The complexity of today’s urban-rural constellations requires new instruments that can assist us in reading and revealing the actors, institutions, and processes shaping the dynamic urban-rural transformation processes and their socio-spatial impacts, and at the same, productively enhancing inherent and locally specific urban-rural qualities.
Most urban-oriented research and policy design in China is still devoted to the development of new mega cities and vast urban concentrations. Moreover, urbanisation dynamics generally remain associated with development and poverty reduction, with the assumption that urbanisation will lead to more prosperous and sustainable regions. However, urbanisation dynamics are also producing challenges including the creation of new forms of inequality, socio-spatial polarisation, as well as divergence in development, which is decoupling urban centres and their unevenly developed hinterlands. Furthermore, this fast track economic and urban growth has led to major threats to biodiversity, ecosystem services, and environmental systems, caused unprecedented levels of air pollution in urban centres, considerably disturbed the water system, and left important cultural landscapes in crisis across China.
The Chinese national government has started to draw attention towards the protection of environmental systems, as well as narrowing polarisation between ‘urban’ and ‘rural’ areas. Rural reconstruction programmes envision the development of a ‘beautiful and harmonious countryside’, and are beginning to address the importance of stabilising formerly rural regions. Although these programmes embody potential for generating new sustainable livelihoods and local economies in formerly rural areas, many developments focus minimal attention on local challenges, peculiarities, resources, and actors leading to standalone solutions without substantial regional coherence and resilience. In addition, so far, the programme falls short of offering clear toolkits or policy directions, or a recognition of the importance of urban-regional linkages in achieving sustainability.
The joint research and development project “Urban-Rural Assembly (URA)” takes this as a starting point, examining the vastly urbanising region of Huangyan-Taizhou, which is part of the Chinese ‘prefectural-level city‘ Taizhou, as an exemplary case study and learning context: a rapidly urbanising region where diverse and seemingly contradictory transformation processes take place simultaneously in close proximity, producing new forms of urban-rural interdependencies. Drawing on a systemic approach of transformation science and transition research, URA aims to contribute to a specific transformation-to-sustainability process: to address the problematic polarisation between urban growth areas and their formerly rural hinterlands by strengthening urban-rural linkages. Few research projects so far have built substantive evidence-based knowledge on the complexity of today’s urban-rural constellations and interdependencies in China. By addressing this knowledge gap, the project aims to provide the missing conceptual tools needed to understand current trends and to develop innovative policy instruments that can help to guide the urban-rural interface towards an inclusive, actor-based, and socio-ecologically just development.
Building upon the hypothesis that local social and economic innovations can become catalysts in broader change processes, URA aims to develop site-specific implementation strategies within Local Transformation Laboratories (Reallabore) to complement policy design. Through testing ways in which integrated thinking around the nexus of cultural heritage, renewable resources, and food security, concrete community-driven pilot interventions will be developed to explore and strengthen the manifold potentials of urban-rural linkages in the Huangyan-Taizhou region. Both policy design and concrete implementations aim to strengthen the currently neglected socio-spatial dimension of the understanding of urban-rural interdependencies, in order to embed technological innovations in a broader and more holistic development approach that include the local population as a source of cultural and social innovation along the transformation-towards-sustainability.
Based on the on-going experiences and results of the inter- and trans-disciplinary research process, and alongside the implementation of pilot interventions, new strategic multi-level, multi-actor policy guidelines and enabling tools will be developed to strengthen urban-rural linkages towards a progressive regional model of socio-ecologically inclusive and cooperative development at the urban-rural interface.
Building on a trans- and inter-disciplinary research design the URA team will: (1) build an inter-disciplinary and multi-scalar understanding of trans-local urban-rural interdependencies and metabolism at the urban-rural interface; (2) strengthen urban-rural linkages through developing and implementing community-driven pilot interventions that enhance resource efficiency and reinforce regional circular economies in the fields of cultural heritage, renewable resources and food security tested in Local Transformation Laboratories (Reallabore); and (3) develop new strategic multi-level, multi-actor governance tools that enable local municipalities to manage urban-rural linkages towards a progressive regional model building on socio-ecologically inclusive and cooperative development approaches.
Through the development of transferable actor-based and inclusive planning approaches including enabling tools and guidelines (i.e. Raumbild approaches already tested in Germany), the project seeks to foster knowledge dissemination across the coastal urbanisation corridor - contributing to the urgent need for creative approaches towards localisation and implementation of the SDGs and the New Urban Agenda in China and beyond.
Building on long-standing collaboration between German and Chinese research institutions, URA follows a systemic and inter-disciplinary research and development approach aiming to explore and strengthen urban-rural linkages in the case study region of Huangyan-Taizhou.
The research and development project URA consists of ten Working Packages (WPs) that are conducted in parallel during the project period. The WPs 2-7 create the scientific backbone of the inter-and trans-disciplinary research on urban-rural interdependencies and metabolism in the case study region of Huangyan-Taizhou. Therefore, six context related research topics, led by specific Sino-German research teams, have been defined with the aim of investigating the manifold interdependencies within the urban-rural continuum along specific material and non-material flows (e.g. people, goods, information).
Contextual research along the research themes is required to analyse the multi-layered urban-rural interdependencies that link the case study region to the broader social, economic and ecological context of China’s coastal urbanisation corridor (Macro Scale). In parallel, URA practices the contextual research on a micro-scale, following the approach of ‘Local Transformation Laboratories – Reallabore (Micro Scale). By bringing both scales together, the project aims to develop a trans-local and poly-contextual understanding of urban-rural interdependencies and flows, as well as to determine the most relevant actors, institutions and technologies (system knowledge) within the case study region Huangyan-Taizhou. On the other hand, it ensures that societal, political and economic needs and objectives of local transformation processes within the case study region are identified and linked (target knowledge).
Against this background, URA follows a systemic and actor-based research and development approach aiming to conceptualise and develop specific implementation strategies together with key actors on-site (WP 8). Based on the on-going experiences of the inter- and trans-disciplinary research activities and the implementation of pilot projects (transformation knowledge), new strategic multi-level, multi-actor governance tools will be developed to strengthen urban-rural linkages towards an inclusive and cooperative development at the urban-rural interface of Huangyan-Taizhou (WP 9). The joint project will be accompanied by a comprehensive process of knowledge dissemination including on-going science policy-dialogues (WP 10).
Urban-Rural Socio-Spatial Practices
In the light of rapid urbanisation processes in Huangyan-Taizhou region and beyond, an increasing amount of new socio-spatial practices have emerged, continuously challenging our traditional understanding of urban and rural livelihoods. Such heterogeneous, dynamic and trans-locally acting and impacting practices contribute to the formation of the urban-rural interface, characterised by new forms and linkages of material and non-material entities. The working package “Urban-Rural Socio-Spatial Practices (WP2)” investigates this phenomenon of contemporary rural-to-urban transformation focusing on the diverse socio-spatial mechanisms of urbanisation on the level of trans-local practice. On one hand, particularly interested in the interplay between the prevailing urban-rural dual structures in planning governance and new hybrid urban-rural socio-spatial practices on ground, WP2 will explore the political-economic structures under which diverse city-making, town-making, and rural revitalisation processes across the case study region of Huangyan-Taizhou are shaped. On the other hand, the research team will focus on investigating the intentional and unintentional everyday social-spatial practices initiated in the absence of, navigating or eluding existing rules and regulations. The goal is to empirically describe and read the fluid, context- and agency-based modus operandi at the urban-rural interface, and explain how patterns of action (joint-actions) and interpretation from various focus groups are shaped by the socio-cultural constraints and possibilities. Parallel, the WP also addresses how through such practices, the agents reproduce or reshape their lived socio-material space at the urban-rural interface.
Urban-Rural Material Cycles
Interactions between rural and urban material flows are little understood and can be characterised as disrupted. At the same time, a transition towards a Circular Economy (CE) requires a holistic view on production and consumption systems along the value chain and lifecycle of products at the local scale. The working package ‘Urban-Rural Material Cycles’ (WP3) aims at understanding and supporting the management of material flows in the context of spatial human-environmental interactions and urban-rural linkages in the case of the Huangyan-Taizhou region. WP3 aims to develop a quantitative MFA during the follow-up research in URA’s R&D phase. Therefore, throughout the definition phase, WP3 will identify and map key actors in the region and specific material sectors in plastic, metal and food flows; sketch a qualified MFA approach for the different materials; develop related data sourcing strategies; and outline at least two sustainable pathways for urban-rural metabolism in the case study region.
Urban-Rural Landscapes & Spatial Typologies
The working package ‘Urban-Rural Landscapes and Spatial Typologies (WP4)’ aims to investigate spatial change processes of urban-rural settlement and landscape structures across the Huangyan-Taizhou region in order to reveal region-specific characteristics of landscape-based and water-sensitive settlement development. Therefore, the focus lies on the diverse network of relationships between settlement and landscape structures, aiming to capture the unique morphological character of urban-rural landscapes and outline transformation processes that are region-specific and relevant for sustainable future development paths. During the definition phase, WP4’s work includes 1) Cartographic interpretation of large-scale settlement-landscape relationships and change dynamics in the region at the macro level; 2) Cartographic description of prototypical water settlement structures on the meso level, naming associated relevant future topics of landscape-based and water-sensitive settlement development 3) In-depth cartographic analysis of an exemplary settlement type; and 4) Concept development of a GIS-based work and exchange strategy for R&D phase (in cooperation with WP5).
Ecosystem and green space play an important role in cities and rural areas (hinterland). Facing the great challenge of urbanisation, it is imperative to take ecosystem services and the new concept of ‘green infrastructure’ with its philosophy towards multifunctional green spaces into account. The working package ‘Urban-Rural Ecosystems (WP5)’ aims to record the changes in ecosystems and green spaces in the urban-rural continuum of the Huangyan-Taizhou region. A suitable longitudinal landscape section (transect) will be conducted, which in the definition phase will investigate, in particular, high-density inner-city areas, suburban areas and rural hinterland areas free of buildings, coordinating with all partners of the consortium. This longitudinal landscape section represents not only different urban densities and building structures, but also different ecosystem types, including urban, semi-natural, as well as largely naturally preserved ecosystems. Throughout definition phase WP5 will work on 1) A framework and relevant indicators for analysis of ecosystem services; A selected transect based on investigation and data resource in study area; A report including a conceptual approach for the development of a GIS-based data archive and map basis for mapping at least two ecosystem services and to share as a common working tool with the other WP’s throughout R&D phase.
Urban-Rural Mobility & Migration
Rural-to-urban migration and its changing patterns are considered the key factors affecting urbanisation dynamics in China, which shape and reshape flows and linkages within urban-rural regions and beyond. The working package ‘Urban-Rural Mobility & Migration (WP6)’ takes the Huangyan-Taizhou region in the Yangtze River Delta as starting point for its research that will look into the aspects of: 1) the trajectory and patterns of urban-rural migration, and the way (im)mobilities are created; 2) the driving forces and key factors of migration; 3) the current urban-rural socio-spatial boundaries; 4) the changes in migration and mobility resulting from the recently reformed hukou system. Using mixed research methods, such as statistical analysis, new data (e.g. big data) analysis, mapping, semi-structured interviews and participatory observation, both qualitative and quantitative data will be collected, analysed and interpreted.
Urban-Rural Governance & Policies
Land use planning decision-making processes are often complex and require a wide set of interaction and dialogue formats between different stakeholders such as local communities, scientists, and several layers of public authorities bound by different legal and policy frameworks. Therefore, WP7 aims at identifying and better understanding existing actors and policy approaches targeting the management of urban-rural interfaces in the case study region of Huangyan-Taizhou and beyond. To do so, WP7 aims to map the local (Huanyan-Taizhou Municipalities), regional (Zhejiang province), and supra-regional (Prefecture-level city Taizhou) policy landscape. This mapping exercise will reveal gaps and needs for new policy approaches, and provides a crucial input for the conceptual refinement of proposed methods for strategic governance at the urban-rural interface (WP9), as well as the selection and consolidation of local transformation laboratories (WP8). The definition phase deliverables of WP7 are: 1) mapping of the policy landscape relevant to urban-rural linkages in the Huagyan-Taizhou region; 2) mapping of the actors relevant to the urban-rural linkages in the Huagyan-Taizhou region.
Case Study Region
URA’s research focuses on Huangyan-Taizhou urban region as part of the Taizhou prefecture-level city located at the verge of the affluent and highly urbanised clusters of the Yangtze River Delta in Zhejiang province in east China.
Up to now, the knowledge production regarding mechanisms of urbanisation tends to come from the large urban centres and cities that are either mega in size or holding an elite position influencing global political economics. Yet, there is a growing recognition of the need to consider a broader range of cities that fall outside the remit of the privileged few and have evaded critical attention. URA’s research and development approach, thus, focuses on an urban region as such: Huangyan-Taizhou, which is part of the Taizhou prefecture-level city located in Zhejiang province in east China.
URA’s selected research and development region falls mostly under the administrative boundaries of the three urban districts of Taizhou city (Jiaojiang, Luqiao, and Huangyan), where the most drastic urbanisation processes occur in a more orchestrated and integrated manner. Overall, this urban region has gone through rapid urbanisation processes, especially since the economic reform in 1978. In 1949, the urbanisation rate was merely 7.07%, by the end of 2018 Taizhou has counted a population of 6.054.000 and the percentage of its registered urban residents has been 44.72%, ranking the 5th in Zhejiang province. By the number of actual inhabitants in the urban jurisdictions, its urbanisation rate has amounted to 63%. Even if Zhejiang province is rated to have the highest quality of urbanisation nationwide, however, it thus also faces the most severe challenges regarding, e.g., sustainable use of land and natural resources, deterioration in the peripheral villages, equable social services to inhabitants with different social status, and changes of ecosystem service value.
Both the qualitative and quantitative indicators (the size of inhabitants, the economic and the industrial indexes, the positionality in the hierarchical urban system etc.) suggest that Taizhou city represents the median of the cities within the scope of highly urbanised Yangtze Delta region. Also, the jurisdiction of Taizhou municipality can hardly be deemed as homogenous in the social nor physical sense, it encompasses places with distinct physical geographical endowments, and administrative units entitled to various status, with their own centres, names and historicities. For URA, this ‚normalness’ of complex and heterogeneous urban-rural constellations and linkages makes Huangyan-Taizhou urban region an outstanding case to understand the contemporary drive of urbanisation across east Chinese cities alike.