Up or Out: Measuring and Modeling the Growth of China’s Built Environment

EPA Grant Number: FP917441
Title: Up or Out: Measuring and Modeling the Growth of China’s Built Environment
Investigators: Christensen, Peter Anton
Institution: Yale University
EPA Project Officer: Zambrana, Jose
Project Period: August 1, 2012 through July 31, 2015
Project Amount: $126,000
RFA: STAR Graduate Fellowships (2012) RFA Text |  Recipients Lists
Research Category: Academic Fellowships , Fellowship - Forestry and Environmental Studies


Are China’s cities growing up or out? Designed to investigate the drivers and impacts of urban form in the context of rapid urbanization, this project will: (1) integrate satellite remote sensing and census observations to develop a spatially explicit, national model of urban growth in China; and (2) examine the economic drivers of urban spatial structure across urban China with an emphasis on identifying the impacts of land market constraints and regulatory policies. Given proper identification of the mechanisms driving urban spatial structure, this research seeks ultimately to project future trends in urban development and evaluate the relationship between urban form and emissions in China’s residential building and transportation sectors.


This project applies an economic framework to test current hypotheses about China’s urban growth trends. Utilizing a variety of econometric methods to identify the drivers of urban spatial structure, this project will derive empirical estimates using both a long time series of urban growth patterns for the period 1950-2000 and a higher resolution (1x1 km2) model of urban density across China for the period 1990-2005. Physical measurements of urban growth and geophysical features are obtained from the Landsat TM and MODIS satellite sensors and combined with economic and social data from national statistical yearbooks.

Expected Results:

Enormous population and income increases in China’s urban centers are expected drive the built environment both upward and outward. However, the density of urban development is expected to vary considerably across regions, particularly in the context of heterogeneous land markets. To the extent that land conservation policy and land market controls constrain the conversion of urban land in rapidly expanding metropolitan regions, these policies may lead the development of less compact and more dispersed urban centers.

Potential to Further Environmental/Human Health Protection

Although there is broad interest in facilitating smart urban growth, a more comprehensive set of empirical results identifying the drivers and impacts of urban spatial structure is necessary for evaluating and negotiating trade-offs at the intersection of urban development and environmental policy. This project will contribute to regional modeling efforts and sustainable urban growth policy, focusing on outcomes in the most rapidly urbanizing nation on Earth. The multidisciplinary research framework employed in this project allows for the consistent analysis of urban form across a large sample of cities, providing generalizable insights into the pathways to a low carbon future in urbanizing regions.

Supplemental Keywords:

urbanization, remote sensing, econometrics

Progress and Final Reports:

  • 2013
  • 2014
  • Final