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Urban ecology in China: Historical developments and future directions

Urban ecology in China: Historical developments and future directions

China has the largest population and the longest urban development history in the world, with primitive cities first occurring along the Yellow River in northern China more than 4000 years ago. After a long period of stagnation during recent centuries, urbanization has revived again in China since the economic reform in 1978. Strongly influenced by national land use policy and the history of urbanization after 1949, China's urban ecology has gone through three development periods: the emergent period (1983–1989), the early growth period (1990–1999), and the rapid development period (2000–present). 

In this paper, we first provide a historical review of urbanization and urban ecology in China; based on this retrospective analysis, we further identify the main characteristics of, and missing links in, China's urban ecological research; and finally we suggest future research directions. The amount and scope of research in urban ecology and environment conducted in China since the 1980s are impressive. Not only did Chinese scholars import Western ideas to develop urban ecological science, but also they have promoted a holistic, use-inspired, transdisciplinary philosophy for studying and managing urban systems – which has unique Chinese characteristics. After more than 5000 years of being predominantly agrarian, China is now urban, and will become only more urban in the future.  

After more than 5000 years of being predominantly agrarian, China is now urban, and will become only more urban in the future. This continued fast urbanization makes China a living laboratory for studying urbanization, and China's urban ecology seems poised to make strides in the coming decades. 

Urban development in China

China has the longest history of urbanization in the world, with nine development periods (Wu, 1988, Xu et al., 2009). Reviewing the urban history of China in detail is beyond the scope of this paper, and such publications exist (e.g., Huang, 2006, Lu et al., 2007, Wu, 1988, Xu et al., 2009). In this section, we provide a succinct overview of China's urban development to facilitate our discussion and understanding of China's urban ecology. Here we use the term “urbanization” to refer to the ...

Development of urban ecology in China

Urban ecology, as a field of research, emerged around 1925, due largely to the work of the Chicago school of human ecology or sociology (Wu, 2014). China has the longest history of urban development, but its history of urban ecology is rather short. Nevertheless, China's urban ecology has developed as dramatically as its economic growth during the past few decades. Different development periods may be distinguished, in which dominant ideas and approaches can be identified. In this section, we...

Characteristics of urban ecology in China

Based on the review of its historical development presented above, urban ecology as the study of spatiotemporal patterns and ecological and environmental impacts of urbanization began to take root in China in the 1980s, earlier than the United States but later than some European countries where the bio-ecological approach to studying cities originated. The developments of China's urban ecology in the 1980s and the 1990s were influenced appreciably by urban ecological studies carried out in.

Missing links and future directions

What are the areas of urban ecology in China that need to be emphasized in future research? How can China's urban ecology be further advanced? There are important missing links in China's urban ecology that, with rare exceptions, have yet to be taken note by the community of scholars and practitioners. Here we elaborate on several of them, and explore possible ways for improvement.


First of all, China's urban ecology has historically lacked an emphasis on the comprehensive study of biodiversity.