Singularities of urban systems in China and India

We show for the first time comparable and exhaustive maps of cities for the largest two countries of the world[ref] Urban data bases have been built by Elfie Swerts from a variety of statistical and geographical sources according to a unified concept of urban agglomeration (continuously built up area). [/ref]. Around year 2000 there represent the precise location of about 11 000 cities above 10 000 inhabitants in China and 7000 in India, regrouping respectively 690 and 380 million of urban citizens (figure 1 and 2).

Two subcontinents of megacities and small towns

A major singularity common to both urban systems when compared to the rest of the world is the combination of huge metropolises with a high density of numerous smaller towns. Each country has at least three megacities above 10 million inhabitants (Shanghai, Beijing, Guanzhou, Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata) and Shanghai and Delhi are even each above 20 million. No doubt that in the next decades more very large urban centers will emerge, many of the largest cities of the world will be found in Asia and even a handful of gigantic conurbations called “megalopolis”.

But the distinctive feature of these urban systems is their dense underlying pattern of small towns with population between 10 000 and 50 000 inhabitants, of which there are almost 9 000 in China and 5 400 in India. One third of the urban population of each country lives in these relatively small settlements (whereas the proportion is only 25% in Europe and 5% in the United States of America). These small settlements are disseminated in every region, according to a rather more regular spatial pattern in India compared to the asymmetry between sporadic Western and denser Eastern urbanization in China (due to environmental and historical factors).

Figure 1 Population sizes of urban agglomerations in China (year 2000)

Source : Swerts Chinacities, urban agglomerations above 10 000 inhabitants

Figure 2 Population sizes of urban agglomerations in India (year 2001)

Source : Swerts, Indiapolis and IndiaCensus, urban agglomerations above 10 000 inhabitants

Two different types of urban hierarchies

Even if both countries share with all other urban systems a strong differentiation of city sizes according to a Zipf’s distribution, China appears as an exception in the world. Although the share of urban population is higher in China (urbanization rate = 60% against 40% only in India) the index which measures the level of inequalities of city sizes in the system (that is the slope of the adjusted rank-size curve) is only 0.8 in China (against 0.9 in India) (figure 3). Moreover, while the general trend in India, in conformity with observations in other parts of the world is an increase of these urban size differences during the historical urbanization process, the slope has been decreasing during the last forty years in China. That can certainly be explained by the strength of urban and spatial planning policies in this country – even if an uncertainty remains about the identification of urban population because of the hukou system. It is also a demonstration that an evolution toward more and more hierarchy in urban systems is not as inescapable as it may appear from uncontrolled urban dynamics in most world countries.

Figure 3 Rank-size distributions of cities in China and India around 2000

Sources : China : Swerts, ChinaCities (2000), India : Swerts, Indiapolis (2001)

Elfie Swerts