Urban Spatial Planning Policies of Shanghai and Tianjin – A Comparative Study

  1. Introduction

In order to understand the complex nature of the subject Urban Spatial Planning Policies, let us take the definition of Urban Spatial Planning first. Michael Mattingly says that, “Urban planning commonly means efforts to envision a future that satisfies ambitious objectives and to bring this future about through control of the use of land and the structures place upon it” (Spatial Planning for Infrastructure Development Pg. 5). Five factors are important in the development of a city: its geographic location, its size and its industrial dynamism, its usage of land and the infrastructural inputs. The first factor being absolute, the others can be modified by proper policy making and made to contribute to the city’s progress. But strength in the geographical situation can also be utilized to add on to the developmental activities. For instance, Shanghai and Tianjin, being situated on the navigable shores, have built up their maritime might by constructing large ports and thus serve as the nodal cities in trade and transport. Municipal and local government authorities are the people immediately responsible for urban planning.

What is the need for this planning? Ever since the industrial revolution, it is a common practice for the migration of the labor-seeking people towards the cities, which resulted in the unplanned burgeoning of these cities, that were splitting in their seams to cope with the extra population. In China, the process of urbanization peaked in 1960, with about a fifth of the population residing in cities. The demands on the resources like land, water, energy, transport and other infrastructural necessities were put under a lot of strain. This in turn led to an unplanned growth into slum areas, haphazard and irregular structures as well as a general breakdown of facilities. Proper planning policies can find a way to mitigate these problems according to the location, size and core area of activity of the city, and help to streamline the development and future progress by both the central government as well the municipal government of the city.

  1. The Reasons for Selecting the Cities of Shanghai and Tianjin

It is predicted that three urban agglomerations will be formed at their preliminary stage around Pearl River Delta, Yangtze Delta and Bohai Bay Rim by the first decade of the next century. And the pace of urbanization will accelerate. About 40 percent of the total population will live in urban areas by the year 2010. China will enter into an historical transition from an agricultural society into an urban society. (Hou Jie   opening remarks, World Bank Discussion Paper No. 352 Pg.3)

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Let us take two cities from these regions, Shanghai and Tianjin for our analysis of the policies in urban planning. Both of them are among the most important and dynamic cities in China and are also provinces. Both are coastal cities and are serviced by flourishing hinterlands. But they have very significant differences in their industrial setups. Shanghai is a port city, situated on the Yangtze River delta in the south-east part of China. Tianjin is also a port city and located on the Bohai Gulf in the north-west region. The distance between the cities is almost 1000 kilometers.

  1. Planning Policies of Shanghai

Shanghai has a long history as one of the most important cities in China, if not the world. Situated as it is on the delta of the Yangtze River, an ancient waterway, it originally was a gateway into and out of the country and a market for the agriculture based products from its hinterland. It thus formed an important part in the economic and trade development. It became a “producer city” in contrast to a “consumer city”, by the socialist planning policies (Xiangming Chen, China: From the Socialist City to the Hybrid City. Pg. 1)

Domestic industrialization in China began in this city since the liberalization policy came into effect and it was also the base for the first multinational industry in China. It has a mixture of private and state-owned industrial units that have contributed considerably to the revenue of the country and its economic progress. During the socialist years, a large part of this revenue was diverted by the central government to develop other regions.  But now, the “open city” policy has allowed the city to retain more of its revenue for it own developmental activities. The need for more trained manpower, and to get an edge on the latest techniques in the industry, obligated the government to establish more institutions of higher education as well as research. Financial institutions and banking activities strengthened as a result of the growth of industry. The infrastructure inputs like transport, water, power and building were supplemented and improved.

Shanghai has identified six service industries to be accorded precedence for development: finance and insurance, commerce and trade, telecommunications and transportation, real estate, tourism, and information (Yusuf, Shahid and Wu, Weiping, “The Dynamics of Urban Growth in Three Chinese Cities”, Pg.72). To free the inner city areas for commercial use, many industrial units have been shifted to the suburban areas. Pudong New Area, a sister city has been developed to mitigate the agglomeration problems. This city incorporates six zones, each catering to some special sectors: Jinqiao (export processing of high-technology products in large-scale operations), Huamu (residential, commercial, financial, and cultural facilities), Liuli (metallurgical and construction industries), Lujazui (finance and trade zone across from the Bund that will be a center of producer services), Waigaoqiao (export processing and petrochemicals and energy), and Zhangjiang (scientific, research, and educational facilities) (Yusuf.  Pg.65)

The city authorities are not only endeavoring to develop new areas and buildings, but are also trying to preserve the old residential areas and buildings as cultural heritage monuments, in spite of the high real estate costs and investments required.

  1. Planning Policies of Tianjin

Tianjin is also an ancient city, but its importance was over-shadowed by its neighbor Beijing throughout much of its history. Being another port city, it has developed as a centre of well built transport systems. The roadways, railways as well the waterways are extensive and satisfactorily developed. There is also a diversion into other industries by vast capital investment like the automobile, information and metallurgical industries. Because of the proximity of Beijing, Tianjin has laid in excellent highways, bridges and other road transport facilities, along with well developed water and air transport systems.

Although Tianjin also forms the base for many industries, there is still more land available for future expansion. Unlike Shanghai’s rich agricultural hinterland, Tianjin’s hinterland is also rich in mineral resources like oil, coal and salts. Thus it paved the way for the setting up of industries that deal with these resources. The region is rich in petroleum, both on the land as well as in the off-shore fields. The iron and other metal ores found in the hinterland service the steel mills and other factories dealing with metallurgy. The chemical industry avails of the salt. Recently the city has become a hub of transport, electronics, computers and other modern information equipment.

This city developed very slowly in the time after the liberation. But the Tangshan earthquake was a blessing in disguise, because almost 60% of the city had to be rebuilt, and it gave a new direction to better planned development. It also benefitted from the improvement and expansion in its infrastructure as a result of the Beijing Olympics, being designated as a centre for some of the sports and games.

Tianjin has more state-owned industries than Shanghai and as a result suffers more from the chronic and legendary bureaucratical delays in policy implementation as well as in revenue generation through its industries for infrastructure development. These inefficient units also consume a larger share in the revenue expenditure in the shape of subsidies and other aids. Multinational auto companies, mostly from Japan, have also selected Tianjin for their projects. The education sector is also well built up and extensive research facilities, especially in the electronic and computer industry have been encouraged, to enhance these industries.

Just as in the Shanghai-Pudong development, a new economic zone was later added to the city, called the Binhai New Area. This was done in order to free the demands of the newer industries from the limited resources of land and other essentials of Tianjin. A neighboring region was identified along the bay and the infrastructure was put into place in order to attract multinational investment in modern industries (Zhu Xufeng and Sun Bing, Tianjin Binhai New Area: Process, Problems and Prospects Pg.1).

  1. Comparative Evaluation

To compare the urban development of these cities: both Shanghai as well as Tianjin have laid in a lot of infrastructural facilities in the transport sector by building hi-speed highway and modern ports, although, as mentioned above, Tianjin has a more modern and well planned network. Both the cities have built up a wide base of educated and skilled labor force to augment the needs of the industries. Both the cities have a strong basis in agriculture as well as industry and have developed the tools and know-how to last in it. Both countries have proved their stability and growth by attracting and retaining foreign investment on a large scale and made their mark on the world map as cities that cannot be sidelined.

Their basic differences lie in their location and resource availability and management. Although the 1980s saw some stagnation and even reversal in Shanghai due to the policies of the socialist government that diverted the revenue earned to other regions and relocated skilled manpower to build more industrial hubs, it turned the corner in the 1990s and confidently moving ahead. Yumei Ma says, Shanghai has spread its own economic success to the nearby regions with its “world class technology”.  This is the reason for a growth in the multinational investment in the area. Tianjin on the Bohai Gulf has the advantage of the marine resources and mineral wealth, is an important port and connects China to the outside world (Comparisons of the Advantages and Weaknesses among Three Major Urban Agglomerations in China, Pg.133). Shanghai is emerging as a world class banking and financial giant with the major developed countries taking a large share in investing in the city’s industrial base.

Tianjin’s turning points were the rebuilding of the city after the Tangshan earthquake and the improvement of its infrastructure for the Beijing Olympics. Both served to provide a proper planned building development that took into consideration all the necessary modern amenities like broad, paved roads, spacious structures that were built on a uniform pattern. It is emerging as a major transport centre, with a large share of its revenue from the automobile and transport sector. It also serves as the node in the network of the roads, waterways, as well as the airways, due to its strategic location.

Both the cities suffer from problems, some similar and some different. To see the similarities in the difficulties: The governmental inefficiency and lack of coordination among the different departments lead to the haphazard implementation of programs at different places. This retards the continuous development of the cities. The state-run industries have been a heavy burden on the city as they are inefficiently run but absorb a larger share of the municipal revenue as subsidies. Due to the policies of the government, they cannot be shut down or privatized and thus remain as the major beneficiaries, while contributing the least. These funds could be utilized for major infrastructure developments.

Lack of foresight in the planning process led to the setting up of similar industries in both the cities, for example, manufacture of automobile. This resulted in an unhealthy competition for the same resources and inputs in materials as well as skilled manpower.

Living conditions of the common man are far below the standard. Migrant labor forms a large part of the labor force. Shanghai and Beijing alone have about 4 million migrant workers at any one time, working as vendors or in the construction activities conducted by the Fortune 500 companies based in them. These workers are not allowed any privileges like housing, education or hospital services. They are not even paid their below average wages regularly (Xiangming Chen, China: From the Socialist to the Hybrid City Pg.5). There is a severe shortage of housing, transport and communication facilities. These cities are much polluted too, with Shanghai among the foremost polluting cities of the world. The water as well as the air is polluted to a great extent, due to the industrial wastes and the large scale use of coal as fuel due to its easy availability.

The problems that are unique to each city: Shanghai was surrounded by rich agricultural resources that have been overrun by the growth of the industrial units. The loss of this livelihood forced the people of those regions to become cheaply paid laborers in the city’s factories, as they were unskilled. The production of these units also reflects their lack of skill. The city is overcrowded both in population as well as in building structures. It lacks enough paved roads and there is lack of green lungs or areas designated for the large plant-filled places to absorb the carbon emissions from the factories, unlike in Tianjin.

Tianjin on the other hand suffers from being over-shadowed by its neighboring capital city Beijing, as much of the resources are diverted to it. The shifting of some key industries to Hebei and the neglect of the city for some years after the Tangshan earthquake resulted in a slow trend in its growth in the earlier years. In the last ten years, the process has picked up and Tianjin has caught up with the other foremost cities of China. Zhu Xufeng and Sun Bing, point out a few more problems: the lack of national support in policy and resources, the poorly educated officials who held key positions in the city administration and tended to appoint still lesser educated officials for the execution of the projects, and the conservative nature of the Tianjin people themselves, who did not possess a strong business sense like the people of Shanghai and thus not possess the boldness and competitiveness to take on new ventures. (Pg.6)

  1. Suggestions for Improvement and Conclusion

In order to keep up, or even overtake the cities of the developed world, China has to look at a comprehensive reappraisal of its policy planning and implementation. “Megacities in developing countries can thrive only if they retain the initiative and have clear strategic goals and the political determination to implement them” (Shahid, Pg 174). China has already constituted a freer market system and opened up cities for greater interaction with other countries. But Shanghai was given more importance than Tianjin. The central government could formulate more impartial policies that cater to the particular strengths and weaknesses of each of the cities. This would lead to the uniformity in the development of the cities.

It is high time that the municipalities took a more serious view of the perennial shortage of housing, water and transport problems, and the lessening of the pollution. Expert committees could be set up to study each problem and give their recommendations. The municipal officials should then ensure the proper implementation of these guidelines on a war-footing. Shanghai has already taken a lead in this aspect in its plans to establish satellite townships that would provide cleaner, cheaper and more spacious housing. With more inputs like schools, shopping centres, hospitals and better transport systems, such towns would direct the congestion away from the city centres and spread the population and their dependency on the precious resources to the surrounding areas.

Coal and other fossil fuels that cause pollution must be gradually replaced with cleaner ones to get rid of the polluting agents from the atmosphere. Stringent steps must be taken to prevent industries from polluting the water by stricter laws and punishments. The implementing officials must be trained to carry out their duties impartially and without corruption. Cleaner cities not only have health benefits, but also serve to attract foreign investments.

To briefly summarize the urban planning policies of the two major Chinese cities that are also important contributors to the economic growth of the country: the development of these cities started only after the liberalization came into effect. In the earlier years the cities grew rampantly and without proper guidelines. As a result they became agglomeration cities. It is only in the past two decades that this need is being taken care of. Modern planning methods are being implemented slowly. Decentralization in the planning and well as in the investment sectors have begun to show results. Municipalities have been accorded more authority in their spheres of local activities, be it in the infrastructure development or fiscal policy. Each of these cities has followed a different path in its progress due to the physical location and its impact on the surrounding areas. But have shown concordance in their policy of planning for constant and continuous growth in order to remain competitive in the world arena as a destination for investment and growth.

Because of the late blossoming of these cities, the problems were tackled in an ad hoc manner, whenever the need arose. The need of the hour is planning in three stages: long term, mid term and short term.  The cities have to anticipate and plan for their development say in, 20 years, 2-5 years as well as the current year. Revenue generation, the identification and delineation of the projects, as well as the yard-sticks for implementation must be built into the plans. The particular strengths and weaknesses of the region must also be given their due importance. Only then can the city progress continuously and laterally. We can see that it is better to anticipate the problems by learning from others in the developed countries, and plan the development by appropriate policy making, rather than combating with short term contingency plans that deal with the problems after they have established themselves and are much more difficult to get rid of.


Mattingly, Michael. “Spatial Planning for Infrastructure Development: A Guide to Training and Practice”. Produced by Development Planning Unit (DPU), University College London, UK. 2001

Hou Jie.   Opening remarks, World Bank Discussion Paper No. 352.  Work in Progressfor Public Discussion . Development Strategy.  Proceedings of a Symposium in Bejing, November 8-10, 1995

Yusuf, Shahid and Wu, Weiping. “The Dynamics of Urban Growth in Three Chinese Cities”.  Book. Published for the World Bank. Oxford University Publication. 1997

Xiangming Chen. “China: From the Socialist to the Hybrid City” date accessed 7 Dec 2009.


Zhu, Xufeng and Sun Bing. “Tianjin Binhai New Area: Process, Problems and Prospects”. Asian Social Science. EAI Working Paper No. 141. 25 Feb 2008.

Ma, Yumei. “Comparisons of the Advantages and Weaknesses among Three Major Urban Agglomerations in China”. Asian Social Science, Vol 4, No. 10. October 2008.

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