Urbanizing China

11.S945 Urbanizing China: A Reflective Dialogue

Dear All, 

Multiple, often highly contrasting, stories can be told about China's urbanization. While we are drawing the Urbanizing China course to the end tomorrow, we will present in the last dialogue "Alternative Narratives of China's Urbanization", and collectively re-package the 26 dialogues, 17 guest speakers, 24 class videos  and 200+ idea notes in different frames of reference following these narratives. 

I'd like to thank my TA Liyan Xu, the 17 colorful guest speakers and 22 energetic students, official or unofficial, who have challenged me into making this learning experiment possible!

Best, Jinhua


China urbanized 350 million people in the past 30 years and is poised to do it again in the next three decades. China’s urbanization is immense and rapid but 'out of sync'. This subject poses three questions:

  1. To what extent are multiple interpretations of urbanization desynchronized in China—causing tensions and discontinuities between people and land, between economy and environment, between urban financing and urban form, and between locals and migrants?
  2. What might differentiate the next 30 years from the past, both in terms of the evolving nature of the challenges and the variegated responses in urban governance, both formal (e.g. planning and policies) and informal, across China’s 600+ cities?
  3. What differentiates China from other countries in their equivalent urbanizing historical periods? And what may China’s experience offer for the rest of the world?

The subject treats China’s urbanization as the joint result of 'natural' socioeconomic processes and conscious actions by governments, markets and the public.One overarching theme is the intricate interaction between state and market in China’s context, yielding a variety of state-market “cocktails” devised and experimented in different cities in response to local problems, each involving a multi-layered projection onto urban space.

Instead of covering the various topics individually (land, housing, transportation, energy, environment, migration, finance, urban inequality, …), this course is structured to three clusters that examine the connections between these multiple functional domains. The subject will evolve continually to keep pace with the dynamics of Chinese cities, engaging students and guest speakers to provide critical inputs.


  • Department of Urban Studies and Planning, MIT, Fall 2013
  • MW 9:30-11:00; 9-450B
  • Credits: 12 or 6 (H)
  • Professor: Jinhua Zhao
  • Office hour: Tue 3:00-4:30, 9-523
  • TA: Liyan Xu

Speakers and students

17 guest speakers are invited from MIT, Tufts, Harvard, Columbia, Stanford, Tongji and Tsinghua. A diverse group of 22 students, official or unofficial, contribute actively to the class. Jinhua is the critical commentator and provide a few generic logics that bind the dialogues into a coherent story.

A Reflective Dialogue

Classes are organized as a semi-structured dialogue in the similar form of NPR’s On Point. Programming of each class includes:

  • Jinhua opens the topic (5 min)
  • Guests present the case (15 min)
  • Dialogue (40 min): Jinhua interviews/challenges the guests; students participate in the debates
  • Guests reflect on the discussion (5 min)
  • Jinhua concludes (3 min)
  • Students write in-class idea notes (5 min)

Part I: Preface (3 classes)

Part II: Land Market, Public Finance, Real Estate Development (6 classes)

Part III: Transportation, Economy, Energy, Environment & Technology (10 classes)

  • 10/07 Dispersion of Urban Agglomeration through High Speed Rail (Wanli Fang)
  • 10/09 Managing Car Ownership in Mega Cities (Jinhua Zhao)
  • 10/16 Costs of Air Pollution: Focusing on its Human Health Damage (Kyung-Min Nam)
  • 10/21 Advancing Low-Carbon Cities : Pathways through CERC (Shin-Pei Tsay)
  • 10/23 Module Summary and Student Presentations Phase 2: Proposals
  • 10/28 Progress in Energy Efficiency : Technology, Policy and Market (Yang Yu)
  • 10/30 Financing Urban Access : Transportation, Form and Land Grabbing (David Block-Schatcher)
  • 11/04 Untangling Complex Urban Issues through Emerging Big Data (Shan Jiang and Yi Zhu)
  • 11/06 and 11/13 Module Summary and Student Presentations Phase 3: Literature

Part IV: Social, Cultural and Political (7 classes)

Part V: Alternative Narratives of China's Urbanization (1 classes)

  • 12/11 Course Summary: Alternative Narratives of China's Urbanization (Jinhua Zhao)


Most of the dialogues are videotaped and available at MIT Tech TV.


All course materials are posted at MIT Stellar, including syllabus, lecture ppt, readings, class videos and student idea notes.