Walled Cities and Urban Density in China

42 Pages Posted: 17 Dec 2018

See all articles by Rui Du

Rui Du

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

Junfu Zhang

Clark University; IZA Institute of Labor Economics


Throughout the imperial era, defensive walls surrounded Chinese cities. Although most city walls have vanished, the cities have survived. We analyze a sample of nearly 300 prefectural-level cities in China, among which about half historically had city walls. We document that cities that had walls in late imperial China have higher population and employment density today, despite the fact that their walls have long gone. Using data from various sources, we test several possible explanations of this fact, including (1) walled cities have a well-defined historical core that helps hold economic activity close to the city center today; (2) walled cities today tend to have different industry compositions that are less conducive to decentralization; (3) walled cities are situated in regions where the local geographies make it less desirable to build out; (4) walled cities have more compact shapes that facilitate high density development; and (5) walled cities are located in regions where rural land is more valuable today and discourages urban sprawl. We find that historically walled cities still have higher density after taking into account all of these factors, which we interpret as evidence of economic persistence.

Keywords: urban density, city wall, persistence, China

JEL Classification: R11, R12, N95

Suggested Citation

Du, Rui and Zhang, Junfu, Walled Cities and Urban Density in China. IZA Discussion Paper No. 11951, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3301703 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3301703

Rui Du (Contact Author)

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) ( email )

77 Massachusetts Avenue
50 Memorial Drive
Cambridge, MA 02139-4307
United States

Junfu Zhang

Clark University ( email )

950 Main Street
Worcester, MA 01610
United States

IZA Institute of Labor Economics

P.O. Box 7240
Bonn, D-53072

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