Book review: The Great Urban Transition: Landscape and Environmental Changes from Siberia, Shanghai, to Saigon

reviewed by Muhammad Khairul, Nurul Fajri Saminan, and Yasmin Yasmin

4 Jan 2024, 12:11 p.m.

The Great Urban Transition book cover

Peile Fan, The Great Urban Transition: Landscape and Environmental Changes from Siberia, Shanghai, to Saigon, Switzerland: Springer Nature, 2022; 215 pp.: ISBN: 978-3-031-05959-9, £89.99 (pbk), ISBN: 978-3-031-05956-8, £89.99 (hbk)


In previous studies, the main issue discussed in land-use change was in relation to the suburbs, which was the site of the most dramatic urban change (Arif et al., 2023; Seifollahi-Aghmiuni et al., 2022). The book ‘The Great Urban Transition’ by Peilei Fan presents an in-depth analysis of the impact of rapid urbanisation in Southeast, East and North Asia (SENA). In this book, the author reviews several significant issues related to urban landscape change, population growth, environmental challenges and socio-economic adaptation in the context of economic changes that have taken place over the past three decades. This book provides an in-depth insight into how the consequences of urbanisation affect local communities and the environment. Peilei Fan, a professor of urban and regional planning at Michigan State University, uses the Geospatial Information System (SIG) and remote sensing technology to explore this topic in detail. In addition, the book is also relevant to contemporary issues such as urban population growth, urban environmental challenges, economic development, urban policy and transport innovation. It is a valuable source of information for policymakers, researchers and practitioners dealing with urban and environmental issues today.

These alternative urban economic development approaches represent a creative, innovative and progressive response to longstanding urban issues within policy and practice communities. Nonetheless, continuous monitoring and evaluation are essential to unlocking their full potential for facilitating transformative change (Crisp et al., 2023). In addition to providing insights into urban development, the book also asks relevant and sharp research questions, encouraging critical thinking about urban development in Asia. With an exceptional academic background and relevant research, Peilei Fan brings in-depth knowledge to understanding urban environmental change in transition countries. This book is a valuable contribution to understanding urban change and its impact on the environment in Asia. This book has four main sections: Part I is the Introduction; Part II covers Land and Population; Part III addresses Urban Environmental Challenges; and Part IV discusses Driving Urbanisation: The Visible Hand of the State. The introduction part consists of two chapters, with Chapter 1 delving into the scope and area of study, which examines seven transition economies in Southeast, East and North Asia (SENA) that have begun to shift from centrally planned economies to free markets since the late 1970s. This book examines urbanisation processes in seven countries, focusing on 21 significant cities in the SENA region. These cities can be further divided into four categories according to their per capita GDP: (1) high-income cities (Shanghai, Beijing, Hangzhou, Nanjing and Shenzhen), (2) middle-incoming industrial cities (six cities in Siberia, Chongqing, Urumqi, Lanzhou and Hohhot), (3) low- and medium-input newly-industrialised cities (Ulaanbaatar, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Vientiane) and (4) low-inward cities (Phnom Penh and Yangon). Chapter 2 concludes Part 1, which explores research design to address urbanisation and suburbanisation gaps in countries with transition economies. To examine the influence of factors on urbanisation and suburbanisation in transitioning countries, and how these institutional changes affect the process of urbanisation. What are the consequences of the creation of land and property markets? Does spatial planning still play a role in this transitional economy? Has fiscal decentralisation in China driven suburbanisation at the local level? At the disposal of a vast spatial database of remote sensing images, the study examines the transformation of cities and suburban areas in terms of (1) urban land coverage, illustrated by urban expansion, measured by changes in population, and (2) urban environments. An extensive quantitative index is formulated for the spatial, human and natural systems of 21 cities. In addition, surveys, focused discussions and interviews with policymakers, academic researchers, planners and residents were conducted to provide further insights into the processes and consequences of the urbanisation process. Local experts in 21 cities were consulted for their views on data and insights on the drivers of migration and urban population change, as well as land awakening at the provincial and city levels.

The next section, Land and Population, consists of chapters 3 and 4. Chapter 3 examines land transformation from 1990 to 2000 and 2014 in seven countries and 21 cities in the SENA case, using land coverage and land use data obtained from satellite images over the past 30 years. This research found significant land transformations in the suburbs of Shanghai, including industrial areas, large outlet commercial areas, university towns and green mega projects. Urbanisation proceeds rapidly, with an average annual growth rate of 2.2% for the SENA region but with different regional characteristics following the south-north gap both at the country level and at the city level. The transformation occurred unequally across the countries that joined SENA during the 1990–2014 transition period, with four countries in Southeast Asia and China having the fastest annual growth rates of urban land (2.8% for Southeast Asia and 2.3% for China), far higher than Mongolia (1.0%) and Russia (0.6%).

Chapter 4 analyses urban population dynamics in SENA. Urbanisation expands rapidly during the transitional period, with more than 60% of the SENA population living in urban areas by 2020. Although Russia and Mongolia rank top in terms of urbanisation, China has experienced the most dramatic increase in the urbanisation ratio, jumping from 18% in 1978 to 61% in 2020. Southeast Asia is rapidly catching up, reaching an urbanisation rate of 23%–35%. This chapter also discusses the urban population landscape in SENA countries that has transformed community reorganisation driven by market-based forces. Commodity-based communities are one of the most significant changes in SENA urban landscapes, and this emphasises that SENA states face growing challenges due to urban planning privatisation driven by powerful global capital and leading private development companies. On the other hand, low-income migrants often live in informal settlements in the suburbs, which have been relatively new in urban life since the socialist era.

The third part consists of Chapter 5: Urban Air Pollution and Chapter 6: Urban Green Space.

Chapter 5 examines one of the worst urban environmental changes in the SENA: urban air pollution. This study uses the concentration levels of NO2 and PM2.5 obtained from satellite images to determine the level of urban air pollution. The study found that cities in North and Southeast Asia performed well because they had low concentration levels, but generally, these cities saw a decline in air quality. This chapter also highlights the impact of air pollution on public health and the policy mechanisms taken or needed by various countries in SENA.

Chapter 6 deals with urban green spaces by offering a critical overview of urban green space development in SENA countries and city cases. This chapter analyses patterns and trends in urban green area development in SENA cities, contrasting them with global cities, drawing from data, literature and the author’s research. The study revealed that although SENA cities differ in their provision of green space, cities in North Asia and Mongolia have low levels of urban green space provision. Two environmental impacts of urban green spaces are urban heat islands and the mitigation of air pollution. Despite efforts to enhance urban green spaces, such as converting old industrial areas into green spaces in city centres, systematic planning has not received adequate attention in many SENA countries. Only cities in China have made significant progress, increasing the percentage of urban green areas from 16% in 1978 to 42% in 2019 and the per capita green space from 1.5 m2 in 1978 to 14.4 m2 by 2019.

The fourth part is an insightful discussion, including how the government interferes in manipulating the administration and addressing urban problems. This part consists of chapters 7: Governing the Land, 8: Transforming Urban Planning and 9: From Planning to The Change of the Urban Landscape. Chapter 7 examines the reforms of the related institutional mechanisms important for urban landscape change in SENA countries. Although household registration in countries such as China, Laos, Russia and Vietnam effectively controls population movements before the transition period, its effectiveness decreases significantly as enforcement of such regulations is relaxed during the transitions, thus contributing to the dynamics of populations such as inter-regional or village. Migration leads to urbanisation, especially the growth of big cities. Regional development policy is a special tool for influencing spatial development in SENA. Transnational projects on the Southeast Asian mainland facilitate urban and regional economic development in the region, especially leading to urban land conversion along the highways.

Chapter 8 reveals three common problems experienced by all SENA countries. First, during the transitional period, every SENA country has a master plan (sometimes called a general plan), which is typically managed by local governments and often requires the approval of the central government, while each country uses different levels of implementation and enforcement. Second, globalisation significantly influenced urban planning and development in SENA countries during their transitional period, including help with master planning, foreign aid for infrastructure projects and urban real estate developments. Third, it’s evident that a growth coalition has formed in SENA’s urban areas; the power structure differs between states due to the relative capacity and strength of government, domestic capital and other institutional mechanisms.

Chapter 9 discusses the importance of institutional transformation in urban planning in Hangzhou, China. This chapter highlights how ineffective planning can occur when there is no adequate estimate of the number of people and land needed in the future and when government controls are weak. China’s rapid economic growth following economic reforms in 1978 triggered significant urbanisation, with the rate of urbanisation increasing significantly. One of the focal points in this chapter is the contribution of public transport, especially the development of the subway system, to the changing urban landscape. This chapter explores the role of industrial involvement in urban planning, including the transition from the manufacturing sector to the service sector in the city economy. Industries in cities with greater authority also experienced faster growth. Empirical findings suggest that the economic transition has created conditions that enable a role for dynamic externality in stimulating the growth of urban industries (He and Pan, 2010).

The last part of this book is part 5, a conclusion that consists of only one chapter but that very much summarises the main points. Finally, chapter 10 offers an overview of the findings of chapters 3 through 9. Chapter 10 also discusses three essential characteristics of the SENA experience and explores the prospects of SENA cities and their implications for other cities in the southern world. The SENA, as a transitional country, has unique and specific institutional powers, like those with strong influences, such as China and Vietnam. However, the countries can learn to equip themselves with the same ambitions and capacity-raising, even in a globalised world where countries or suburban territories seem to be subject to the power of global capital and the powers that are far away. However, this requires a strong commitment from the central government, which can still use international assistance to enhance the planning and development capacity of the region while preserving its independence.

The most remarkable thing about this book is that it highlights urban change in Asian countries undergoing economic transition. The book’s multidisciplinary approach covers various aspects, including geography, urban planning, economics and environmental science. It creates a multidisciplinary approach that is rich in understanding the complexities of urbanisation. The foremost challenge is to balance sustainable, eco-friendly development with stability and security. It involves recognising that delaying climate and ecological goals may heighten economic and human risks while aiding the shift to green development can enhance energy, food and overall well-being (CCICED, 2023). While economic liberalisation and privatisation provide a boost to economic growth, especially in the agricultural sector, industrialisation and urbanisation, there are unintended consequences of these changes, including increasing inequalities between rural and urban areas, as well as between different regions.

Furthermore, liberalisation policies often lead to the domination of foreign and private corporations in the allocation of resources, as well as the abuse of public power for personal interests. In addition, land privatisation can also cause environmental damage. Environmental gaps are also a major challenge in urban problems, so the losses from land use and urbanisation, such as land closures and a lack of green spaces, are increasing. It is not only an environmental issue, but it also raises social issues of housing separation and inequality (Jünger, 2022). In the context of the book ‘The Great Urban Transition’ by Peilei Fan, this statement is very relevant. Through a multidisciplinary approach, the book helps readers understand the positive and negative consequences of rapid urbanisation and its impact on the environment and inequality.



The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article: The authors would like to express their gratitude to Lembaga Pengelolaan Dana Pendidikan (LPDP/Indonesia Endowment Fund for Education) and the Ministry of Education, Culture, Research and Technology in Indonesia for supporting the publication.



Arif M, Sengupta S, Mohinuddin SK, et al. (2023) Dynamics of land use and land cover change in peri-urban area of Burdwan city, India: A remote sensing and GIS-based approach. GeoJournal 88: 4189–4213. CrossrefGoogle Scholar

CCICED (2023) Building an Inclusive, Green and Low-Carbon Economy. Singapore: Springer. Google Scholar

Crisp R, Waite D, Green A, et al. (2023) ‘Beyond GDP’ in cities: Assessing alternative approaches to urban economic development. Urban Studies. Epub ahead of print, 12 August 2023. CrossrefGoogle Scholar

He C, Pan F (2010) Economic transition, dynamic externalities, and city-industry growth in China. Urban Studies 47(1): 121–144. CrossrefISIGoogle Scholar

Jünger S (2022) Land use disadvantages in Germany: A matter of ethnic income inequalities? Urban Studies 59(9): 1819–1836. CrossrefISIGoogle Scholar.

Seifollahi-Aghmiuni S, Kalantari Z, Egidi G, et al. (2022) Urbanization-driven land degradation and socioeconomic challenges in peri-urban areas: Insights from Southern Europe. Ambio 51(6): 1446–1458. CrossrefPubMedGoogle Scholar


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