Growth and Urban Development in Prefecture-Level China

22 Pages Posted: 17 Dec 2018 Last revised: 10 Jun 2020

See all articles by Daniel Zünd

Daniel Zünd

University of Chicago

Luís M.A. Bettencourt

University of Chicago; Santa Fe Institute

Date Written: December 14, 2018


Nowhere has the scale and scope of urbanization been larger than in China over the last few decades. We analyze Chinese city development over the past 20 years, using data for the urbanized components of prefecture-level cities. We show that, despite much variability and fast economic and demographic change, China is undergoing transformations similar to the historical trajectory of other urban systems. We also show that the distinguishing signs of urban economies - superlinear scaling of agglomeration effects in economic productivity and economies of scale in land use - also characterize Chinese cities. We then analyze the structure of economic change in Chinese cities using a variety of metrics, characterizing employment, firms and households. Population size estimates remain a major challenge for Chinese cities, as official numbers are often reported based on the Hukou registration system. We use the information in the residuals to scaling relations to predict actual resident population and show that these estimates agree well with data for a subset of cities for which counts of total resident population exist. We conclude with a list of issues that must be better understood and measured to make sense of present urban development trajectories in China.

Keywords: urban scaling, Hukou system, population estimation, economic change, scale invariant metropolitan indicators, prefecture-level cities, Chinese transformation

Suggested Citation

Zünd, Daniel and Bettencourt, Luís M.A., Growth and Urban Development in Prefecture-Level China (December 14, 2018). Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation Research Paper No. 1. This paper has been published in PLoS ONE:, Available at SSRN: or

Daniel Zünd (Contact Author)

University of Chicago ( email )

1101 East 58th Street
Chicago, IL 60637
United States

Luís M.A. Bettencourt

University of Chicago

1101 East 58th Street
Chicago, IL 60637
United States

Santa Fe Institute

1399 Hyde Park Road
Santa Fe, NM 87501
United States

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