Urban Transformations: Urban Development, Migration, Segregation and Inequality


Urbanization and urban transformation in China is one of the most important aspects of global development in the 21st century. The fast speed of changes and the complexity of development in major Chinese cities pose a great challenge to urban researchers in China.

‌This International Centre Partnership brings together researchers from three leading urban research organisations: the Urban Big Data Centre at University of Glasgow, the Applied Quantitative Methods Network (AQMeN) at University of Sheffield, and the CASS Institute of Urban and Environmental Studies in Beijing. It will allow collaborative and comparative research on three important and interrelated urban development issues of migration, segregation and inequality, and will make significant contributions in research findings, new methods, theoretical development and policy impact.

This partnership will fulfil the core aim of the Newton Fund, through the development of close scientific and innovative research collaboration and promoting the economic development and welfare of Chinese people, especially the 250 million migrant workers living in cities and towns.

Aims and Approach

In order to achieve the above aim and project objectives, our partnership activities will include research training through workshops, summer school and international symposium with people mobility in both directions in every year; a series of collaborative and innovative pilot research projects; and several important knowledge exchange and impact events and activities to influence future research agenda and government policy development.

The partnership includes a total of 27, from University of Glasgow, University of Sheffield, and Institute of Urban and Environmental Studies of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. It will involve a large number of other researchers, early careers and PhD students from these institutions and beyond, and government officials, policy makers, and civil society representatives.


  • Ya Ping Wang (Principal Investigator), Urban Studies, University of Glasgow 
  • Yu Chen (Co-Investigator), East Asian Studies, University of Sheffield 
  • Gwilym Pryce (Co-Investigator), Sheffield Methods Institute, University of Sheffield 
  • Piyushimita (Vonu) Thakuriah (Co-Investigator), Urban Big Data Centre, University of Glasgow
  • Guanpeng Dong, Geography and Planning, University of Liverpool
  • Nema Dean, Mathematics & Statistics, University of Glasgow
  • Yeran Sun, Urban Big Data Centre, University of Glasgow
  • Keith Kintrea, Urban Studies, University of Glasgow 

Project Dates

Sep 2015 to April 2019

Reports and Findings

The project resulted in many different types of outputs from the three collaborative organisations. The followings are highlights of some our overall key findings:

  • China’s urbanisation and unprecedented transformation of Chinese society (from rural to urban) in the last four decades is one of the greatest human-resettlement schemes and social changes in the world history. Urbanisation is continuously seen as a major driving force for China’s socio-economic development over the next few decades. Urban researchers and government policy makers are currently exploring the idea of urban agglomerations (conurbations and city clusters, as cities in highly urbanised regions begin to merge).
  • Urbanisation process in China was accompanied by many serious social, economic, and environmental problems. Inequality between urban and rural areas, between different regions and between the rich and poor are the most challenging ones. Millions of rural migrants live and work in cities, but they are often segregated (in urban villages and other poor areas) from the areas of mainstream urban residents and the emerging new middle classes. Their employment conditions, income, housing and living environment form a sharp contrast to the modern images of middle class neighbourhoods in Chinese cities. In the last few years, the government has promoted new urban policies, under the policy of ‘New Style of Urbanisation’, to facilitate the integration of migrants into urban communities, through the process of neighbourhood construction and management. The effect of this policy however varies between regions and cities. The unique residence registration system (hukou) is still one of the most important barriers for migrant integration. Urban policies sometime produce very conflicting consequences. In Beijing, for example, the municipal government's policy on comprehensive environmental improvement in 2017 cleared away many poor housing areas and associated job opportunities for which the low income residents and migrants rely on. Rather than integration, a large number of migrant workers had been forced to leave the city; many of them had lived in the city for many years.
  • Urbanization has strengthened the traditional spatial and social hierarchy of human settlements, starting with county towns at the bottom, moving up to regional cities, provincial-level cities, second-tier national cities, and the first-tier cities. Long held cultural wisdom and current socio-economic and political ideologies encourage the upward migration of people and vertical flow of money and other resources toward the top of this urban settlement pyramid. The urban housing and property market in some extent has reinforced this centralization. It facilitates the concentration of people with talent (political, managerial, academic, and intellectual), money, and other resources to higher-level cities where returns of property investment are higher. Housing price inflation became a mechanism for asset accumulation by the rich. The integration and linkages of housing markets in different locations enable the exploitation of rural areas by urban areas and lower-level cities by higher-level cities. In a huge country, the dynamic of such urban property market leads to inequality in housing consumption and asset ownership between different cities and urban areas, between different socio-economic groups, and between the rich and the poor. For a meaningful integration with local communities in cities, migrants need social, economic, and political capital and resources. Social and political assets are largely determined by one’s hukou status and connections in cities. Without hukou and sufficient economic power, it is very difficult for anyone to move into a good, properly built and stable new neighbourhood. Within this system, there are always people want to migrate to bigger cities and settled there while the government would like to limit the growth of large national cities, but there is no effective social and economic policies and incentive to reverse the population movement process.
  • Rural to urban migrants not only face the challenges of integration, their next generation is negatively affected as well. Drawing on data from the 2011 Chinese Migrant Dynamics Monitoring Survey, Chen and colleagues explored the relationship between different types of parental migration and their children’s wages when the children have grown up and migrated to work in cities. They found significantly negative relationships between parental migration and young migrants’ educational attainment and wages. Those who experienced the out-migration of both parents are most disadvantaged in the urban labour market. All these mean that inequality and social integration will be major challenges for policy makers in China in the future.

Further details can be found at the UKRI Gateway for Research website:



The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)