Since there are no currently active contests, we have switched Climate CoLab to read-only mode.
Learn more at
Skip navigation
Share via:


Design strategies to improve resilience of China’s rural towns. Envisioning harmonious relationship between the rural and urban environments



The economies and societies of China and the Western Countries are interlinked on an unprecedented scale in the history of their relations, and therefore they need to strengthen interaction and cooperation and cope with the challenges of the future, such as climate change and environmental emergencies. Thus, even architecture and landscape design are called upon to re-evaluate their role and their tools.

China’s urbanization is rapidly progressing. By the 2040 urban population will reach approximately 70%. Even though China’s cities are filling up, one of the greatest challenges facing China’s urbanization schemes is the question of urban-rural integration. Experts have underlined their concerns regarding the impact of the mega-cities, which depend on their hinterland for food security, water and waste management and other inputs.

The study of China's urbanization requires a multidisciplinary approach. In particular we believe a shift is required from urbanization being studied from an urban perspective to a rural viewpoint focusing on the resilience of rural towns.

Academic explanations of China's rural landscape from a planning and design perspective do not provide adequate guidance for business and policy makers. A bridge between ideas and practice that brings together constructive criticism and experiments on a rural scale to address clearly identified issues is badly needed. This proposal aims to fill this knowledge gap, and do so where it is most needed: namely the small rural towns in the outskirts of China’s mega-cities.

After completion of this project, policy makers and stakeholders can apply this model to meet challenges including energy constraints, shrinking natural resources and reduction of the rural-urban divide and strive to develop innovative approaches augmenting rural resilience. This model will contribute to envision strategies for climate change adaptation and resilience development for rural areas in China with obvious impacts on the global level.

Category of the action

Mitigation/Adaptation, Changing public attitudes about climate change

What actions do you propose?

The project addresses the specific cultural and productive features in the China’s small rural towns located in the Yangtze River Delta Region and will make an important contribution to comparative perspectives on the global significance of rural development in metropolitan regions. In addition, the project will create a new paradigm of insight into the rural space and suburbs of mega-cities and their relationship with urban areas.

Currently, China is entering the second half of its urbanization process, a period widely known as the transitional phase (Zheng, 2011). This second phase of urbanization takes place in two ways, urban regeneration in the Central City as well as landscape renewal programs in small rural towns on the outskirts of mega-cities. This is a distinct transition as the popular patterns of urbanization in the past are no longer applicable.

There are several reasons why the proposed project has a ground-breaking nature and addresses important goals and challenges on the climate change and rural resilience. Particular points of interest will be:

- The third urban scale of China’s urbanization

The China’s urban planning system includes two scales of intervention: the planning at the big scale and the intervention plan at the small scale. Between the two scales, we think there is a third scale that is the interface between city government (the big scale) and the land development market (the small scale). This is a new land of investigation, which includes mainly rural towns and rural-urban scale.

- Shanghai’s urbanization in rural areas

According to a statistical report by Shanghai Urban Planning and Design Research Institute in 2014 (Sha, et al., 2014) the total number of villages in Shanghai’s suburbs has exceeded 36,000. These are the settlements accommodating Shanghai’s rural population. More than 60% of the rural population in the villages is made up of migrants, with 70% of these residing in the suburb areas nearer to the Central City and the remaining 30% residing in suburb areas that are much further away from the Central City. Less than 20% of the working population residing in the suburbs is actually involved in agricultural activities. Also the elderly population residing in the suburbs is currently more than 50% (den Hartog, 2010). Looking at these data, there are significant challenges arising in the urbanization of rural areas in Shanghai with regard to the largely scattered low density villages; and to the limited job opportunities within the rural areas

- General phenomenon in towns

In the past 10 years, the Shanghai Municipality has re-arranged the administrative system and established the 60 Central Towns based on the 1-9-6-6 city-town planning system. The clear definition of these towns is currently challenging as the different aspects of a town in terms of its location, history, economic structure and status quo conditions vary widely. The future development path of these towns is highly uncertain and vulnerable.

- Guide action for small towns development

Since the 1990s traditional water towns in China's Yangtze River Delta Region have attracted much attention and some have become popular tourist spots in China. However, such tourist towns only account for a small portion of the traditional towns in Shanghai. How to guide developers and investors in defining resilient strategies is an urgent objective for authorities and for building construction market.

Project framework

The structure of the research is composed of four tasks.

Task 1: Understanding small towns urbanism

The initial stage of the project will be focused in Shanghai territory, on about 15 selected towns. There are 60 major towns in Shanghai territory, all rapidly changing but still with large room for improvement. The rural towns with a population about 30,000 to 50,000 will be the key group for the project.

Task 1 is about understanding the rural landscape through historical review of Shanghai territory's evolution process and also through the observation on current rural urbanization trends in the full Shanghai territory. The general phenomena in rural towns will be investigated under four categories:

1- Physical Conditions in the Historic Core of Towns

2 - Large Scale Developing Zones

3 - Heritage and Cultural Value of Towns

4 - Tourism and Conservation Aspects of Town

Task 1 is committed to covering the lack of knowledge available. The outputs are: a monograph on the evolution of Shanghai’s rural territory; and a series of township’s drawings, infographiscs maps, and other media source.

Furthermore, the project will also create an open photos archive. Objectives of the photos archive are: to provide images of the Shanghai’s rural towns under investigation; to provide iconographic documents on urbanization in rural-urban areas; and to provide photos useful for the whole tasks of the project.

Task 2: Definition of design strategies and design goals for China’s rural towns

The aim of this stage of the project is the definition of policy areas, design strategies and design goals. Task 2 will build a metric for measuring the resilience of architectural design actions. Task 2 is built on the groundwork laid in previous research (Cattaneo, 2015) by the applicant through the semantic analysis of a wide range of literature and documents. The methodology used to achieve that objective is a combination of complementary and well known software tools, such as, for example T-LAB, ATLAS.ti, R, Alceste. The primary sources texts will consist of, among many others, e.g.: the new urbanization plan for 2014 to 2020 published by China’s Government in March 2014; interviews of the citizens in which we collect narratives of the city, social representations, collective memory and their expectation of the township’s future development. The result is a semantic network, which will be composed by the policy areas, design strategies, and for each strategy we will define design goals, which might also represent the design actions for rural resilience. We will be able to affirm that strategies and goals represent a metric for trans-scalar design and evaluation, a set of indicators that exemplify crucial properties of rural architecture, settlements and territories.

Task 3: Best practice and visualization design and planning of the small towns

Task 3 is interdependent on task 2 and includes two complementary sub-tasks. The main aim of Sub-task 3.1 is the construction of a Best Practice Report and Sub-task 3.2 will focus on the development of diagrams and conceptual maps of the studied townships. The Best Practice Report (BPR) will be a collection of numerous selected project examples. The BPR will include documented criteria for function-specific best practices; project examples that have demonstrated successes in specific rural areas; and the development of a showcase on rural town excellence. The BPR should be used as a benchmark of best practices for design and planning of rural towns. The output will be an evaluation of the selected projects, which generate resilience in their territory.

Sub-task 3.2 serves to visualize both the data of the semantic network (RUN, from Task 2) and the data of the BPR in a real map of the studied rural townships. We think that visualization is the major tool for the analysis, design and simulation of rural-urban systems (De Lotto, et al., 2015). Hence, the main scope of sub-task 3.2 is to process a large amount of data using widespread technologies and software (e.g. visual data mining techniques) (Börner, Polley, 2014) and synthesize in diagrams and conceptual maps the actions for the design resilience of the rural towns.

At the end of the task 3 one publication will be produced, a Best Practice Handbook collection which will include: the evaluation of the selected projects examples; the visualization of the RUN; and the conceptual maps of the studied townships. In addition we will also construct a website – a sort of web-based laboratory – for users to ask questions of and develop open investigations inspired by China’s rapid urbanization and spatial production in rural towns.

Task 4: Envisioning the habitat of the future

Task 4 will be committed to create environmental scenarios (a sort of pilot projects) for the selected towns, located in the Yangtze River Delta Region. It will start in the later stage of the project when initial results will have been partially developed. We think that in architecture and planning the quantitative experiments can be well represented by pilot projects. The pilot projects will be studied at three scales of design:

- At the scale of whole township - restructure the town – traffic, land use, public facilities, public space;

- Urban design studies for a typical zone inside the township to study how to make physical changes to match today’s life needs while maintaining or enhancing characteristics of the town;

- Building type study – to study a single plot building regeneration design.

The rural scenarios will be realized also through 3D models including physical models by 3D printing, laser cutting and laser engraving architectural models, and 3D virtual models.

The outputs of the project will be a creation of an exhibition, which will show the project results and design works to the public.


Rural resilience > Climate change > Benefit of the project.

The scale

The resilience answers to the climate change challenges can not be restricted just to one scale and the research can not be focused just to one field (building, city, environment, etc.). Since Nature is not just a set of bricks, but a system of flows with a deep coherence, the proposals must follow this unity, proposing coherent interventions on different scales. Moreover, a reasonable understanding of China’s urbanization in rural towns situation would be the key to decision-making, whether for market forces or for policymaking circles.

The aim

The scope of the project is to supply a tool for designers and planners, able to lead them in an appropriate design of the Chinese rural towns, with a climate resilient point of view. In particular, the project wants to give an overview on the actual condition of the Chinese rural towns and propose a semantic network to define the aspect on which the designers must focus on. Then, with this perspective, a collection of best practices is given and multiscale "pilot projects" for the future of some selected Chinese rural towns will be presented.

The aspects that the research is going to consider want to act in a double direction: -limiting the climate impact of the expansion of the Chinese rural towns (with clear consequences at both local and global level) and strengthening the reactions of these settlements to the effects of the climate changes.

The field of application and the actions will certainly be improved during the phases of study and research but, to date, considering the social, economic and cultural aspects of Chinese rural towns, we can presume that they will be focused on these topics:

- Management of the resources in the optic of limiting their consumption and maximally providing health and environmental protection;

- Limit the soil consumption with feasible practices of intensification and retrofitting of the existing, in particular, of the brownfield lands;

- Management of the hydric resources, as basic living element but also as energy production opportunity and natural element that can wreak strong and dangerous damages;

- Planning the integration of the production and distribution of green energy as main way to reduce pollution, CO2 emissions and carbon-fossil consumption;

- Enhancement of the value of landscape as productive element, able to appreciate the natural and forestry heritage as active component of the environment.

Who will take these actions?

The project will be conducted within the China Lab. for Architecture and Urban Studies of the University of Pavia, Italy. The international research network of China Lab. will lead to necessary collaborations with other teams working on the topics such as China’s rural urbanization.  Among others, we will collaborate for this project with:

- the Urban Space and Conservation Board of Shanghai Urban Planning Committee, led by Prof. Sha Yongjie, Professor at Tongji University and Professor at National University of Singapore;

- the China Real Estate and Housing Research Association, by the Member Prof. Huang Yiru, Vice Dean of College of Architecture and Urban Planning of Tongji University;

- the Committees of Interior and Exterior Environmental Design of the Architectural Society of Shanghai, Deputy director, Prof. Chen Yi, Full Professor at Tongji University;

- the Architecture and Urban Space Research Institute, led by Prof. Zheng Shiling, at Tongji University in Shanghai.

Notably, Dr Cattaneo has continuous collaborations with Prof. Zheng Shiling, who is the unique academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in this field of studies at Tongji University, and currently is director of the committee of Shanghai Municipal Planning Board for the protection of excellent historical buildings and historical and cultural outlook areas. The applicant has also been in regular contact with Prof. Jeffrey Johnson, who is the founding director of the China Megacities Lab, of GSAPP of Columbia University, USA.

The China Lab. Unit, is composed of 2 part-time PhD students and one full time Postdoc completely funded by the ongoing project led by Dr. Cattaneo. The project’s aim is to implement the China Lab’s operational new capabilities. In fact, the project will innovate, but also consolidate, human and scientific resources which were developed in recent years under the co-ordination of Dr. Cattaneo. - see Budget for details.

Where will these actions be taken?

Within long-term collaboration among scholars of both EU and China, this project will take place in Shanghai.

There are two crucial issues beyond the creation of environmental scenarios considering social impact in real world, in the developing country context.

First, there must be participation and support from Chinese government authorities. As one of the motivation of research mentioned earlier is about real life issue relating with urban planning documents followed by action plans, co-working with the government authorities will assure the relevant knowledge availability from administration sides with regards to the issues concerned. This is of equal importance with knowledge from the researchers’ side for implementation. The research outcomes will lead to experimental action(s) and pilot project(s) which may include changes to land-use models and administration capabilities, so consideration of feasibility is highly important. There is two-way learning, not just the researcher helping the government sector. Without the administration and policy making perspective, it is almost impossible for research to be carried out on two aspects – 1) what are the real issues and 2) how to evaluate the implementation capability of the current administration. Through this channel, the project can also evaluate the market needs such as understanding investor and general public arguments on redevelopments.

Second, academic outcomes going beyond implementation will impact for a much longer time on wider actors such as policymakers, stakeholders, scholars, designers and planners. With the aim to place special emphasis on the engagement of authorities, stakeholders and citizens we will organize workshops, seminars and public events together with scholars, tutors and students of Tongji University of Shanghai.

What are other key benefits?

Even though it is difficult to foresee all the research outcomes, the project focuses on two frontier issues:

- The first is China’s extraordinary economic, cultural and social development of global impact. This means the World is experiencing a paradigm shift which involves everyone and on which much of our future depends.

- The second is the difficult to predict how and to what extent, China will affect us in the years to come. New knowledge to become familiar with that New World, which is destined to irretrievably mark the XXI century and of which we still know too little, becomes more urgent than ever.

The main reasons of the project are:

- Create awareness on developments and innovations in which different crucial elements of modernization and tradition have found a worldwide interaction.

- Contribute to the rural resilience of Shanghai Region, which will become the future bearers of the cultural heritage of China, and also of Europe and the World.

What are the proposal’s costs?

The proposed project involves too many different forms of expertise or for a single national funding body to be able to finance it. Given the enormous interest that US and EU has in working hand-in-hand with China, the time is ripe to come to a thorough understanding of its rural-urban evolution and to decisively deepen our grasp of its socioeconomic strengths or weaknesses.

Further, funding is requested for four PhD students, two post docs, and a design laboratory assistant. Four PhD students are expected to start in the beginning of the project and will be actively involved in the full project.

The first Postdoc will have a special competence in architectural design strategies and should have special interests in the contemporary architecture of China. The second Postdoc will be a systematic urban planner specializing in contemporary evolution of urbanization. The four PhD Students will be trained as architects or urban planner of which two will be Chinese-speaking. Finally, both PhD students and post docs are expected to be involved in the construction of the environmental scenarios as design and planning pilot projects at three scales.

- Total Costs for Personnel (Senior Staff and Development Team): $ 745,400

- Travel Costs: $ 96,000

- Costs for Equipment Hardware & Software: $ 30,000

- Costs for Consumables for design works and the installations: $ 57,000

- Costs for Publications (including Open Access fees): $ 45,000

- Costs for Exhibition, workshops, public events and international conference: $ 145,000

- Subcontracting Costs with no overheads: $ 30,000

 (To ensure that the outcome of the project actually is more than an academic model, and that external parties can use it, we think it is essential to have a professional designer funded by the project).

Total proposal costs for 5 yrs are $1,118,400 + $ 30,000 (no overheads) = $1,148,400.

(25% University overhead still needs to be applied - Total with overhead: $1,428,000).

Time line

The proposed project will run for five years, which could be considered as initial stage of a long-term program.

The short term goals of the project is to move beyond the knowledge of the articulated architectural and social evolution of the rural towns, looking at the local and global challenges, the need for continuous adaptation, and experiences of resilience which the rural suburbs of Shanghai faces today, and for which it will be a valid paradigm for Western cities.

Key project results are expected to have influence on policy makers and stakeholders to meet challenges including energy constraints, increased citizen mobility, shrinking natural resources and reduction of the rural-urban divide and strive to develop innovative approaches to rural urbanization. Furthermore, in the medium term the project can be expanded to other case studies after to have demonstrated validity of the whole approach. It is necessary to underline that the future development path of these towns is highly uncertain because rural towns in China are at their initial stages of development and have an uncertain future. Aware of this risk we plan to upgraded the whole process according to the rapid changes occurring in the Shanghai’s urbanization trends using its strategic plan as background.

In the long term, this project hopes to enhance rural resilience and balance the climate change in rural-urban China with obvious impacts on the global level.

Key results include:

- A completely new understanding of the current situation of Shanghai territory.

- An evaluation of the current planning and action agenda for rural towns.

- A construction and visualization of predictive design patterns for Shanghai’s rural towns.

- An effective collaboration between different parties and through engagement of authorities, stakeholders and citizens.

- A comparative studies between Shanghai territory and other global cities.

- A collection of Pilot projects that demonstrate validity of the whole approach.

Related proposals


1.     K. Börner and D. E. Polley. (2014). Visual Insights. A Practical Guide to Making Sense of Data. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

2.     T. Cattaneo and R. De Lotto. (2014). Rural-Urban-Architecture. Design strategies for small towns development. Florence: Alinea Editrice.

3.     T. Cattaneo, Y. Sha and Y. Ji. (2015). Architectural Design Strategies for the Rural Development in Europe. Urban Architecture (UA), 2015(1), 109-111. (Chinese).

4.     Y. Chen. (2011). The development of Shanghai’s Architecture in the era of ecological awareness – using eastern Chongming Island ad an example. In I. Delsante (ed.). Experimental architecture in Shanghai. pp. 14-25. Rome: Officina edizioni.

5.     M. De Alba. (2012). A Methodological Approach to the Study of Urban Memory: Narratives about Mexico City. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 13(2), Art. 27.

6.     R. De Lotto, T. Cattaneo and E.M. Venco. (2015) Methodology and Applications for Rurban Sustainable Development, In N.E Mastorakis, O. Corbi, I. Corbi (Eds.) Advances in Environmental and Agricultural Science, Proceedings of the 4th International Conference on Energy System, Environment, Entrepreneurship and Innovation (ICESEEI'15), WSEAS Press, pp.111-120.

7.     D. Du, L. Huang. (2014). Urbanisation in China: regional development and co-operation among cities. UrbaChina working paper no.3 July 2014.

8.     H. den Hartog. (2010). Shanghai New Towns - Searching for community and identity in a sprawling metropolis. Rotterdam: 010 Publishers.

9.     M. Elosua, F. Gipouloux, S. Goulard, S. Li and P. Ni. (2013). Urbanisation in China: The impact of the tax-sharing system and the definitions of new strategies. UrbaChina working paper no.1 November 2013.

10.  J. Friedmann. (2006). Four theses in the study of China’s urbanization. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 30: 440-451, 2006.

11.  W. Heijman, G. Hagelaar, and M. van der Heide. (2007). “Rural Resilience as a New Development Concept,” in Danilo Tomic and Miladin M. Sevarlic (eds.). 100 Seminar of the EAAE: Development of Agriculture and Rural Areas in Central and Eastern Europe Thematic Proceedings. Pp. 383-396.

12.  Y. Lou, F. Valsecchi and C. Diaz. (2013) Design Harvests: An Acupunctural Design Approach Towards Sustainability. Gothenburg: Mistra Urban Futures Publication.

13.  Y. Sha, J. Wu, Y. Ji, S. L. Ting Chan and W. Qi Lim. (2014). Shanghai Urbanism at the Medium Scale. Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer.

14.  Shanghai Planning and Land Resource Administration Bureau, Shanghai Urban Planning and Design Research Institute. (2012). Shanghai in transition: Urban planning strategy. Shanghai: Tongji University Press.

15.  R. Tyszczuk, J. Smith, N. Clark, M. Butcher (eds.). (2012). ATLAS: Geography, Architecture and Change in an Interdependent World. London: Black Dog Publishing.

16.  S. Zheng. (2011). Thinking on Shanghai urban space during the transition period. Shanghai Urban Planning Review 96: 3–5.