Contents - Previous - Next

This is the old United Nations University website. Visit the new site at

The nature and development trend of the national urban system

Definition of urban

Urbanization on Taiwan has intensified in step with the island's rapid economic development and industrialization. The term "urbanization" can be defined in many ways, including: (a) the concentration of populations (Eldridge, 1942); (b) the process in which the in-migra

tion of people to cities blends into an urban lifestyle; (c) the process in which urban culture spreads to agricultural villages; (d) the development of urban areas; and (e) the process in which the proportion of people living in an urban area increases (Hsing, 1982). Of these definitions, the last one is the most quantitative. For this reason, it is the one most often used. Generally speaking, urbanization is the process in which the proportion of people living in towns increases with economic growth.

In Taiwan, towns with a population of over 50,000 are defined as urban areas. Taiwan is administratively divided into 2 central municipalities (Taipei in the north and Kaohsiung in the south), 5 provincial cities, and 16 prefectures. Each prefecture has at least one prefectural city and several towns and hsiang (rural districts). Generally speaking, the central municipalities and provincial cities are big cities, the prefectural cities are of intermediate size and serve mostly as the administrative centres of prefectures, while towns and hsiang contain semi-urbanized townships and rural areas.

Taiwan has also been divided into the Northern, Southern, Central, and Eastern regions to facilitate planning. The Northern region includes Taipei City, Keelung City, Taipei Prefecture, Taoyuan Prefecture, Hsinchu City and Prefecture' and Ilan Prefecture; the Central region is made up of Taichung City, Miaoli Prefecture, Taichung Prefecture, Changhua Prefecture, Nantou Prefecture, and Yunlin Prefecture; the Southern region includes Kaohsiung City and Prefecture, Tainan City and Prefecture, Chiayi City and Prefecture, Pingtung Prefecture, and Penghu Prefecture; the Eastern region includes Taitung Prefecture and Hualien Prefecture (fig. 6.1).

Level of urbanization

The level of urbanization is based on the ratio of the urban population to the total population. If the urban population is calculated according to the number of people living in cities with a population of over 50,000, and the level and growth of urbanization are estimated according to the time-period, only 24.1 per cent of Taiwan's population was urbanized in 1950. The ratio of urban to rural population was 3:10. By 1960, the island's urban population had risen to 39.6 per cent of the total population, and the corresponding urban-to-rural population ratio was 0.7, double that of 1950. By 1970, the corresponding figures were 55.0 per cent and 1.2, with the urban population already exceeding the rural population. In 1980, the urban population had increased to 66.1 per cent of the total, and the urban-to-rural population ratio stood at 1.9, indicating an urban population nearly twice that of rural areas. By the end of 1989, Taiwan's urban population had reached 14.9 million, accounting for 74.1 per cent of the total population. The urban-to-rural population ratio had risen further to 2.9 (table 6.1).

Fig. 6.1 Taiwan's urban hierarchy and regions (Source: Council for Economic Planning and Development, Comprehensive Development Plan in Taiwan (A Brief, In English),Taipei: CEPD, 1974)

Table 6.1 Level of urbanization, 1950-1989 ('000 persons)

Year Urban population Rural population Total population Urbanization level (%)
1950 1,818 5,741 7,559 24.05
1960 4,280 6,512 10,792 39.66
1970 8,071 6,605 14,676 54.99
1980 11,766 6,039 17,805 66.08
1989 14,892 5,215 20,107 74.06

Source: Ministry of Interior, Population Statistics, Taiwan-Fukien Area, 1951, 1961, 1971, 1981, 1990.

Table 6.2 Annual growth rate of the population, 1951-1989 (%)

Period Urban population Total population
1951-1960 8.94 3.62
1961-1970 6.48 3.08
1971-1980 3.91 1.98
1981-1989 2.65 1.36
1951-1989 5.54 2.54

Source: Calculated from table 6.1.

Rate of urbanization

Comparing the urban population growth in each time-period with the overall average annual population growth rate of Taiwan, it can be seen that in the 1950s the average annual urban population growth rate was 8.9 per cent, far higher than the overall population growth rate of 3.6 per cent. This indicates that a massive migration was under way from rural areas to the cities. However, starting in the 1960s, the gap between the two growth rates began to narrow. By the 1980s, the average annual urban population growth rate was 2.7 per cent, while the overall annual population growth rate was 1.4 per cent. The reduction in the difference between these two rates means that out-migration from agricultural areas had already begun to ease (table 6.2). The high urban growth rate was caused by rapid urbanization resulting from industrialization. Young people, who generally have a high fertility rate, are attracted to the cities. As a result, urban areas grow rapidly not just because of a high net inward migration rate but also because of a high birth rate.

Table 6.3 Population growth by type of city, 1961-1989


Population (million)

Average growth rate




Taiwan total 11.2 20.1 2.1
Central municipalities 1.7 4.1 3.2
Provincial cities 1.3 2.3 2.2
Prefectural cities 1.3 4.1 4.2
Towns and hsiang 6.9 9.6 1.2

Sources: Ministry of Interior, Population Statistics, 1962,1990; Council for Economic Planning and Development (CEPD), Urban and Regional Development Statistics, 1990.

Based on an administrative hierarchy, cities in Taiwan are divided into four categories: central municipalities, provincial cities, prefectural cities, and towns plus hsiang. Table 6.3 shows the population growth of the four types of administrative unit during the period 1961-1989. The average annual growth rate of the central municipalities (3.2 per cent) exceeded the 2.1 per cent average annual growth of Taiwan as a whole. Prefectural cities grew by 4.2 per cent annually. Towns and hsiang grew at the much lower rate of 1.2 per cent, less than the natural population growth rate, which indicates considerable out-migration. The prefectural cities experienced the fastest growth, helping to balance growth between cities. Most of the medium-sized cities are located near a metropolis and may be considered satellite cities. Their rapid growth has been part of metropolitan development.

Urban hierarchy and urban system

In the early 1950s, Taipei City, whose residents numbered 610,000, was Taiwan's only city with a population surpassing 500,()00. At the same time, the only city with a population of between 250,000 and 500,000 was Kaohsiung City (268,000). In 1989, Taipei City was still Taiwan's largest city (pop. 2,700,000), followed by Kaohsiung City (1,400,000), Taichung City (747,000), Tainan City (676,000), and Panchiao (531,000). These figures reflect the growth and rise of Taiwan's major cities.

The number of cities with a population of more than 50,000 has increased considerably. Between 1950 and 1989, the number of cities with a population of between 50,000 and 100,000 showed the greatest increase, followed by cities in the 250,000-500,000 category (table 6.4). These statistics indicate that small and medium-sized cities are growing faster than large cities. An examination of table 6.5 shows that differences in the distribution of the total population between categories narrowed considerably over the period 1950-1989, indicating that the phenomenon of primate cities has not occurred in Taiwan. A study conducted in 1980 revealed that Taiwan's urban hierarchy followed the rank-sized rule.

Table 6.4 Number of cities by sue, 1950-1989


City size ('000 persons)








1950 309 2 5 1 1 - -
1960 287 21 6 3 1 - -
1970 261 43 9 3 1 1 -
1980 245 51 13 4 2 1 1
1989 231 58 16 8 3 1 1

Source: See table 6.1.

Table 6.5 Population distribution by city scale, 1950-1989 (%)


City size ('000 persons)









1950 75.92 1.93 10.45 3.55 8.15 - - 100.00
1960 60.34 11.92 7.35 10.23 - 10.16 - 100.00
1970 45.00 19.00 9.80 8.50 5.64 12.06 - 100.00
1980 33.92 21.22 12.17 7.27 6.50 6.59 12.33 100.00
1989 25.94 19.33 12.32 12.42 9.72 6.83 13.44 100.00

Source: See table 6 1.

In 1950, 10 of Taiwan's 20 largest cities were located in the Central region, 6 were in the Northern region, and 4 were in the Southern region. The 10 largest cities showed relatively high variation in population, unlike those in the 11th to the 20th position. This indicates that, although most population centres were in the Central region, their spatial distribution was quite even. Starting in 1960, Taiwan's population had already begun to move northward and southward.

Table 6.6 The regional distribution of the 20 largest cities, 1950-1989

Region 1950 1960 1970 1980 1989
Northern 6 7 10 11 12
Central 10 7 4 2 2
Southern 4 5 5 6 6
Eastern 0 1 1 1 0
Total 20 20 20 20 20

Source: See table 6.1.

After 1980, only 2 of the island's 20 largest cities were in the Central region. The Northern region became home to 12 of the island's 20 largest cities, and the Southern region accounted for 6 (table 6.6).

In 1989, Chungho, Yungho, Hsinchuang, Hsintien, Sanchung, and Panchiao gradually rose in the urban hierarchy, owing to their location near the centre of the Taipei Metropolitan Area (fig. 6.2). Since the Eastern region is mountainous, and transportation and communications are relatively poor, development has been comparatively slow. In fact, the urban hierarchy in the region has fallen. Taichung City, the core of the Central region, has maintained considerable growth. Meanwhile, the Kaohsiung Metropolitan Area in the Southern region has sustained rapid growth, especially in the central city and major satellite cities such as Fengshan.

Although the spatial distribution of the major cities has inclined northward and southward since the 1960s, the actual spatial distribution has remained extremely even. Except for the Eastern region, there is a metropolitan area in each region. Thus, although the spatial distribution of the population in Taiwan is concentrated in cities, a type of multi-nucleated development and dispersed concentration can still be seen.

An urban system is defined in terms of size, function, and service area (or area of influence), and by differences in the social, economic, and cultural activities of cities within a specific region. Spatially speaking, a hierarchical relationship is formed. Cities higher in the hierarchy are larger and have a higher functional level. They also have a more expanded sphere of influence and more complex social, economic, and cultural activities. Cities within the hierarchy perform functions according to a division of labour. These close ties create an orderly relationship within the system.

Fig. 6.2 The 20 largest cities in Taiwan, 1989

At present, the urban hierarchy in Taiwan can be divided into five levels (fig. 6.1):

Level I: Agricultural villages

The smallest of the agricultural villages has a population of 4,000. Spatially, they are found at 2-5 km intervals.

Level II: General towns

General towns are usually district seats and are home to a population of between 10,000 and 50,000. They are interspersed at 5-10 km intervals. The sphere of influence of these towns extends to roughly 50,000-100,000 people.

Level III: Local centres

Local centres are generally independent towns, but several are included within metropolitan areas. A local centre is home to roughly 100,000 people. However, its population can swell to upwards of 500,000 in metropolitan areas. Local centres are found every 15-40 km, and their sphere of influence extends to roughly 200,000-800,000 people.

Level IV: Regional centres

Most of the regional centres lie in metropolitan areas. However, a few may be independent towns, such as Taitung and Hualien. An independent town usually has a population of 200,000, while the population of a regional centre may surpass 2 million. A regional centre's sphere of influence extends to an entire region, with a population ranging from 600,000 to 10,000,000. Regional centres are found every 80 km or so.

Level V: The political, economic, and cultural centre of Taiwan

Besides being the centre of the island's Northern region, Taipei Municipality serves as the island's political, economic, and cultural centre. Its direct sphere of influence covers the entire Taipei Metropolitan Area, comprising a population of 5 million.

Thanks to railway electrification and completion of the Sun Yatsen Freeway in the mid-1970s, travel time between the Northern and Southern regions has been reduced to 4 hours, transforming the hierarchical relationship between urban systems. The sphere of influence of the Taipei Metropolitan Area has gradually spread throughout the Northern region and Taiwan. The Taichung Metropolitan Area's sphere of influence extends throughout the Central region. The Kaohsiung Metropolitan Area's sphere of influence has spread to cover the entire Southern region.

Contents - Previous - Next