RDP 2012-04: Chinese Urban Residential Construction to 2040 2. Past Urban Residential Construction

According to official figures, urban residential construction first overtook rural residential construction in 2011 (Figure 1). However, it seems odd that urban construction did not exceed rural construction much earlier than the official statistics suggest. After all, the Chinese urbanisation rate is over 50 per cent, the urban population of China has been increasing by over 2 per cent per year and the rural population has been declining since 1995. We contend that much of the official estimate of rural construction is occurring on land classified as rural during the construction phase that is then reclassified as urban after a critical mass of people move in.

Figure 1: Official Residential Floor Space Completed

Other data support this assertion. In 1990, less than one-third of all rural floor space completed had a steel-reinforced concrete structure, but that share has more than doubled over the past 20 years. Since reinforced concrete structures are typically found in high density apartments and are not required for low-rise buildings, it is not likely that this represents construction in a true rural environment. We therefore derive a measure of urban construction that assumes all rural reinforced concrete residential floor space is de facto urban construction (Figure 2).[2] This measure overtook estimated rural construction – the officially classified rural construction that did not consist of a reinforced concrete structure – in 1993, which seems more plausible. The estimated measure of urban residential construction has grown by an average of 7 per cent per year since 1990 and by 9 per cent per year since 2006. Section 3.5 shows that this profile is consistent with published housing stock data.

Figure 2: Residential Floor Space Completed

Is this new measure consistent with land classification practices in China? The National Bureau of Statistics of China (NBS) now provides the land classification of all sub-districts in China – areas that could range from an urban block to a small rural village and its hinterland. We studied Hailing County in Jiangsu Province in detail, which has a population of half a million people. The satellite image in Appendix A identifies urban areas in yellow, and rural areas in red. The boundaries are approximate and it is difficult to classify large segments of land. Nonetheless, the exercise shows that there are areas classified as rural that are close to the built-up fringe, so it seems plausible that construction in areas of this kind could explain the large amount of construction that is classified as ‘rural’ but uses reinforced concrete. These areas presumably would be reclassified as urban once population levels reached some threshold. Moreover, we contend that when new cities are built over razed rural villages, the construction is also classified as rural in the official statistics until the city is inhabited.


This estimate is provided only up to 2010, when the most recent data on the type of rural construction are available. [2]