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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Frontier Boomtown Urbanism: City Building in Ordos Municipality, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, 2001-2011

  • Author(s): Woodworth, Max David
  • Advisor(s): Hsing, You-tien
  • et al.

This dissertation examines urban transformation in Ordos, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, between 2001 and 2011. The study is situated in the context of research into urbanization in China as the country moved from a mostly rural population to a mostly urban one in the 2000s and as urbanization emerged as a primary objective of the state at various levels. To date, the preponderance of research on Chinese urbanization has produced theory and empirical work through observation of a narrow selection of metropolitan regions of the eastern seaboard. This study is instead a single-city case study of an emergent center for energy resource mining in a frontier region of China. Intensification of coalmining in Ordos coincided with coal-sector reforms and burgeoning demand in the 2000s, which fueled rapid growth in the local economy during the study period. Urban development in a setting of rapid resource-based growth sets the frame in this study in terms of "frontier boomtown urbanism." Urban transformation is considered in its physical, political, cultural, and environmental dimensions. Research for this study is based on six months of on-site fieldwork in Ordos, historical research, and reviews of English-language and Chinese-language scholarship.

Chapter One of the dissertation provides a discussion of theoretical issues pertaining to historical and current-day frontiers and boomtowns. The idea of the frontier as a space of cultural encounter is discussed in relation to China's relations with societies inhabiting its borderlands. The frontier is also elucidated in the context of economic-geographical literatures that posit the peculiar economic functions of marginal spaces. The notion of the "commodity frontier" is elaborated in order to position Ordos as a frontier boomtown. Chapter Two of the dissertation examines the processes and mechanisms by which Ordos became a frontier for coalmining in the 2000s. Chapter Three and Chapter Four discuss urban growth amidst a resource boom. Chapter Three considers urban growth through modular land development schemes. Chapter Four employs the idea of gigantism to elucidate the cultural logic of city building. The focus in both chapters is on the production of spectacular new built environments and how these manifest struggles to achieve broader-based and sustainable urban development. Chapter Five examines the phenomenon of private finance as a key driver of urbanization in the frontier boomtown. Unregulated speculative property development is shown to be a key mitigating factor in the local state's effort to enhance social control through the production of new urban space and reveals an unexamined source of non-state development activity.

Frontier boomtown urbanism shows how city building has become the ubiquitous and basic activity of the local state in China. The frontier setting is distinguished by the intensity, pace, and scale of growth and by the highly disorganized course that urbanization takes.

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