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Project Tracking China and India’s Rapid Expansion

A press release just went out for the urban clusters research project I’m a co-PI on:

A research project tracking China and India’s rapid urban expansion has received $1.3 million from NASA.

The three-year grant will allow researchers from Yale and other institutions to use satellite imagery to detect and measure the growth of urban clusters, which are urban areas linked economically, spatially or by their population. An urban cluster can be a single urban area surrounded by many smaller towns or several large cities of similar size. Because of these linkages, a single city cannot be analyzed independently of its cluster.

By 2030 one-third of the world’s urban inhabitants will live in either China or India. Over the next two decades, China is expected to create at least 30 cities, each with 1 million residents, and India is on track to add 26 cities of the same size. The combined urban population in China and India is expected to grow by more than 700 million.

The project will identify changes in land cover, especially agricultural land, that have occurred in urban clusters. “We’ll attempt to find out what drives the development of these clusters in order to find links between them. Is it national policy? Local policy?” said Karen Seto, the project’s principal investigator and associate professor in the urban environment at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.

The research team will examine satellite data for regional clusters going back to 1992 and analyze it with economic, demographic and policy data they plan to collect. “Think of the cluster analysis as a cookie cutter. We’ll have a map of China and India and use satellite data to identify the outlines of regional hotspots of development,” said Seto. “We’ll cut those out, look at them in detail with additional satellite data and ask: where were the agricultural lands in 1990? Are there agricultural lands remaining? If so, are they vulnerable to expansion and development due to clustering?”

The team, which includes researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and TERI University in India, will also collect data from mayors, planning offices and real estate development companies, as well as on financial investments, GDP activity and population. They then will develop empirical models to determine the implications of policy decisions.

Seto said urban clusters have become far more economically significant than cities because of the labor and investment they attract and because environmental issues, including air pollution and energy policy, transcend administrative boundaries.

“As we think of an urban cluster as a unit of analysis for economic development, decision-making and environmental impact, it changes the way we conceptualize and implement policies, or it should,” said Seto. “Cities matter, but clusters matter more.”

In China, urban clusters are dominated by a single megacity, such as Shanghai in the Yangtze River Delta. The Pearl River Delta in South China is comprised of hubs in Shenzhen, Hong Kong and Guanghzou. In India, the urban development strategy since 2005 has focused on the 63 cities of the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), which is a departure from the historical focus on rural development. However, Delhi and Chandigarh, which is considered the most environmentally friendly city in India, are becoming poles in an extended urban cluster.

Both countries have pursued a policy of promoting special economic zones—geographic regions with special economic policies aimed at promoting industrialization, exports and foreign direct investment. In India, the JNNURM has approved 170 special economic zones and another 190 are being considered.

Significant differences exist, however, between the urban land dynamics in China and India. For example, all land in China belongs to the central government, whereas in India land is privately owned. India’s atomized patterns of property ownership, in which small parcels are held by multiple owners, confounds public and private efforts to secure large tracts in a city center.

The size and scale of urban population growth and the concomitant urban land-use changes in China and India pose major challenges to local and regional ecosystems and, ultimately, the global environment. Where urban areas develop affects their vulnerability to climate change impacts, such as rising sea levels and storm surges, the need to expand agricultural production into other areas and the resources required to provide municipal services, including water, energy and transportation infrastructure. How urban areas develop affects transportation choices and travel behavior and determines infrastructure needs and energy consumption. Expansive urbanization leads to fragmented wildlife habitats and biodiversity loss and altered hydrological systems and local climates.

The researchers will examine the role of policy in shaping urban development and how the national government conceives of its role in economic development, and why the two most populous urban countries in the world are seeing different patterns. They will develop a national-level econometric model focusing on investments in construction and education and a case study around the Delhi-Chandigarh urban cluster in northern India.

“We’ll be examining the role of policies in identifying clusters and their effectiveness, and whether urban cluster development follows policy or whether policy follows development,” said Seto.

Besides Seto, the research team is comprised of experts in remote sensing, urban economics, urban planning, architecture, demography, geography, agricultural economics and political science. They are co-investigators Michail Fragkias, Arizona State University; Annemarie Schneider, University of Wisconsin, Madison; Jiyuan Liu and Xiangzheng Deng, Chinese Academy of Sciences; and P.K. Joshi, TERI University; and consultants Vikramaditya Prakash, University of Washington; Jeremy Wallace, Ohio State University; and Qingling Zhang, Peter Christensen, Li Jiang, Donghwan Kim and Qian Zhang of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.

David DeFusco
Director of Communications
Editor, Environment:Yale magazine
Nominated for a 2011 Utne Independent Press Award for Environmental Coverage
Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies
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Posted in Urbanization.