Peilei Fan, Jianguo Qi, Joseph Messina, Huiqing Huang & Xue Li, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI, USA

Xi Chen, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Urumqi, China

Jiquan Chen, University of Toledo, Toledo, OH, USA

Presentation Title: Urbanization and environmental change in dryland East Asia: Patterns and drivers



Large-scale urban developments have increasingly occurred in traditionally resource-limited and environmentally-vulnerable regions in developing countries, such as the arid zone in East Asia, resulting in serious environmental consequences. This paper synthesizes urbanization and environmental change in Dryland East Asia (DEA), defined as a region that includes Mongolia and four provinces in northwestern China (Inner Mongolia, Gansu, Ningxia and Xinjiang), from the 1990s to 2010. It compares the urbanization patterns and processes as well as the change of environmental conditions of several large urban areas in the region, including Ürümqi, Lanzhou, Yinchuan, Hohhot, in Northwest China, and Ulaanbaatar, in Mongolia. The presentation elucidated possible drivers that cause the specific patterns of urbanization and environmental changes seen in DEA cities.

Key Lessons Learned

  • The selected cities have experienced extensive urbanization since the 1990s, as their urban land has expanded two-fold or more within two decades.  Three trends have characterized urbanization in DEA:
    • Increases in urban land at the cost of other lands;
    • typical land conversion pattern of grass land to agricultural land to urban land; and,
    • a trend to increase forestland, mainly through government intervention.
  • Impacts of urbanization on the environment of these cities are directly reflected by the loss of surrounding grazing and agriculture lands to urban built-up area, and the deterioration of soil, water and air quality over the past decades.
  • The cities experience four urban island phenomena: heat island, rain island, dry island and dark island.  They are also vulnerable to water scarcity due to the temperate continental climate, with little rainfall and a high evaporation rate.
  • Three distinct socio-economic factors have played significant roles in the urban expansion and development in Dryland East Asia including: economic growth, especially industrialization; institutional factors at multiple scales including the national development policy (e.g., the West China Development Program); and the urban land/property market in China as well as planning and development in Mongolia after the market reforms. 

Policy/Practice Implications of Research

With expected increases in the wealth and lifestyle changes of city residents and upgraded infrastructure that will facilitate further land conversion, aggravate air pollution and water shortages, policies must establish and enforce environmental laws and regulations on industrial water and air pollution discharges; plan compact cities and walkable communities to discourage automobile usage; advocate for water-efficiency technologies and recycling for agriculture and industries; and educate the public on low-carbon life styles and consciousness of environment sustainability.

Because of the unique historic, ethnic and cultural characteristics of these cities in DEA, the Chinese government’s ability to effectively build relationships in Xinjiang and other regions of the Northwest, either through economic development, migration strategies, policy incentives or a combination of all three measures, will be critical to the sustainability of these cities.

Knowledge Gaps and Needs

  • More integrated and quantitative studies of these cities and their respective regions on a longer temporal scale (such as 1960 - 2010) utilizing different models and a variety of data sources, such as satellite images, economic statistics, population, environment and pollution statistics while focusing on the linkages between urbanization, environmental change, economic development and policy interventions.
  • Utilizing historic documents and local government archives in China and Mongolia to examine the changes of the 20th century (or an even longer period), in order to understand the coupling and co-evolution of human and natural systems on a longer time horizon with urban change.   
  • Simulations of future socio-economic development patterns and climate change scenarios based on this data and knowledge integration.


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