Understanding polycentric urban regions in China

Department: Urban Planning and Design
Research Centre: Centre of Urban Studies and Urban Planning
Active Dates: 01 January 2016 - 31 December 2018

Title of project: Understanding polycentric urban regions in China

Project team: PI: Xingjian Liu

Project funder(s):
NSFC (41501177)
HKU Seed Funding Programme for Basic Research (201504159017)


Recent research has highlighted that, with continued world urbanization, a new urban form seems to be emerging: polycentric urban regions. In general terms, polycentric urban regions (PURs) materialize when formerly adjacent but distinct cities become integrated into a wider city-region. As a result, we increasingly find regions characterized by interdependent economies, joint labour markets, and common infrastructures, binding different settlements together into an overarching entity. An initial working definition of a PUR, therefore, is that of a regional cluster of more or less equally important cities that may still be more or less physically separate but clearly functionally interdependent. Some have argued that this is one of the quintessential emerging urban forms. PURs have been not only used as an ideal-typical construct to measure urbanization processes, but also increasingly ‘translated’ into a normative policy framework. Normative guidelines have been devised across the world to harvest the supposed benefits of polycentric urban development, including ‘megaregions’ as envisioned in the US planning circles, polycentric urban development entrenched in the official European Spatial Development Perspective, and mushrooming polycentric regional plans in China. This is because PURs are often allegedly associated with higher social cohesion, environmental sustainability, and economic competitiveness. More specifically, central to the “polycentric urban regions” idea is the claim that agglomeration externalities would go beyond individual cities and benefit functionally linked settlements. For example, small cities within a polycentric urban region are anticipated to achieve higher productivity and income level than their isolated counterparts. This project will focus on what has probably been one of the least researched PURs to date: the development of polycentric urban regions in China, the world’s most populous and rapidly urbanizing country. In order to accommodate the country’s booming urban population – which some predict to reach 1 billion by the year 2030 – the Chinese government is actively pursuing “new form of urbanization”, thereby identifying polycentric urban regions as an important policy apparatus. This trend is also evidenced by numerous regional projects, alliances, and platforms involving Hong Kong and cities in the Pearl River Delta. Despite the prevalence of PUR programs, surprisingly few studies have explored associations between polycentric urban regions and economic productivity, amongst other celebrated benefits of PURs. Without a careful examination of the relationship between PURs and economic productivity, we are left with a partial and fragmented understanding that may create a vicious cycle of misunderstanding and ill-informed policies, and even render the whole idea of polycentric development policies futile. Therefore, this project will take up the empirical challenge to examine how different urban forms, particularly the polycentricity of urban regions, affect the economic productivity of Chinese urban regions. In other words, the project seeks to evaluate the critical question behind PUR programs: “are (more) polycentric urban regions economically more productive?”


Anticipated outcomes and outputs:

  • Produce policies evaluations on the development of PURs in China in general and evoke critical reflections on the functional integration of Hong Kong and Pearl River Delta in particular.
  • Assemble a consistent, longitudinal database on urban form and economic performance of Chinese cities.
  • Develop a regional growth model that explicitly accounts for regional urban structures.


Published outputs and awards:

Xingjian Liu has received Regional Studies Association & Routledge Early Career Award (2015) and Association of American Geographers (AAG)-Regional Development and Planning Specialty Group Emerging Scholar Award for his work on regional development in China.

This project has also resulted in the following publications:

  • Liu, X., and Wang, M. 2016, How polycentric is urban China and why? A case study of 318 cities, Landscape and Urban Planning 151, 10-20.
  • Liu, X., Derudder, B., and Wu, K. 2015. Measuring polycentric urban development in China: An intercity transportation network perspective. Regional Studies, DOI:10.1080/00343404.2015.1004535
  • Liu, X., Long, Y. 2016. Automated identification and characterization of parcels with OpenStreetMap and points of interest. Environment and Planning B 43, 341-360.
Figure 1. (Planned) urban regions in ChinaFigure 2. Polycentric urban patterns in Yangtze River DeltaFigure 3. Different forms of polycentricity