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Landscape Ecology (2005) 20:871–888  Springer 2005

DOI 10.1007/s10980-005-5238-8

Research Article

Quantifying spatiotemporal patterns of urban land-use change in four cities of

China with time series landscape metrics

Karen C. Seto1,* and Michail Fragkias2

Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences and Center for Environmental Science and Policy,
Stanford Institute for International Studies, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305-6055, USA; 2Center for
Environmental Science and Policy, Stanford Institute for International Studies, Stanford University, Stanford,
CA 94305-6055, USA; *Author for correspondence (e-mail: kseto@stanford.edu)

Received 23 March 2004; accepted in revised form 10 April 2005

Key words: China, Landsat TM, Landscape pattern metrics, Pearl River Delta, Spatiotemporal patterns,
Time series landscape metrics analysis, Urban growth, Urbanization


This paper provides a dynamic inter- and intra-city analysis of spatial and temporal patterns of urban land-
use change. It is the first comparative analysis of a system of rapidly developing cities with landscape pattern
metrics. Using ten classified Landsat Thematic Mapper images acquired from 1988 to 1999, we quantify the
annual rate of urban land-use change for four cities in southern China. The classified images were used to
generate annual maps of urban extent, and landscape metrics were calculated and analyzed spatiotemporally
across three buffer zones for each city for each year. The study shows that for comprehensive understanding
of the shapes and trajectories of urban expansion, a spatiotemporal landscape metrics analysis across buffer
zones is an improvement over using only urban growth rates. This type of analysis can also be used to infer
underlying social, economic, and political processes that drive the observed urban forms. The results indicate
that urban form can be quite malleable over relatively short periods of time. Despite different economic
development and policy histories, the four cities exhibit common patterns in their shape, size, and growth
rates, suggesting a convergence toward a standard urban form.

Introduction envelop the surrounding landscape, they impact

the environment at multiple spatial and temporal
The 20th century witnessed some of the most scales through climate change, loss of wildlife
dramatic urban transformations of Earth’s terres- habitat and biodiversity, and greater demand for
trial environments in history. At the start of the natural resources. Interactions between and
century, there were only 16 cities with populations among urban land use, policies, and Earth system
over 1 million; by 2000, there were 417 (UNCHS function cannot be decoupled (Steffen et al. 2004).
2002). In 1950, there was only one city in the world The size and spatial configuration of an urban
with a population of 10 million; today there are extent directly impacts energy and material flows
19. Currently, half of the world’s population such as carbon emissions and infrastructure de-
resides in urban areas, and it is estimated that this mands, and thus has consequences on the func-
will increase to 60% by 2030 (United Nations tioning of Earth as a system. Levels of many
2002). As urban areas expand, transform, and atmospheric gases are elevated in urban areas and

can affect biogeochemical processes (Pataki et al. The question then is how to quantify and de-
2003). Intensification and diversification of land scribe changes in urban land-use patterns beyond
use and advances in technology have led to rapid extent and cumulative growth rates? The char-
changes in biogeochemical cycles, hydrologic acterization of landscape mosaics and patterns
processes, and landscape dynamics (Melillo et al. has a long tradition in ecological studies, where
2003). Characterizing and understanding the understanding habitat fragmentation, landscape
changing patterns of urban growth is critical, given heterogeneity, and the distribution of landscape
that urbanization will continue to be one of disturbance is important for understanding eco-
the major global environmental changes in the logical processes (Wickham and Norton 1994;
foreseeable future. Kareiva and Wennergren 1995; Ives et al. 1998).
Urban form and function have been studied in Commonly, landscape or spatial pattern metrics
the contexts of urban planning, urban economics, are used to conduct an empirical analysis of
urban geography, and urban sociology, much of landscape patterns. A wide variety of indices to
which are grounded in the spatial land-use models characterize the landscape have been developed,
of von Thünen (1875), Park et al. (1925), Muth some of which describe the proportion of the
(1961), and Alonso (1964). Urban growth and landscape with a particular land cover class, the
urban morphology have been the subject of size, number, and perimeter of each land cover
interest for geographers and economists for dec- patch, and the complexity of the shape of the
ades (Clawson 1962; Harvey and Clark 1965; patch (McGarigal et al. 2002). Although these
Batty and Longley 1988; Anas et al. 1998). indices of landscape patterns have been used
Changes in urban areas have been assessed relative widely in ecology for decades, only recently have
to global economic activity (Beaverstock et al. they been applied specifically to the study of
2000), world cities (Sassen 2001), local factors urban morphology (Geoghegan et al. 1997;
(Beauregard 1995), and socioeconomic changes Herold et al. 2002; Luck and Wu 2002; Herold et
(Knox 1991). However, the physical process of al. 2003; Cifaldi et al. 2004; Schneider et al. in
urban land-use change and the underlying socio- press)
economic process that result in certain spatial While urbanization is a world-wide phenome-
configurations are relatively understudied. non, it is exceptionally dynamic in China, where
The physical process of urban land-use change is unprecedented urban growth rates have occurred
most commonly described as either a change in the over the last two decades. According to recent
absolute area of urban space (a measure of extent) projections, the urban population of China will
or the pace at which non-urban land is converted grow by an estimated 330 million by 2025 (United
to urban uses (a measure of rate). The extent and Nations 2002). The interaction of local, regional
rate of urban growth provide indications of the and global factors has resulted in unique urban
aggregate size of cities and the rate at which other configurations throughout the country. Like many
land such as agriculture is converted to urban uses other socialist countries, the legacy of central
(Seto et al. 2000). However, aggregate growth rates planning in China has generated patterns of urban
give limited information regarding spatial patterns land-use that differ significantly from those in
of urbanization or the underlying processes that market economies (Scarpaci 2000; Lin 2002).
shape urban areas. The classic von Thünen (1875) The purpose of this paper is to describe the
model of land use suggests that the configuration spatial and temporal patterns of urban land-use
of urban and rural land use reflects transportation change in four coastal cities in China. Our primary
costs, land-intensiveness of productive activities questions are: What are the spatial and temporal
and market prices. However, the spatial configu- patterns of urban land-use change? How can a
ration of urban landscapes is as much a reflection spatiotemporal landscape metrics analysis charac-
of past as it is an indicator of current socioeco- terize these changes? Are there common patterns
nomic processes and interactions. For any time in the shape, size, and growth of urban areas
period, the spatial arrangement of urban areas across cities at different stages of economic devel-
provides a snapshot of various economic, social, opment? Does the spatial configuration of cities
and political factors that influenced land-use converge toward a standard form? What do the
decisions. spatial and temporal patterns of urban land-use