyond with considerable western architecture. Virtually throughout the urban core there are examples of classic western architecture, some as ornate as in central Buenos Aires (Exhibit 7).

Perhaps the most unique feature is a large area of western residences just to the south of the Tianjin CBD (Exhibits 8 & 9).

In the Beijing Orbit: An Advantage

Tianjin is clearly in the orbit of larger Beijing, which has recently announced plans for a 7th ring road and other infrastructure to tie not only the city but adjacent provincial level jurisdictions together (Tianjin and Hebei). With a strong policy interest in limiting Beijing's population growth, and with plenty of rural land available, Tianjin could receive a substantial share of growth that otherwise would go to Beijing.

Top photo: Goldin 117 Financial Building under construction at November 6, 2014 (by author).

Wendell Cox is principal of Demographia, an international public policy and demographics firm. He is co-author of the "Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey" and author of "Demographia World Urban Areas" and "War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life." He was appointed to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, where he served with the leading city and county leadership as the only non-elected member. He was appointed to the Amtrak Reform Council to fill the unexpired term of Governor Christine Todd Whitman and has served as a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, a national university in Paris.