Trying to Escape Top-down / Bottom-up

China's urban / rural dichotomy takes many forms. It is a meta-binary that seems to index all other socio-spatial binaries. Formal / informal, planned / unplanned, good / bad, neat / messy, state / society, high-quality / low quality, developed / undeveloped, advanced / backward, rich / poor, active / passive ... Perhaps one of the most insipid of these binaries is top-down / bottom-up, a formulation that seems so natural, so given, that it pervades discussions of urbanization in China (and many other issues). Even in contexts where planners and policy makers are earnestly trying to overcome the urban / rural dichotomy, top-down / bottom-up still creeps in. As a result, these efforts often end up reproducing the urban / rural binarism they aim to eliminate.

It's not just a conceptual problem. Thinking of village development in terms of top-down and bottom-up creates a false choice for China's planners, a choice inevitably weighted toward the top-down. After all, planners' paychecks and career opportunities are delivered top-down, and there are no incentives for privileging the bottom-up. Top-down / bottom-up and urban / rural easily become conflated with more normative binaries such as good / bad, safe / dangerous, etc. One of the results is the creeping homogenization of China's villages, as vibrant, "bottom-up" villages are replaced by characterless, "top-down" new towns. In the process, the diversity necessary for urban sustainability is gradually eroded, and the opinions and desires of residents (those at the very bottom) are ignored.

But top-down / bottom-up is an oversimplification of a set of processes that are much more complex. Any instance of urban transformation always involves the intersection of many actors working up, down, diagonally, laterally ... Thinking of urbanization in terms of top-down / bottom-up relies on the same reductive thinking that tries to cram Chinese society into categories like state / market or state / society. They just don't work. Reality is too complex.

I recently published an article in the journal Cities in which I try to destabilize this hegemonic dichotomy and offer an alternative framework for conceptualizing village urbanization in China using the socio-spatial dimensions of scale, territory, networks, and temporality. This is both a review of some of the research I did pre-dissertation (it includes three case studies, two of which were villages I researched as possible sites for my dissertation work) and a prequel to the larger challenge I am taking on in the dissertation: deconstructing and destabilizing China's urban-rural dichotomy.

I have excerpted a few paragraphs below (sans citations), but the rest of the article is available through Elsevier. Free for the next month or so!


Chinese planners and policy-makers have thus appropriated the top-down/bottom-up dichotomy to argue for the superiority of planned transformation. This is not just a matter of professional self-interest but also a reflection of their positionality within the top-down/bottom-up framework. These actors occupy privileged positions within a planning system that is explicitly constructed as a top-down hierarchy, in which each plan precedes and sets the parameters for those below it. As a hegemonic category of analysis, top-down/bottom-up naturalizes and legitimizes the metaphorical construction of planning as a hierarchical system of vertical encompassment.

Top-down/bottom-up thus easily intersects with normative dichotomies such as desirable/undesirable, modern/backward, efficient/inefficient, and clean/messy. Top-down and bottom-up are repeatedly represented as incompatible tendencies that produce conflict, competition, and fragmentation in the built environment. Bottom-up transformation is also blamed as a source of inefficiency, messiness, and ecological destruction that threatens the healthy development of the city; and villages are portrayed as incapable of planning or managing their own transformation without top-down intervention.

The conceptualization of village transformation as a problem produced by the divergence of unplanned bottom-up transformation from the norm of top-down planning inevitably constrains the possibilities for planning and policy intervention. Not only does top-down/bottom-up create a false choice between two mutually constituted patterns of transformation, it also predetermines the outcome in favor of top-down solutions. The result has been a tendency to cleanse peri-urban China of bottom-up settlements in favor of new towns and new villages.