Enhancing the Understanding of Urban Systems for Sustainability Transition: A Study of Urban Environmental Management in the Natural Resource-Based Industrial City of Jinchang, China

Li, Ying (2017). Enhancing the Understanding of Urban Systems for Sustainability Transition: A Study of Urban Environmental Management in the Natural Resource-Based Industrial City of Jinchang, China PhD Thesis, School of Geography, Planning & Env Management, The University of Queensland. doi:10.14264/uql.2017.408

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Author Li, Ying
Thesis Title Enhancing the Understanding of Urban Systems for Sustainability Transition: A Study of Urban Environmental Management in the Natural Resource-Based Industrial City of Jinchang, China
School, Centre or Institute School of Geography, Planning & Env Management
Institution The University of Queensland
DOI 10.14264/uql.2017.408
Publication date 2017-03-16
Thesis type PhD Thesis
Supervisor R.J.S. Beeton
Thomas Sigler
Anthony Halog
Total pages 284
Total colour pages 29
Total black and white pages 255
Language eng
Subjects 0502 Environmental Science and Management
1205 Urban and Regional Planning
Formatted abstract
Rapid world urbanisation calls attention to the issue of sustainable urban development. Urbanisation
problems are especially pressing in the industrial cities of China, where environmental conditions
have deteriorated with rapid economic and urban development. This study is an exploration of
sustainability in an urban context using the natural resource-based industrial city of Jinchang in N.W.
China as a case study. The main objective of this study has been to gain a better understanding of
urban systems and potential ways of facilitating urban sustainability.

The study demonstrates that urban transitions toward sustainability can be facilitated by a systematic
and holistic understanding of complex urban systems. The study established a theoretical framework
for understanding sustainable urban development and reviewed China’s environmental governance
philosophies to provide a cultural and political context. A mixed methodology that combined
quantitative and qualitative approaches was then applied to Jinchang City to test this framework.

Urban metabolism modelling using Material Flow Analysis (MFA) was used to model Jinchang’s
urban biophysical system and evaluate its sustainability potential over a twenty years period. The
study showed that Jinchang’s urban development relies heavily on local resources with high
material/energy consumption and high waste/pollution generation. This directly challenges
sustainable urban development. However, a sustainable trend was observed as economic growth has
been strongly decoupled from air pollution while material utilisation efficiency has significantly
improved. This suggests that synchronised progress in economic development and environmental
improvement requires radical transformations of dematerialisation and decoupling of economic
growth from material/energy consumption by adopting technical approaches of cleaner production,
circular economy and economic structural adjustment.

A field inquiry with semi-structured interview as the main approach explored multi-level human
responses to urban problems. This provided insights into the real world from a bottom-up perspective
and helped to gain an in-depth understanding of human-environment interactions. The model of urban
social system based on public responses revealed that the influences of urban social system on
sustainable urban development are determined by key factors in three clusters: commitment of
stakeholders, institutional development, and personal development. The challenge for a transition to
sustainable behaviour is to bridge the gaps between knowledge and practice. The commitment of
government is particularly important in promoting collaboration and participation of stakeholders to
fill knowledge gaps and confront governance challenges. Cultural and personal development are soft
power to accelerate this transition by promoting the knowledge, motivation and commitment of
stakeholders. The study suggests that transitions towards sustainability involve multi-level reforms
and their synthesis across levels to improve governance and innovation in both the economy and

This study contributes to the understanding of complex urban systems and the growing
multidisciplinary knowledge on urban sustainability. By exploring the urban systems and its
sustainability challenges using mixed methods, the study demonstrates how urban systems can be
systematically understood and improved from an integrated biophysical and social perspectives. This
particularly involves public participation and social elements into consideration of urban

Finally adaptive and synergistic strategies for an integrated decision-making and regulatory system
are proposed to facilitate urban transitions toward sustainability in the Chinese context. This
exemplifies a model for urban transition among China’s rapidly industrialising cities. It also has wider
implications for other parts of the world that are experiencing similar rapid growth trajectories.
Keyword sustainable development
urban systems
urban sustainability
environmental management
harmonious development
human response
material flow analysis
urban transition
industrial cities
north-western China

Document type: Thesis
Collections: UQ Theses (RHD) - Official
UQ Theses (RHD) - Open Access
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Created: Mon, 06 Mar 2017, 16:34:20 EST by Ying Li on behalf of Learning and Research Services (UQ Library)