Time Traveling Through Dramatic Urbanization in China Over Decades

Twenty-six years ago, only 26 percent of the Chinese population lived in urban areas. Since then, China’s urbanization rate has risen to almost 56 percent, meaning hundreds of millions of people have packed themselves into the country’s 662 cities. As Jamil Anderlini at the Financial Times notes, this is actually the largest migration of any kind of mammal in history. While these huge numbers convey the scope of China’s transformation, it’s hard to actually imagine what the movement of millions of people looks like.

Struck by this idea, Dheera Venkatraman recently traveled across China, putting together a photo series called “Time Traveling in China.” The project was inspired by photos of old China, the locations of which Venkatraman revisited to take his own photos of the modern landscape. For a fair comparison, he edited his photos to be black-and-white and put them side-by-side with the old photos. The changes are startling.

Use the following tool to travel through time, by click-dragging the slider from the middle to the left or right or by tapping any point on the picture from a touchscreen device.


When the original photo of what is now Pudong was taken in 1920, Shanghai was divided into foreign concessions with a combined population of about 900,000. Today, it is the largest city in China, and one of the largest cities in the world, with a population of about 24 million.

Lanzhou is the capital of Gansu province in northwest China. While there are no population statistics from the time the original photograph was taken, in 1930, it is safe to say it was significantly smaller than its current population of 3.6 million.

Chengdu is the largest city in western China, with a population of over 14 million. At the time of the original photograph, taken in 1994, that number stood at roughly 9.5 million.

Guangzhou has also undergone major changes. In 1970, when the original photograph was taken, the city had a population of 4,185,363. Today it is more than three times that, at over 13 million.

Yibin is a small city compared with the others here, with only 836,340 people living within the urban area. It is notable for being the traditional dividing line of the Yangtze River. Below Yibin, the river is known as the Long River; above, it is called the Golden Sands River.

Guiyang is the capital of Guizhou province in Southwest China. Today its population stands at 3 million, but there are no statistics for its population in 1920 when the original photo was taken.

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Mr. Venkatraman encapsulates the mood of these photos well in a conversation with Business Insider about the project:

"To a local who has been around for decades and seen the old side of some of these photos, it might bring memories of those times. To a young cosmopolitan person, they might view these photos with curiosity and awe about what things really looked like before. To a futurist, it might invoke thoughts about what changes are yet to come in the next 30-40 years."

The dramatic remaking of the physical environment comes with serious environmental costs. As can be seen from the satellite slider of Shanghai (below), the expansion of cities means the shrinking of green spaces outside the city. China’s urban population skyrocketed from 250 million in 1985, shortly after the economic reform and opening policy was implemented, to over 745 million now, and use of energy and resources has also ramped up drastically. China’s annual carbon dioxide emissions, a major contributor to climate change, have gone up from 1.5 metric tons per capita in 1981 to 6.7 metric tons per capita in 2011. China is on its way to catching up to the U.S. in terms of total automobile fleet size and by the middle of the century will probably have twice as many cars on the road as the U.S., if not more. The Washington Post reported last year that between 2011 and 2013, China used more cement than the U.S. did in the entirety of the 20th century. Along with cement, the country produces and consumes almost half of the total amount of steel produced and consumed globally, and, at 4 billion metric tons, used more than four times as much coal as the United States in 2014. While cities consume fewer resources per capita than suburbs and rural areas, building those cities comes at a high cost.

There are still hundreds of millions of Chinese people living outside of cities. With the country’s urbanization rate only set to increase, one can merely imagine what these locations, and the country as a whole, will look like in another 50 years.

David O’Connor contributed research.