I have to say at the outset that this question is overly broad. There are differences between Chinese cities, and between neighborhoods within Chinese cities. As for “Western” cities, the differences are even greater, since “The West” encompasses a broad array of nations spread across far-flung corners of the planet.
Honestly, Chinese cities contain multitudes. What they are like depends on what part of the city you are talking about, when it was built, who lives there, and what the function of the neighborhood is. In some Chinese cities you can find narrow alleys lined with dense, older housing, home to working class people, with bicycles parked outside and laundry hanging out to dry:
Nearly all older, working class neighborhoods in Chinese cities are within walking distance of a “wet market” where you can buy fresh produce and freshly butchered meat. These folks have little need for modern supermarkets.
“Urban villages” are a common feature in many Chinese cities. Formerly agricultural villages, they urbanized and densified when the city footprint expanded to surround them
In other parts of Chinese cities, you might find ultra-modern architecture, luxury shopping centers, fashionable high-rises, and whimsical public art:
A number of Chinese cities were essentially colonized by England, France, Germany, Japan, or Russia during the 19th century. In those cities, the foreign colonizers left their imprint in architecture that still stands today. Today, these “foreign style” streets are often Chinese hipster districts full of bars and coffeeshops.
One feature common to every Chinese city is at least one “walking street” which is similar to the “high street” common to most European cities, and is home to major brand name shops.
At Chinese New Year, Chinese cities transform themselves much as Western cities do at Christmastime, with colorful decorations everywhere:
It’s very common to find traditional elements in Chinese cities, such as temples and gates like this one:
It’s not uncommon to find the old and new mixed in the same urban tableau:
If you were to travel back to 500 years ago, you’d find that, apart from differences in architectural styles, Chinese cities and “Western” cities (i.e. European cities) were quite similar, in both form and function.
In the pre-modern era, the majority of people in both China and Europe lived in rural areas and engaged in agricultural work (usually some form of serfdom). Only a minority of people (around 10%) lived in cities. These were traders, merchants, and the military, religious and political elite. Both European and Chinese cities were typically surrounded by defensive walls, and located along rivers or coastlines. The cities were densely inhabited and compact (like in the image below), small enough to walk from one end to the other in less than a day. Streets were narrow, wide enough for pedestrians and horses. Street networks were organic and maze-like (with some exceptions, like Beijing which followed a grid-like structure for spiritual reasons).
Here are some examples of traditional Chinese urban form that still exists today, as seen in Google Earth. The following image is of Nanluoguxiang, a neighborhood made up of Ming Dynasty-era “hutong” (alleys) in central Beijing.
The next Google Earth image is Lijiang old town. Although much of the old town was destroyed in an earthquake in 1996 and most of the “old-looking” buildings today are in fact modern reproductions, the historic maze-like urban form has been preserved, much to the delight of the millions of tourists who stroll through its cobblestone lanes every year.
Chinese and Western cities began to diverge in the 19th century when twin processes of industrialization and urbanization played out in tandem. With the introduction of railroads, and later automobiles, Western cities rapidly expand behind their pre-modern footprints into newly built suburbs (sometimes known as “streetcar suburbs”). No longer was the city limited in size to the distance one could walk in a day’s time. At the same time, transformations in the political economy of western nations meant more and more people were moving to cities in search of opportunity. At the turn of the 20th century, the progressive political movement played out in cities as the birth of modern urban planning, with the “City Beautiful” movement promoting the public goods of infrastructure, sewers, public parks, and mass transit.
All the while, as Western cities were growing in population, area, and prosperity, Chinese cities remained in a state of arrested development. At the turn of the 20th century, China was still governed by the weak Qing Dynasty, and the majority of its people were peasants residing in rural villages. There was some early efforts at urban modernization in China at this time. The governments of Germany, France, England, and Russia managed sections of Chinese cities known “concessions” extracted from the weak Qing government, and in these areas they introduced modern architecture, gridiron street networks, sewers, and streetcars. But then China was plunged into a half century of chaos, with the Xinhai Revolution, the Warlord era, World War II, and the Communist-National Civil War.
After the Communist Victory in 1949, Mao Zedong presided over three decades of national policy that emphasized rural over urban development. Paranoid that China’s coastal cities were vulnerable to attack by the Americans, Mao relocated thousands of factories to inland rural areas. Urban populations actually declined during this time, as middle class urban youth (including a young Xi Jinping) were “sent down” to the countryside to learn the virtues of a rural life.
What construction did take place in Chinese cities during the rule of Mao Zedong can generally be divided into two categories: cheap, concrete, Soviet-style communal housing barracks, and monumental architecture designed to celebrate the Communist Party or grandiose public spaces such as Tiananmen Square which could host mass political rallies.
It’s fair to say that in 1976, at the time of Mao’s death, the contrast between Chinese cities and their Western counterparts was the starkest in history. At this point, Western cities had undergone the upheaval of modernism, reached majority urbanization, and were already entering with a new era of consumer industry-led post-modernism, deindustrialization, demographic change, white flight, and suburbanization and exurbanziation. A visitor to a Chinese city at this same point in time, on the other hand, would have found that little had changed in 100 years. That same visitor would have founds streets devoid of cars, and filled instead with bicycles. All of that would change rapidly at the helm of China’s new, market-led leadership under Deng Xiaoping.
Housing is one area where Chinese cities diverge significantly from Western cities. The vast majority of housing in Chinese cities is in the form of apartment buildings. In this, the divergence between Chinese cities and American cities is more acute than that between Chinese cities and European cities. Single-family homes (literally, “mansions” in Chinese) are rare and extremely rare. Moreover, most Chinese cities mandate that single-family homes are only allowed in the distant suburbs far outside the city center.
Apartment housing in China can be divided into two main types: socialist era danwei apartments and market era apartment high-rises. Socialist era housing dates from the 1950s – 1980s. Residents did not pay any rents. Apartments were provided for free by one’s work unit. That said, conditions were poor and a large family (remember, this is before the one child policy was instituted) could expect to share cramped living space. Apartment buildings were functionalist and minimalist, with unfinished concrete facades, and a uniform walkup height of seven stories. Most of these apartments lacked kitchen and bathroom facilities, residents relied on shared common facilities instead. The following Google Earth image shows neighborhoods of Maoist era danwei housing in Beijing.
When Deng put China’s economy on the path to “reform and opening” in the early 1980s, he also ushered in the fastest and largest-scale urbanization movement the world has ever seen. China would accomplish in the next 30 or so years what it took Western cities more than a century to accomplish. One of the biggest policy changes in the reform and opening era was the privatization of the danwei housing. Starting in the 1990s, housing that was previously maintained and furnished under the state-run economy was transferred to residents as commodity housing. This act led to what is probably the largest wealth transfer in Chinese history. Overnight, China minted millions of urban property holders. Over the next decade or three, depending on the neighborhood, some of these urban housing units would gain 1000% to 10000% of their original value on the private housing market. In the Maoist era, the economic divide between urban and rural Chinese was minimal. But after this act, a class of urban property-owning elites was created, and China’s wealth gap has grown ever since. Those who were lucky enough to live in government-subsidized housing units on the cusp of privatization gained capital which they then used to invest in more housing in the new economy.
Today many neighborhoods in the older urban cores of Chinese cities still contain a large stock of socialist era danwei apartment buildings. However, the owners of these apartments rarely live there themselves. The owners use their profits to buy newer commodity apartments in more suburban neighborhoods of cities, and rent out the older apartments to urban migrants or to parents looking for “school district apartments.” Most have been retrofitted so they now contain basic bathrooms and kitchens. The following image shows a neighborhood of socialist era danwei apartment buildings in Kunming with solar hot water heaters on the roofs.
Sometimes, this older housing is demolished to make room for new market rate developments. However, the cost to developers is high because they must according to law compensate each resident at the market rate determined by the government. So instead, developers usually leave this older inner city housing untouched and turn to greenfield sites in more suburban outlying districts farther away from the city center to develop new market rate housing. The following Google Earth image is of a commodity housing development in a suburban district of Beijing. Note the presence of empty land adjacent to the property development, a common occurrence in China’s urban greenfield development.
Property development in China is undertaken by huge corporations with billions of dollars in their portfolios, who have close connections with the government and enjoy preferential policies and low interest loans from state-owned banks. Small and medium scale developers, common in Western cities, are almost non-existent in China. Chinese property developers acquire greenfield sites from local city governments at auction. Usually, these greenfield sites formerly contained farmland and rural villages. The villagers are first evicted by the local government, given nominal compensation and often a promise of a new apartment somewhere in the suburbs (but without rural land on which to practice their traditional livelihoods). The land is then subdivided by city planners into enormous plots and sold to property developers at a rate much higher than the rate used to compensate the evicted farmers. The following Google Earth image shows a section of Century City, an early 2000s development in suburban Kunming. It is typical of Chinese commodity housing developments which appear to be planned to appeal to those viewing the development from a bird’s eye perspective.
Chinese property developers never build one apartment building at a time, like property developers in the West do. Instead, they will develop one huge plot (known in Chinese as a “xiaoqu”), typically several acres in size, at the same time. One plot will inevitably contain dozens of identical high-rise apartments, usually 32 stories in height. Chinese urban planning law issues strict regulations on the amount of natural sunlight that must penetrate every new apartment unit, so as a result, high-rises are widely spaced apart with ample open space in between, or arranged around a man-made lake. Below is a site plan for a typical Chinese xiaoqu.
Another facet of contemporary cities is the 成功村 or chenggongcun, which literally translates as “village within the city” and is perhaps better translated as “urban village”. As the following series of 3 images shows, urban villages were originally rural villages surrounded by farmland, as you can see in the image of Xian Village in the 1970s (image courtesy of the Guangzhou Urban Planning Exhibition Hall). Over time, they were “swallowed up” by expanding urban footprints. Xian Village (as seen in the second image, taken from Google Earth’s historical data) was for years located immediately next to Guangzhou’s new CBD and premier urban district, the “Zhujiang New Town”. In 2018, Xian Village was completely demolished (third image, also Google Earth) and is currently a giant pile of rubble. It will be redeveloped as office towers and high rises. The original village landowners are now multimillionaires, as they were given compensation by the developer. However, the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers who used to live in the low-cost tenant housing quarters of this former urban village were given no compensation at all.
The author took the following photo amidst the rubble of Xian Village in late 2018, with the towers of Zhujiang New Town CBD in the background. Urban villages in Chinese cities play an important function as a social safety valve. They are a source of low cost housing for the many urban migrants who come to Chinese cities in search of economic opportunities (in the past most worked in the industrial sector, but today more and more are working in the service sector). Although crowded, these urban villages are not slums. They are vibrant communities that make possible the functioning of the modern Chinese city (otherwise, China’s low paid service staff would never afford to live in the city, where housing costs are astronomical). Within the urban villages are all sorts of small businesses and entrepreneurial activity. It is a great shame that Xian Village no longer exists. It was once home to more than 100,000 migrant workers, who were able to take advantage of its central location to walk to or ride a bike to their jobs in the nearby CBD. Now that their homes are gone, they must relocate, probably to cheap housing in neighborhoods far away from their jobs, requiring them to spend hours on crowded bus or subways to commute to work each day.
Chinese suburbs, composed mainly of high rise apartments, offer a striking contrast with American suburbs, which are usually composed of single-family houses. The contrast is slightly less with European cities, where high-rise suburbs also exist, and where single-family home suburbs are not as low density as in the United States. However, European suburbs usually have a more heterogenous mix of housing types, such as duplexes and low- and mid-rise apartments than that found in Chinese suburbs. The following image shows a typical Chinese suburban xiaoqu where the buildings are uniform in style, height, and tone:
Another distinguishing feature of Chinese suburban xiaoqu is that they are typically closed-access. In this way they are similar to gated communities in the West, although without the necessary distinction of being high-end. A single xiaoqu covering several acres will often possess only one or two entry points, controlled with an electronic card reader, gates, and 24 hour security guard. This guarantees that only the residents of the xiaoqu enjoy access to the open space within. It also has a significant impact on the urban morphology or urban form of contemporary Chinese cities.
Urban morphology refers to the structure of the city. If you break a city down to its most basic building blocks, you have blocks and streets. Universal principles of urban planning and design tell us that small blocks and narrow streets make for better cities. Smaller blocks and narrower streets make walking more pleasant, giving the pedestrian more choices of paths from A to B. They slow down fast-moving traffic. They create tighter-knit neighborhoods. Small blocks and narrow streets are common in European cities and some American cities. They are common in the older urban cores of Chinese cities. Unfortunately, they are not common in China’s newer urban districts.
Because Chinese commodity housing is developed in large-scale xiaoqu, modern Chinese blocks are necessarily huge by comparison to Western urban blocks. Because Chinese blocks are so large, there is not room for a fine-grained network of smaller streets. As a result, all traffic must be funneled onto a few arterial streets. In order to accommodate all this traffic, modern Chinese streets are extremely wide by comparison with Western streets. This combination of large blocks and wide streets, as seen in the following Google Earth image, makes for environments which are extremely unfriendly to pedestrians, and which encourage and reward automobile use over walking and bicycling.
The following image contains two maps, each showing different neighborhoods in Shanghai. The map on the left shows part of Shanghai’s urban core, the map on the right shows a new urban district of Shanghai. Both maps show the exact same area (3 km x 3 km). Note how different the urban form in the two maps appears. The map on the left contains a dense network of narrow streets, which subdivide this 9 sq km zone into hundreds of small blocks. The map on the right contains mainly wide arterial streets, and the 9 sq km zone is subdivided into just a few dozen blocks. The map on the right, unfortunately, is what most modern Chinese cities look like today. The neighborhood on the left is much more diverse, fun, exciting, and colorful. Unfortunately, neighborhoods like this are a dying breed in China today.
The next shows three more maps, each map showing a section of a different city. Again, all three maps show the exact same area: a 3 km by 3 km square. The map of San Francisco shows that city’s downtown area, whose urban form dates to the late 1800s and early 1900s. Note the preponderance of small blocks. The map of Phoenix shows a typical suburban neighborhood of that city, dating from the 1950s. Although suburban Phoenix is not a typical example of “pedestrian-friendly” urban planning, we can see that from an urban form perspective, the size of the blocks is still relatively small. The map of Beijing shows a newly developed commodity housing xiaoqu in the suburbs outside the 5th Ring Road. Note the huge scale of the blocks here. Very typical of modern Chinese urban planning, and completely out of scale with Western urban form.
Today, China’s official urbanization rate is 50%, but the actual figure is higher because China’s antiquated household (or “hukou”) registration system classifies millions of low-skilled workers who left their villages to work in the factories and service industries of the cities as “rural population.” The government is actively promoting urbanization, in some cases literally wiping villages off the map and forcing rural populations to relocate in newly built cities. Demographers estimate that China will achieve an urbanization rate on par with the United States (~85%) in another 10–20 years.
In other aspects of urban development, Chinese cities have already surpassed Western cities. There are 35 Chinese cities today with subway systems, more than in all of Western Europe combined. Of those 35 subway systems, 28 opened in the last 10 years alone. An additional 10 Chinese cities will have new subway systems open in the next 2–3 years. Chinese cities currently occupy the top three spots in the world for longest subway systems.
In population density, Chinese cities are on a path towards convergence with Western Cities. In the past, Chinese cities were amongst the densest in the world, but in the last 25 years they have seen their population densities drop significantly. This has happened despite the fact that Chinese cities have gained in population. This is possible because Chinese cities have expanded in land area faster than they have grown in population. The following maps show the expansion in land area of seven Chinese cities since 1990:
In 1990, Chinese cities were roughly on par with other Asian cities in population density. Today they are significantly less dense than cities in Korea, Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.
Circa 1990, Chinese cities were on average 1.35 times denser than European cities and 5.40 times denser than American cities. Today, they are only 1.05 times denser than European cities on average, and 3.30 times denser than American cities.
Urban sprawl is a common phenomenon in the cities of both the United States and China. Formerly separate cities are “blending” into each other as they expand around the edges. The Pearl River Delta area (which the Chinese government is trying to brand as the 粤港澳大湾区, or “Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Greater Bay Area”) is a prime example of this. The following map shows the urban footprints of the cities that make up this megaregion, circa 1991 and 2014. The map superimposes modern density data over these two snapshots in time. The effect is to show that the areas that were already urbanized prior to the 1990s are the densest parts of the megaregion today, whereas most of the areas that were urbanized since the 1990s are of much lower density.