Special Issue: Urban and Rural Governance Toward Sustainable Development Goals

Analyzing space-time evolution of rural transition in a rapidly urbanizing region: A case study of Suzhou, China

  • ZHANG Ruoyan , 1, 2 ,
  • LI Hongbo 3 ,
  • YUAN Yuan , 4, *
  • 1. Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, CAS, Beijing 100101, China
  • 2. University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100049, China
  • 3. School of Geographical Science, Nanjing Normal University, Nanjing 210023, China
  • 4. School of Public Administration, Hohai University, Nanjing 211100, China
*Yuan Yuan (1986-), PhD and Lecturer, specialized in rural geography. E-mail:

Zhang Ruoyan (1994-), PhD Candidate, specialized in economic geography and regional development, urban management and administrative division. E-mail:

Received date: 2021-12-30

  Accepted date: 2022-04-26

  Online published: 2022-09-25

Supported by

National Social Science Foundation of China(21FSHB014)

National Natural Science Foundation of China(42001196)


Influenced by globalization, rural transition in developed Western countries has experienced processes of productivism, post-productivism, and multifunctional development. By contrast, rural transition in most developing countries has been accompanied by rapid urbanization, which has become a core topic in geography research. As the world’s largest developing country, China has undergone profound development since the reform and opening-up. Moreover, rural spaces in some eastern coastal areas have entered the stage of reconstruction after decades of industrialization and urbanization. This paper takes Suzhou as the case area and measures the process of rural transition from 1990 to 2015 by constructing an index system. It then analyzes the characteristics of space-time evolution using exploratory spatial data analysis (ESDA) methods to reveal the influence of economic and social development on rural transition. The results show that rural transition, which generally entails the weakening of rurality and enhancing of urbanity on a macro scale, tends to be heterogeneous across different regions on a micro scale. This paper argues that multifunctionality will be the main future trend of rural transition in rapidly urbanizing areas. The experience in Suzhou could provide an example for establishing policies on sustainable development in rural spaces and achieving urban-rural co-governance.

Cite this article

ZHANG Ruoyan , LI Hongbo , YUAN Yuan . Analyzing space-time evolution of rural transition in a rapidly urbanizing region: A case study of Suzhou, China[J]. Journal of Geographical Sciences, 2022 , 32(7) : 1343 -1356 . DOI: 10.1007/s11442-022-2000-y

1 Introduction

Since the rise of counter-urbanization in the 1970s, rural space in developed Western countries has undergone differentiation in the process of de-agriculturalization and de-communitization (Halfacree, 2012; Marsden et al., 2012). In a series of academic publications, such as the Handbook of Rural Studies (2006) and Rural (2011), veteran scholars have focused on rural transition from various perspectives, such as sociology, economics, and geography (Woods, 2011). Compared with studies considering the reconstruction of social space brought by the transformation of capital accumulation from urban to rural areas (Newby, 1986), geography science has interpreted the evolution process as the functional transition of rural settlements (McCarthy, 2005)—that is, the self-renewal of rural space or the optimization and adjustment of existing rural space by planning (Popescu, 2007). Rural transition research has shifted focus from productivism to post-productivism and multifunctionality in rural space (Holmes, 2006; Marsden and Sonnino, 2008).
Discussions of rural transformation first emerged in British academia in the 1990s. At that time, the term productivism/post-productivism (P/PP) began to appear in academic publications, mainly by scholars studying agricultural change. Munton (1990) was the first to mention P/PP, during the AAG conference. Later, Halfacree and Boyle (1998) acknowledged that the development of the definition of post-productivism has been largely influenced by changes taking place in the British countryside. There have also been attempts to analyze the extent to which post-productivism ideas could be applied beyond the UK. The most important discussion centered on changes in agricultural policies, especially the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, which introduced some “post-productivism” elements into the Green Agricultural Policies (Lew et al., 1993; Potter, 1998). Wilson (2002) discusses the overall applicability of the post-productivism concept across the EU. In fact, many studies have identified similarities between agricultural and rural development in the UK and in other European countries (Hoggart et al., 1995; Buller, 2000), and a similar process of rural diversification is taking place in different parts of Europe (Van der Ploeg, 1997; Marsden, 1999).
From productivism to post-productivism, an important change has occurred in the core characteristics of agriculture: whereas the former theory manifests in intensiveness, concentration, and simplification, the latter entails more extensionality, dispersion, and diversity. While applying productivism, land bears the pressure of increasing output, leading to environmental degradation. On the contrary, applying post-productivism to the countryside places more emphasis on consumption and suggests that villages should provide more diversified products (Lowe et al., 1993). Marsden (2003) understands post-productivism as a transitional stage leading to sustainable rural development. The multifunction theory should be advocated during this rural transformation, incorporating both productivism and post-productivism ideas.
Also influenced by these concepts, related research has expanded from exploring multifunctional agriculture to multifunctional countryside, and has proposed the rural development model, including post-productivism and rural multifunctional transformation. Many scholars contend that the concept of multifunctional agriculture better covers the current trend of agricultural and rural development (Potter and Burney, 2002; Knickel et al., 2004). As multifunctionality is discussed mostly in the European context, it is generally assumed to be a European product. However, multifunctionality has been recognized at the international level, starting with the Declaration on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, and further emphasized at the World Food and Agriculture Organization Summit in 1996 (Garzon, 2005; Zander et al., 2007). Most importantly, the concept of multifunctionality was developed in response to public concerns about major changes in agricultural and rural areas, such as the declining importance of agriculture in rural economies, although it still plays a key role. Therefore, multifunctionality is considered a new unifying paradigm to guide postmodern agriculture in line with the needs of the new society (van Huylenbroeck et al., 2007).
Chinese scholars began to pay close attention to rural function classification at the end of the 20th century. Based on analyzing the evolution process of rural-space systems in southern Jiangsu, Zhang (1993) proposed that “under the trend of urbanization, the country’s function is continually changing, and rural space is not only for the agricultural economy activity, but a multifunctional space for the overall development of primary, secondary, and tertiary industries.” Entering the 21st century, with the successive implementation of national policies such as “New Rural Construction” and “Beautiful Countryside Construction,” the transformation and reconstruction of rural space in China has accelerated (Long and Tu, 2017; Ge and Lu, 2021). Moreover, in the context of the national strategy of “Rural Revitalization,” agriculture is increasingly performing multiple functions, such as providing food security, social stability, and ecological products, attracting more attention to multifunctional rural study (Yang et al., 2019).
Since entering the new millennium, both urban and rural spaces in China have been experiencing a new era of accelerating reconstruction against the background of globalization, industrialization, and urbanization (Long et al., 2011; Long and Liu, 2016; Ye et al., 2020). Promoting positive interactions between urban and rural areas, as well as realizing rural-urban integration, is crucial for achieving inclusive, sustainable development (Ye and Liu, 2020). By the end of 2011, China’s urbanization rate exceeded 50% for the first time in history. In eastern China, villages with higher urbanization levels and relatively developed economies have urbanized; others have evolved toward specialization, such as historic and culturally protected villages, tourism villages, industrial villages, and modern agricultural villages (Liu, 2018; Yuan et al., 2019; Yang, 2020); there are also some villages that have declined or even disappeared. Meanwhile, human geography methods for rural studies are now relatively diversified: for example, qualitative descriptions and statistical analyses have been improved by wide application of GIS technology in rural geography (Clark et al., 2009; Bański and Wesołowska, 2010; Conrad et al., 2015), allowing processes and patterns in rural transition to be demonstrated with spatial analysis methods (Tian et al., 2014; Cao et al., 2017). Therefore, this paper uses GIS technology to explore the state of rural transition in China and evaluate the process. Taking Suzhou, a rapidly urbanizing prefecture-level city located in the Yangtze River Delta urban agglomeration in China. Based on rurality measurements from 1990 to 2015, we employ a GIS method to analyze space-time evolution features of rural transition, thereby providing a reference for studies of rural transition in other rapidly urbanizing areas of the world.
This paper is structured as follows. Section 2 describes the study area and methods, establishing an index system of rurality and urbanity to measure rural transition. Section 3 then reports the results of spatial visualization to evaluate the spatial evolution of rurality and urbanity in Suzhou from 1990 to 2015, as well as analyze the underlying reasons. Section 4 discusses the findings and concludes the paper, offering policy implications for other rapidly urbanizing regions undergoing rural transition.

2 Materials and methods

2.1 Study area

Suzhou, connecting Shanghai to the east, is a prefecture-level city in southern Jiangsu province (Figure 1). Its administrative scope includes one central city and six county-level cities: three are located along the Yangtze River to the north (Zhangjiagang, Changshu, and Taicang), one borders Shanghai to the east (Kunshan), and two border the Taihu Lake to the south (Wuzhong and Wujiang). With a history exceeding 2500 years, Suzhou has been a flourishing place of abundance since the ancient period, and is well known around the world for creating the “Sunan model” following the launch of China’s reform and opening-up. In the 21st century, Suzhou’s urbanization rate has been among the highest in China, and it also a relatively large population size and high economic density (Shu and Xiong, 2019; Ye et al., 2019). The urbanization rate in Suzhou surged from 19.44% in 1980 to 74.90% in 2015. In the latter year, the per capita GDP of Suzhou reached USD 21,948; according to the latest statistical yearbook the per capita disposable income of urban and rural residents is USD 8090 and USD 4107, respectively. Moreover, Suzhou has the smallest income gap between urban and rural areas among all of China’s prefecture-level cities, at only 1.97.
Figure 1 Location of Suzhou
In the process of rapid urbanization, the relationship between urban and rural areas in Suzhou has transformed from binary opposition at the beginning of reform and opening-up to integrated development in the new era. In the 1980s, the Sunan model—originating from the dual structure of urban and rural areas—promoted the rapid replacement of traditional agriculture by township and village enterprises (TVEs). TVEs became the mainstay of rural economic development and off-farm employment (Yuan et al., 2014), and initiated the de-agriculturalization process in Suzhou’s rural areas. In the mid-1990s, southern Jiangsu experienced a major turn in the driving force of economic development, promoting a shift from the TVE-based economy to export-oriented economy based on foreign investment, ultimately leading to a major recession. To solve the problems associated with traditional rural industry, such as small scale, low efficiency, and scattered distribution, local government aimed to combine rural industrialization and rural urbanization, requiring TVEs to centralize in industrial parks and economic development zones.
In Kunshan, for example, an early start to TVE-based industrialization (Wei, 2002), combined with long-term acceptance of functional spillover and industrial transfer from Shanghai, led to rural urbanization entering a period of rapid expansion. Since 2000, Suzhou has been a pilot city for experimenting with integrated development of urban and rural areas. It has successively instituted a series of policies and measures concerning ecological and residential environment management. Rural spaces in Suzhou have shown a tendency toward accelerated reconstruction, making the shift from homogeneity toward heterogeneity become more apparent (Li et al., 2019). Other examples include: in Zhangjiagang, Changshu, and Taicang, the favorable natural conditions in rural areas are reflected in the planned agricultural production spaces with large areas of basic farmland; in Wujiang and Wuzhong, where rural space is mainly covered by river networks and small hills, the development of aquaculture and agritourism industries are being encouraged. Therefore, Suzhou has seen great diversity in its rural space during the process of rapid urbanization.

2.2 Measurement of rural transition

Cloke and Edwards (1986) developed a complex rural evaluation index system to measure rural transition in different UK regions. However, there is a continuum between urban and rural areas, with no clearly defined boundaries. Given China’s conditions, it is more appropriate to examine the rurality and urbanity within a certain territory, rather than attempting to constantly divide the transition space. Following this idea, we constructed a simplified index system of rurality and urbanity to measure rural transition in Suzhou on a town scale, taking into consideration the limited statistical material and consistency of all indicators from 1990 to 2015. All the data come from Suzhou Statistical Yearbooks, which have provided economic and social statistics of counties and towns in Suzhou since 1990. In addition, because aggregate indicators could be affected by the different sizes of towns, we selected efficiency indicators to measure the development level of rural transition.
Twelve indicators were selected to measure rural transition. As shown in Table 1, six are used to measure the rurality function (RI-1 to RI-6). These indicators represent the quality of the resource endowment, the level of agricultural modernization, and the degree of de-grain in agricultural production in different towns. The remaining six indicators are used to measure the urbanity function (UI-1 to UI-6); they represent the level of industrialization, urbanization, and villagers’ living conditions.
Table 1 Index system for measuring the rural transition in Suzhou
Number Indicator (unit) Explanation
RI-1 Proportion of primary industry (%) Proportion of primary industry in gross domestic product
RI-2 Per capita cultivated area (mu) Cultivated land area divided by year-end population
RI-3 Per capita grain output (kg) Total grain output divided by year-end population
RI-4 Power of agricultural machinery (kW/ha) Ratio of farm machinery to sowing areas
RI-5 Proportion of sown areas of non-farm crops (%) Proportion of non-grains in the sowing area of crops
RI-6 Per capita output of aquatic products (kg) Output of aquatic products divided by year-end population
UI-1 Proportion of secondary industry (%) Proportion of secondary industry in gross domestic product
UI-2 Proportion of tertiary industry (%) Proportion of tertiary industry in gross domestic product
UI-3 Proportion of employed population (%) Employees in TVEs divided by year-end population
UI-4 Per capita pre-tax profits of TVEs (yuan) Profits and taxes of TVEs divided by year-end population
UI-5 Per capita rural electricity consumption (kWh) Rural electricity consumption divided by year-end population
UI-6 Per capita net rural income (yuan) Per capita net income of rural residents
For comparative purposes, it is necessary to configure dimensionless indicators. Therefore, in calculating the rurality and urbanity indicators, each one should be standardized first, then calculated by weighted summation. We employ Z-scores, meaning that the standardized results are normalized based on the mean and standard deviation to measure their relative level for all indicators. The equation is as follows:
${{z}_{ij}}=\frac{{{x}_{ij}}-{{\mu }_{i}}}{{{\sigma }_{i}}}$
where zij is the standardized index, xij is the initializer of these indicators, μi is the mean of an indicator, σi is the standard deviation of an indicator, i is the quantity of indicators, and j is the number of towns.
The equation for calculating the rurality and urbanity functional indices by weighted summation is as follows:
$R\left(U \right)=\underset{i=1}{\mathop \sum }\,{{w}_{i}}{{z}_{ij}}$
where R(U) is the rurality (urbanity) functional index and wi is the weight for each indicator.

2.3 Exploratory spatial data analysis (ESDA) method

2.3.1 Spatial autocorrelation

ESDA is used to measure spatial correlation, and can be used to analyze space-time evolution during rural transition. It evaluates significance by calculating Moran’s I index, Z-scores, and p-values. Moran’s I index of spatial autocorrelation can be expressed as:
$I=\frac{n}{{{S}_{0}}}\frac{\mathop{\sum }_{i=1}^{n}\mathop{\sum }_{j=1}^{n}{{w}_{i,j}}{{z}_{i}}{{z}_{j}}}{\mathop{\sum }_{i=1}^{n}z_{i}^{2}}$
where zi is the deviation between the attribute value of element i and its average (xi-X), wi,j is the space weight between i and j, n is the total number of elements, and S0 is the clustering of all spatial weights, calculated as follows:
${{S}_{0}}=\underset{i=1}{\overset{n}{\mathop \sum }}\,\underset{j=1}{\overset{n}{\mathop \sum }}\,{{w}_{i,j}}$

2.3.2 Hot-spot analysis

Hot-spot analysis infers the location of clustering of high-value or low-value elements in space through Z-scores and p-values. Getis-Ord local statistics can be expressed as:
$G_{i}^{*}=\frac{\mathop{\sum }_{j=1}^{n}{{w}_{i,j}}{{x}_{j}}-\bar{X}\mathop{\sum }_{j=1}^{n}{{w}_{i,j}}}{S\sqrt{\frac{\left[ n\mathop{\sum }_{j=1}^{n}w_{i,j}^{2}-{{\left(\mathop{\sum }_{j=1}^{n}{{w}_{i,j}} \right)}^{2}} \right]}{n-1}}}$
where xj is the attribute value of element j, wi,j is the space weight of elements i and j, n is the total number of elements, and:
$\bar{X}=\frac{\mathop{\sum }_{j=1}^{n}{{x}_{j}}}{n}$
$S=\sqrt{\frac{\mathop{\sum }_{j=1}^{n}x_{j}^{2}}{n}-{{\left({\bar{X}} \right)}^{2}}}$

3 Results

3.1 Measurement of evolution process

According to the measurement results of the index system, scaled to town level, the rurality index and urbanity index of Suzhou show different change trajectories and spatial patterns from 1990 to 2015. During this period, the rurality index falls from 2.18 to 1.25, showing a trend of convergence, while the urbanity index rises from 0.89 to 1.04, displaying an increasing trend. Clearly, the urbanity gap between rural spaces in Suzhou has grown under the “modern” development path driven by industrialization and urbanization over the long term. Furthermore, the town units dominated by the rurality or urbanity function (i.e., the functional index exceeds 0) are divided into four intervals to reflect the space-time evolution in the process of rural transition between 1990 and 2015. The four intervals of the rurality index (R) are <0.3, 0.3-0.6, 0.6-0.9, and >0.9, while the four intervals of the urbanity index (U) are <0.15, 0.15-0.30, 0.30-0.45, and >0.45.
As shown in Figure 2, areas scoring high in the rurality functional index in 1990 were mainly concentrated in the south of Kunshan and northwest of Wujiang, characterized by advantageous natural conditions. With rapid urbanization, the high scoring areas shifted to two major regions by 2015: one is along the Yangtze River in Changshu and Taicang, where a large amount of farmland is distributed for agricultural production; the other is around Taihu Lake in Wuzhong and Wujiang, where characteristic agriculture is developed. By contrast, Figure 3 shows that areas scoring high in the urbanity functional index in 2015 were concentrated in two major areas: along the Yangtze River in Zhangjiagang, where TVE-based industrialization emerged during the Sunan-model period, and Kunshan, where industrial parks and economic development zones were built during this same period to attract foreign investment.
Figure 2 Rurality index changes in Suzhou (1990-2015)
Figure 3 Urbanity index changes in Suzhou (1990-2015)

3.2 Evaluation of spatial clusters

As reported in Table 2, the rurality and urbanity functional indices in Suzhou were evaluated from the perspective of spatial clustering using a spatial autocorrelation tool.
Table 2 Spatial autocorrelation dynamics in Suzhou’s rural transition (1990-2015)
Year Rurality Urbanity
Spatial attribute Moran’s I Z-value Spatial attribute Moran’s I Z-value
1990 Clustered 0.5049 12.6618*** (0.0000) Clustered 0.1992 5.1139*** (0.0000)
1995 Clustered 0.3760 5.3200*** (0.0000) Clustered 0.2015 3.0005*** (0.0027)
2000 Clustered 0.2631 5.8226*** (0.0000) Clustered 0.0823 1.9424* (0.0521)
2005 Random 0.0833 1.0870 (0.2770) Random 0.1122 1.4333 (0.1518)
2010 Random 0.0673 0.8392 (0.4014) Random -0.0010 0.1650 (0.8690)
2015 Clustered 0.2888 2.7640*** (0.0057) Clustered 0.3321 3.1916*** (0.0014)

Note: ***, **, and * represent statistical significance at the 1%, 5%, and 10% levels, respectively.

Our GIS-based analysis shows that rurality and urbanity have undergone an evolutionary process of “agglomeration-randomization-re-agglomeration” over the course of rural spatial transformation in Suzhou. The global Moran’s I index of rurality decreased from 0.5049 to 0.2888, it means the degree of agglomeration reduced; conversely, the global Moran’s I index of urbanity increased from 0.1992 to 0.3321, and the degree of agglomeration increased.

3.3 Hot-spot analysis

We also employed GIS for hot-spot analysis, aiming to illustrate spatial cluster changes between 1990 and 2015 during Suzhou’s rural transition. The rurality and urbanity functional indices are both analyzed, and all units are divided into seven categories according to the various types of hot and cold spots.
As Figure 4 shows, in 1990 the hot-spot areas of the rurality functional index were concentrated in the south of Changshu, west of Kunshan, and north of Wujiang, while cold-spot areas were mainly concentrated in Zhangjiagang and the central city. By 2015, the hot-spots had transferred to areas at the junction of Changshu and Taicang (productivistm rural space arranged with basic farmland), and to Jinting town and Dongshan town in Wuzhong (consumeristm rural spaces for tourism and recreation), while the cold-spot areas were mainly located in Kunshan. For the urbanity index, by contrast, Figure 5 shows that the hot-spot areas were distributed in the border area of Zhangjiagang and Changshu (new Sunan-model regions), east of Kunshan, and south of the central city, while the cold-spot areas were mainly located in the north of Zhangjiagang and Wujiang. By 2015, the hot-spot areas were significantly aggregated in Kunshan (new Sunan-model regions), while the cold-spot areas were distributed in the west of the central city and in Jinting town and Dongshan town, Wuzhong. Further hot-spot analyses showed that rural-dominated areas have shifted to regions along the Yangtze River and Taihu Lake, whereas urban-dominated areas have moved to Kunshan. Overall, the spatial transformation of rural areas in Suzhou shows significant heterogeneity.
Figure 4 Hot-spot analysis of the rurality index in Suzhou
Figure 5 Hot-spot analysis of the urbanity index in Suzhou
Finally, we explore the reasons behind the observed spatial transformation. During the Sunan-model period, flows of essential productive factors between urban and rural areas were extremely limited, hence the dispersed layout of TVEs. The household registration system at that time further solidified this dispersed spatial pattern. However, with the deepening of reform of China’s economic system, and with the large-scale entry of foreign capital caused by economic globalization, the outdated Sunan model gradually advanced to the new Sunan model. In the late 1990s, implementation of the “three centralizations” strategy in southern Jiangsu effectively guided TVEs to assemble in town- and city-based industrial parks and development zones, having previously been scattered in villages and towns during the Sunan-model period. When moving on to the new period of urban-rural integrated development has seen rural spaces change from agricultural to multifunctional and postmodern spaces. Consequently, the rural economy no longer relies entirely on agricultural production and rural industry. Some villages with advantageous natural conditions have turned to developing leisure and sightseeing agriculture. Helped by original natural resources, cultural landscapes, and planning, these villages have been molded into idyllic sightseeing and recreation resorts, increasing the added value of agricultural products and efficiency, as well as the income of rural residents, and thus achieving the goal of rural revitalization.

4 Discussion and conclusions

4.1 Limitations of the research

In the index system of measuring rural transformation, the data are limited by issues such as administrative division adjustments, availability, and continuity. Multifunction research typically concentrates on a macroscopic scale—e.g., regions, provinces, and cities—and tends to evaluate features during only one year (using cross-sectional data). By contrast, this study measures rural spatial transformation from 1990 to 2015 using panel data. The biggest challenge is that adjustments to administrative divisions, created by a lack of authoritative vector boundary data, make it impossible to accurately implement in space the administrative area of each town (township). This causes problems in assessing rural territorial function on a town scale based on land-use change data. This study’s social and economic data were mainly collected from the agriculture chapter of a section of the Suzhou Statistical Yearbooks titled “Basic Situation Points, Township and Town.” This source has missing data for different years. For instance, the index of “Cultivated Land Area at the End of the Year” only provides data from 1995, the “Rural Electricity Consumption” index is missing data for 2015, and the number of people who “Participate in Rural Medical Security” is only reported for 2005 and 2010.

4.2 Discussion

4.2.1 Impact mechanism of rural transformation

In line with the Sunan model in the early stage of reform and opening-up (1980s), the new Sunan model in the 1990s, and the current period of urban-rural integrated development, functions of rural space in Suzhou have been constantly transforming in the process of urban-rural interactions. This has profoundly affected the rural transition and its space-time evolution against the background of rapid urbanization in Suzhou since the 1990s.
The rural-space function in Suzhou has undergone three obvious transformations. At first, the development of rural industry was promoted by the Sunan model, as well as the system of contracted responsibility linking remuneration to output. This greatly improved the efficiency of agricultural production, enabling Suzhou’s rural economy to embark toward the comprehensive development of agriculture, sidelines, and industry. It also realized the transformation of leading industrial structures by replacing agriculture with secondary industry. The second transformation is rural urbanization construction promoted by the new Sunan model. With the overall decline of rural industry, Suzhou experienced a gradual change from endogenously driven economic development, promoted by TVEs, to foreign-investment-driven economic development. The three centralizations strategy of the new Sunan model effectively guided rural industry to concentrate in industrial parks or towns, while village-space functions tended toward simulated urbanization. The third transformation is the diversification of the value of rural space during urban-rural integration. The economic, ecological, and social values of the countryside have been re-recognized, and the area has been transformed into a postmodern space of multifunctional consumption.

4.2.2 Implications for rural revitalization

In general, the rural spatial transformation during rapid urbanization can be divided into four basic trends: annexation by cities, decay or extinction, urbanization, and characteristic development. The first three trends cannot escape the fate of passive assimilation or disappearance because the city is the space of capital accumulation under the dual system. However, characteristic development enables some villages to realize rural modernization by integrating into the process of urbanization, industrialization, and informatization, taking advantage of their good location or endowed resources. Characteristic development is the manifestation of rural multifunctional transformation. Rural transition in Suzhou shows that establishing multifunctional rural space can generate a comparative advantage, while also satisfying the rural demands for pluralistic values, such as production and consumption, development and protection. The core values of rural areas in the urban-rural system show that rural spatial transformation is not merely a form of linear replacement, or of traditional “country-to-city” conversion through P/PP following the dual system; rather, it becomes more diversified with the development of urbanization and definitely will not end.

4.3 Conclusions

Since the reform and opening-up, China has constantly been transitioning from traditional society to modern society. Rural industrialization came first, triggering and guiding the transition process of rural spaces for a very long time. Therefore, on a macro scale, industrialization and urbanization have traditionally been regarded as the basic path for rural areas to realize the transition from traditional society to modern civilization. However, by using ESDA and GIS observations on a town scale to measure the rural transition and its space-time evolution, this study reveals that rapid urbanization between 1995 and 2015 led to differentiation of rural spaces in Suzhou. Our findings thus demonstrate that spatial scale is particularly important in researching rural transition.
This paper argues that the general trend of rural transition as the weakening of rurality and enhancing of urbanity could only be emphasized on a macro scale, which also needs further distinguishing on a micro scale. Trends in rurality and urbanity are heterogeneous across different regions because of various natural conditions, cultural landscapes, and degrees of development. This means that a singular, arbitrary path of “modernization” does not apply to all developing countries. Undoubtedly, multifunctionality will be the main future trend of rural transition in rapidly urbanizing areas, and this should be a focus of policy formulation and urban-rural co-governance to promote the sustainable development of rural spaces.
On a macro level, China’s countryside is currently transforming from a traditional society to a modern one—shifting from a rural to an urban China. Facing challenges such as resource outflow, lack of vitality, shortage of basic public services, an aging population, and hollowing villages, the impact on and destruction of local characteristics are caused by the accelerated reconstruction of urban and rural spaces. The modernization of rural construction to promote the rural environment—such as through re-energizing the rural economy, rejuvenating rural society, revitalizing rural cultural revival, and regenerating regulation—should be advanced to realize the goal of rural revitalization. This requires Chinese scholars to expand their focus beyond rural physical space to also consider socio-cultural space, and to begin strengthening studies of this topic from a micro perspective. Doing so will help us better understand the historical process, current situation, and future path of rural spatial transformation.

Data availability statement

The data that support the findings of this study are available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request.
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