The rural heritage and the modernization at the fringe of the Chinese cities

Article by Giulio Verdini

The fringe of the Chinese cities today is a transitional area between the city and the surrounding countryside which not easy to define. This was the topic discussed in the guest lecture held at the CECMC on the The old dentist house in Jinshi Village, Suzhou., Giulio Verdini27th of February entitled “Conceiving the Rural in Coastal China: Challenges and Opportunities for Planning the Urban-rural Fringe”.

The reason is mainly ascribable to the scattered industrialization model that has shaped certain regions of the coast since the 1980s together with a more recent suburbanization process typical of the growing cities of the emerging countries like China (Friedmann, 2005; Hsing, 2010).

While normally the loss of farmland is considered among the main costs of urbanization, the demolition of the obsolete rural villages around the cities is usually underestimated, especially in dense areas like the lower Yangtze River Delta.

The issue of the “modernization” of the countryside has been clearly addressed by a policy released in 2006, called “building a new countryside”, (Guidelines of PRC’s 11th Five-Year Plan for National Economic and Social Development) aimed at improving the livelihood of rural areas and to create “clean and tidy villages” and a “civilized social atmosphere”. This policy addressed for the first time the negative effects of the spontaneous development happened outside the urban areas and advocating for a more systematic implementation of planning instruments (Long et al., 2010). On the other hand, the political discourse has legitimated the application of several relocation schemes for rural settlements, in some cases, with a recognizable historic value (Verdini, 2012).

What is threatened in fact outside the city is what has been addressed as the historic fringe elsewhere (Gallent et al., 2006). In this region it means a system of settlements normally grown along the main network of canalsA rural regeneration project in the north of Suzhou, Giulio Verdini, in most cases characterized by ordinary housing in relatively bad state of maintenance but also, occasionally, by outstanding architecture or historic rural fabrics.

The overall cost of the urbanization indeed includes the loss of a minor heritage that could support directly or indirectly alternative uses more related to the contemporary way of conceiving the countryside around the main cities: activities for leisure time, rural tourism or local food strategies (Wang, Verdini, 2011). Moreover the demolition might imply the loss of “path dependent” activities, expression of the local cultural and social capital hardly replicable elsewhere, like in the case of home-based embroidery in the fringe of Suzhou. Besides the built environment, and despite its quality, the intangible heritage is, for what has been said, a potential loss.

One of the challenges for planners for the near future will be to demonstrate through evidence-based analysis the weight of this loss, helping in reframing the politic discourse through the building of new argumentations.


  • Friedmann J. (2005), China’s urban transition, Minneapolis: Minnesota University press;
  • Gallent N., Bianconi M., Andersson J. (2006), Planning on the edge: the context for planning at the rural-urban fringe, London-New York: Routledge.
  • Hsing Y.T. (2010), The great urban transformation. Politics of land and property in China, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Long H., Liu Y., Li X., Chen Y. (2010), Building new countryside in China: a geographical perspective, in Land Use Policy (27): 457-470.
  • Verdini G. (2012), The rural villages in periurban Suzhou. Beyond the countryside modernization of China, paper presented at the 26th AESOP Congress, Ankara.Wang Y., Verdini G. (2011), Heritage-led Rural Regeneration: A New Dawn in China?, paper presented at the 8th IALE World Congress, Beijing.


In order to address the issue depicted here, an International Workshop was launched in 2012 at the Department of Urban Planning and Design of XJTLU called “Critical Planning for Chinese Cities”. The fieldwork aims at finding practical solutions for the sustainable development of the system of rural villages around Tai Lake in Suzhou. Next October 2013 the department will host the second Workshop with Chinese and European partner institutes. For more info:





Jacqueline Nivard

Jacqueline Nivard, Centre d’études sur la Chine moderne et contemporaine

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Jacqueline Nivard

Jacqueline Nivard, Centre d’études sur la Chine moderne et contemporaine

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