Land resources are an important component of the earth’s terrestrial system [1
] as well as the material basis and spatial carrier of human activity [2
]. Changes in the land system can be regarded as the projection of the development of human society onto the earth space, reflecting changes in the natural environment and the process of socioeconomic development [3
]. Changes in the earth’s surface spaces caused by human activity have greatly affected the earth’s ecosystem and triggered a series of global environmental changes [4
]. Changes in land use and land cover, as well as the feedback on the climate, deeply affect the landscape worldwide [5
]; especially in mountainous areas where change can anticipate or amplify what is occurring elsewhere [6
]. Land change research, therefore, has become an important part of research on global sustainable development [4
]. With rapid urbanization and globalization, the characteristics of human socioeconomic transformation have also had a significant effect on regional land use [7
]. Mountain areas are highly sensitive and vulnerable to change due to various human pressures and natural processes [8
]. Therefore, the study of land use transformation in mountain areas is worth further study.
Land use transformation in rural areas warrants special attention. Under the influence of economic globalization and social modernization, social life in rural areas has undergone drastic changes [9
]. As the carrier of rural social life, rural space has also experienced dramatic restructuring in this process [10
]. Therefore, land use transition research provides an important window for exploring the current state of rural development [11
]. There is a close relationship between rural land use transition and rural development, and when the land use situation in the countryside does not match the rural development situation, it will cause the countryside to fall into a declining mode [2
]. The coupling and coordination process between the two is key to achieving rural revitalization [12
]. By changing the land use structure, various problems, such as land abandonment, ecological damage, and hollow villages, that arise in the process of local development can be mitigated or even solved [13
]. Therefore, studying land use transition in rural areas is important for optimizing rural development and building harmonious, orderly urban–rural transformations [14
]. Such work is conducive to deepening our understanding of rural development and providing a reference for the scientific formulation of rural development strategies [15
The transformation of rural land use in China is a topic with great research value. In the West, the transition from preindustrial to knowledge-based economies took centuries; in newly industrialized countries such as China, however, it has been a much more compressed process [16
]. Regarding rural development, this means that China’s villages have experienced in just a few decades the same transformation process that took place over a century in developed countries. Rapid urbanization and industrialization have led to significant changes in the industrial structure, employment structure, and social structure of rural areas [17
]. While promoting both urban and rural economic development, these changes have also caused the disordered expansion of urban land and a sharp reduction of rural land, giving rise to environmental pollution, ecological destruction, low land use efficiency, and other problems [2
]. Additionally, the imbalance of urban and rural development has led to many problems, such as rural poverty, the serious loss of rural population, rural aging, and hollowed out villages [20
]. It is evident that China’s ongoing opening up to the outside world in terms of economy, culture, and other areas has allowed it to enjoy the dividends of globalization [22
], but it has also exacerbated problems associated with the geographical transformation of its rural areas. Therefore, since the late twentieth century, researchers and government authorities have conducted various land use surveys, monitored land use changes, evaluated their effects, and promoted collaboration between researchers and policy makers to translate scientific findings into sustainable land use solutions [2
At present, relevant case studies on rural land use in China have obtained rich results in areas including the transformation of arable land [23
], rural residential land [20
], and rural industrial land [26
]. Some studies have focused on the effects of land use transition, including its effects on rural transformation [27
], rural livelihoods [30
], the environment [32
], and socioeconomic development [32
]. Some studies covered a wide range of geographic areas [35
], whereas some studies focused on specific areas, such as China’s urban agglomeration areas [38
], the less developed northeastern region [39
], the traditional plain agricultural areas of the Huang-Huai-Hai Plain [40
], and typical mountainous areas [41
Aiming to reveal the driving forces of land use changes in China, research on the dynamic mechanisms of land use change has focused on changes in land use types and the related drivers in terms of economic, social, and natural behaviors [28
]. At the macro level, land use transition is a dynamic process driven by a range of factors, such as capital and labor inputs, industrial development, employment, and population mobility, which are closely related to rural restructuring [42
]. Large-scale land use changes are mainly influenced by natural factors [43
], as well as short-term social and economic factors [37
]. The main drivers of rural industrial land transformation are factors such as external land capital per capita, GDP per capita, and road density [26
]. Meanwhile, macro-level policies have an important influence on land use transition in rural China [35
Based on a large number of empirical case studies, researchers have also proposed the connotations of and basic theoretical frameworks for land use transformation in China [13
]. It is believed that land use transformation occurs within an interrelated framework comprising the natural system, economic system, and management system, resulting from the joint action of the three. The resource and environmental effects caused by land use transformation driven by economic and social changes and innovation has a direct effect on the natural system that is usually negative. This is fed back to the land management departments in the form of disasters or land resource degradation. The land management departments formulate laws and regulations in order to implement land resource management policies and systems, directly or indirectly adjust the land use economic system, control land use transformation, and help land use transformation achieve the expected goals by inducing economic and social changes, innovation, and the implementation of adjusted management and control measures [13
The abovementioned research results have greatly enriched research on rural land transformation and have had beneficial effects on rural development practices in China. However, there are two areas that still need improvement in the research.
Case studies at the micro scale need to be strengthened. Scale is one of the core concepts of human geography. In human geography research, different research scales often lead to different research results [45
]. For example, in land use research, land use change at different scales has different characteristics, different influencing factors, different evolution mechanisms and processes [46
]. However, most existing research on rural land use still focuses on the macro level. These studies focus on the classification of rural land use types from the regional macro perspective and reveal the characteristics of the transformation and development of rural land use as a whole, but cannot distinguish between rural and urban areas. Therefore, they fail to deeply analyze the impact of the current sharp changes in urban and rural space on rural land use, reveal the differences within the micro-scale rural areas, and implement differentiated and smart land use remediation for specific villages. Therefore, case studies at the micro scale need to be strengthened. Compared with macro-scale research, the micro-scale analysis of rural land use transition can better reflect differences within rural areas, thus facilitating in-depth analyses of the causes of rural land use transition, which can reveal the actual problems such transitions face. China is promoting its national strategic goals of rural revitalization and ecological civilization. This requires adopting differentiated land use policies or measures to ensure the optimal allocation of rural land resources, the coordination of the humans–land relationship, and sustainable development. However, land-related decision-making by local governments in China is limited by their administrative jurisdiction [37
]. There are great differences in different parts of China in development conditions and policy implementation. Therefore, there may be many problems with feasibly implementing macro-level policies in specific micro-level villages and towns. It is important, then, to conduct in-depth research on land use changes at the micro level of villages and towns. In addition, most research on the drivers of land use transition are conducted based on correlation analyses of the influencing factors. Such work does have significance for macro-scale research and can highlight general directions for land use transition studies. However, for more micro-level cases, analyzing data correlations alone can lead us to focus more on changes in the economic or ecological effects of land use than on the transformation itself [47
]. This can easily cause one to focus only on data analysis while ignoring the underlying logic.
The land use transformation mechanism needs to be optimized at the micro scale. The main objective of land use transition research is to explore how to better manage land resources to achieve sustainable development. This is especially true for micro-level areas. However, the land use transformation mechanism proposed in recent research [13
] is essentially a passive response process. That is, management departments will only pay attention to problems caused by land use transformation attributable to changes in the external socioeconomic environment when these problems are very serious. Such a process will inevitably be accompanied by the phased imbalance of land use, which will have a negative impact. This could bring more negative effects to a greater number of micro-level villages or towns and even cause rural areas to decline. If we can identify the regional characteristics of the concentration of land use transformation, it can help us to actively look for regions that might change after changes in the external economic and social environment occur, thus actively promoting land use transformation.
Based on the above two points, we believe that rather than analyzing the relevance of different influencing factors, it is more important to start at the practical level and focus on the conditions under which land use transition occurs, in which areas of villages it is more likely to occur, and who is behind it. Such analysis gives rise to the following questions: What are the characteristics of land use transition in micro-level villages and towns in light of changes in macro-level factors? How are macro-level factors transmitted to the micro-level case area, and how do they influence land use transition within an area? What are the endogenous factors that cause land use transition to occur within the micro-level region?
In light of such questions, the main purpose of our study was to explore the characteristics of the restructuring of ecology–production–living (EPL) spaces at the micro-level of villages and towns from the perspective of land use change. It also focused on the micro-scale endogenous driving mode of land use transformation and explored the possibility of transforming the passive adaptation mode of land use transformation into an active response mode. To accomplish this, we first constructed a theoretical framework to sort out how land use transition and its driving forces take place in Chinese villages and towns in the context of macro-level policy changes. Then, through a case study of a mountain town in inland China, we investigated the characteristics of its land use transition based on long-term observation. On that basis, we studied its endogenous driving mode and explored the possibility of actively promoting land use transformation.
This study examined the characteristics and endogenous dynamics of the spatial transition and restructuring of EPL spaces in a well-developed village- and town-level case study in Central China over a 30-year period. This enabled us to understand how a village, in a macro-level development context, was able to transition its land use patterns to meet the development needs of the times.
Based on our research results, we can summarize the endogenous driving mode of land use transformation in micro-level villages and towns. Under economic globalization and social modernization, China’s socioeconomic conditions are constantly changing, triggering the transformation of rural industries. As a result, the economic importance of land as agricultural land will continue to decline while the spatial carrying function and asset capital function will be enhanced, which will eventually return to agricultural production and ecological landscape functions and tend toward stability. This trend will also be mapped to land use form changes. Our study shows that, because the spatial interface is highly sensitive to land use transformation, according to macroeconomic changes combined with spatial interface characteristics, we can undertake precautions and timely, reasonable interventions to adjust the land use pattern before the problem worsens and readapt to development needs. This process can only occur smoothly under the guarantee of villagers’ self-organization with self-innovation abilities, through the top-down, bottom-up supervision mechanism and a strong ability to govern autonomous rural space. After the reconstruction of the three living spaces of each micro-level case, it is bound to feed back to the macro-level socioeconomic environment, promote further changes in it from the bottom up, and then enter a new cycle (Figure 9
Compared with the existing macro-scale studies, the micro-scale case studies can enable us to distinguish the rural and urban land in the macro-region, so that we can more accurately study the process and driving mechanism of rural land use transformation, and then reveal the root of rural development and the actual problems faced. On the one hand, as a mountain town, Zhulin Town’s land use transformation trend conforms to the overall trend of China’s mountain land use transformation. That is, in the process of China’s transformation from an agricultural society to an industrialized and urbanized society, China’s mountainous rural areas have shown a trend turning in the long-term change of land use patterns. Rural land use in mountainous areas has evolved from farmland expansion and forest land contraction in agricultural society to farmland integration and forest land restoration growth in the process of urbanization [71
]. On the other hand, we can further reveal the spatial law and endogenous driving force of the land use transformation process in mountainous villages through micro research. That is, the spatial interface is a sensitive area for land use transformation in the natural state, and the autonomous spatial governance capability of villagers’ self-organization institutions is the key to regulating land use transformation. This provides us with a theoretical basis for further and more accurate regulation of rural land use transformation. From this point of view, we think the aspects outlined below are worthy of further discussion.
4.1. How Key Rural Actors Should Guide the Transformation and Reconstruction of Rural Land Use
In contrast to previous studies, our case study of Zhulin confirmed the significance of the effects of macro-level land use policies on land use transition in rural China [37
]. Owing to China’s land management system, land use transition is somewhat volatile and unstable [35
]. There tend to be reciprocal transformations in the expansion and contraction of certain land use types, and such transformations are sometimes slow and sometimes fast. This is also evidenced by the process of EPL space transition in Zhulin, where development strategies were constantly adjusted because of changes in the policy environment. This, in turn, led to reciprocal transformations among EPL spaces, especially agricultural production space and ecological space.
At the same time, based on long-term tracking and research on micro-level case areas, we found that through effective local management measures, national policies can be better implemented in bamboo forests to adjust local development strategies in a timely manner and also meet macro-level development conditions. This can promote the transformation of local land use in a direction more conducive to the macro-level development environment. We can see that in the interactive coupling process of land use and rural development, grassroots villager organizations are the key actors, and rural autonomous spatial governance capacity is a key guarantee for the rational intervention and dynamic response of local actors. Furthermore, we should give play to the advantages of this grassroots system through the top-down, bottom-up operation supervision mechanism and promote villagers’ self-organized institutions to constantly self-innovate. Only in this way can we effectively give play to the strong governance capacity of rural autonomous space and thus ensure the continuous optimization and reconstruction of rural land use transformation.
4.2. Should We Passively Adapt or Proactively Respond?
Conventional research suggests that the effects of socioeconomic changes and innovation caused by land use transformation on resources and the environment directly affect natural systems, usually in a negative way. When such problems are serious enough to attract the attention of the public and governments, the management system might affect the behavior of land users through land resource management regulations, thereby directly or indirectly adjusting the economic system of land use and controlling land use transformation [13
]. This process will inevitably face the negative consequences for regional development arising from the incompatibility between land use and economic and social development. If such negative effects are not corrected in time, regional development will likely stagnate or even decline. Although strong rural autonomous spatial governance capacity can intervene and adjust in a timely manner when problems are identified, it will also have a certain negative impact. Therefore, turning passive adaptation into active response and intervening ahead of time will enable us to reduce the negative effects produced by the transformation process as much as possible. By introducing the perspective of spatial interface, this study confirmed that the spatial interface area is a sensitive area in the process of land use transformation, and changes in land use patterns caused by changes in the external macroeconomic environment are mainly concentrated in the spatial interface area. Changing from a passive to an active mode of responding to land use transformation requires having independent spatial governance ability to ensure the optimization and reconstruction of rural land use transformation, as well as being able to grasp the characteristics of land use transformation. This can effectively avoid the negative effects of land use changes arising from changes in the macro-level social and economic environment caused by local actors and further put rural development on the right track.
4.3. Limitations and Research Prospects
This study has some limitations. Although the study of micro-scale can reveal its inherent differences, the representativeness of the study may be slightly insufficient. Each village has unique features in its development, especially in a large country such as China, where there are huge differences in natural, economic, and social conditions. Therefore, using a single typical village/town in China as a case study will have the limitation of insufficient representation. This was unavoidable. However, while our selected case does not represent all villages, it can at least provide some guidance value for villages with similar bamboo forest development conditions. Therefore, we believe the study is still meaningful. In the future, we will conduct in-depth research on more case areas and also make comparisons with macro-level research in the same period to further improve the universality of this driving mode.
We also recognize that our micro-level case study of Zhulin reveals a dynamic that differs from land use transition at the macro level in China. China’s government has issued many policies intended to mitigate the destruction of arable and ecological land, as well as the disorderly expansion of construction land. While these have, to some degree, alleviated the contradiction between humans and land in certain areas, they have failed to fully achieve the expected results because of ongoing land use imbalances in rural areas [37
]. This is mainly because regional rural development patterns and land use patterns have not aligned with changes in development conditions as a result of actions taken by key local actors [11
]. This, in turn, leads to inadequacies and imbalances in rural land use transition [35
]. We can see that a good governance system is conducive to promoting the transmission of national development strategies, improving spatial development and utilization, promoting the sustainable use of space, and achieving sustainable development. On the contrary, it can also lead to the unsustainable development and utilization of space, thus weakening national governance capacity, offsetting the elasticity of spatial governance, and causing systematic governance obstacles. In the future, therefore, it will be worth investigating how to improve the rural governance capacity of key local actors in different regions and at different levels.
Focusing on the endogenous dynamics of land use transition and restructuring in villages and towns under the influence of macro-level policies, we proposed that the interplay between land resources and dominant land functions is facilitated by key local actors, leading to the transition and restructuring of local EPL spaces. In addition, this process may focus on a specific spatial interface area. Taking Zhulin in Central China as a case study and considering EPL spaces with both morphological and functional land use characteristics, we analyzed the processes, characteristics, and endogenous driving factors of spatial transition and restructuring over the past 30 years. We found that the distribution of EPL spaces in Zhulin shifted from the initial cross-distribution of ecological, production, and living spaces to a relatively concentrated layout. During 1990–2005, non-agricultural production space and living space continued to increase while agricultural production space and ecological space showed a fluctuating reciprocal transformation. Specifically, agricultural production space shrank and ecological space expanded at the beginning and reversed at the end. After 2005, the expansion trend of non-agricultural production space and living space was curbed. After the initial consolidation, reasonable growth followed; agricultural production space also continued to be consolidated while ecological space continued to grow. Compared with noninterface areas, the spatial interface areas did concentrate some more active shifts of EPL spaces. Among them, the reciprocal transformation of agricultural production space and ecological space was mainly concentrated in the terrain interface area, while the transfer involving non-agricultural production space and living space was mainly concentrated in the urban–rural interface area. In the process of the land use transformation of micro-level village and town cases, macro-level social and economic changes are the fundamental causes of land use transformation. The autonomous spatial governance capability of villagers’ self-organized institutions is key to regulating land use transformation. The spatial interface is a sensitive area of land use transformation in a natural state. On this basis, we propose an endogenous driving model of rural land use transformation that is proactive and responsive. Compared with existing macro-level-oriented research, for a single, more micro-level town, improving its autonomous rural spatial governance capacity will be more important. This requires establishing a top-down guidance mechanism and a bottom-up supervision mechanism to promote continuous innovation by rural self-organized institutions to adapt to the changing macroeconomic environment.
Compared with the traditional passive adaptation model, this active response model can significantly reduce the negative effects caused by land use pattern incompatibility in the process of changes in the external socioeconomic environment. Therefore, we need to pay attention to the characteristics of the spatial interface and land use transformation, which can provide us with the conditions to transform passive adaptation into active response. On this basis, the scientific formulation of local rural development strategies will be able to produce an integration effect, reduce negative impacts of land use transformation as much as possible, and promote local land use renovation to achieve greater gains at a lower cost. In the future, we need to pay attention to the comparative study of different types of case areas, and more attention should be paid to ways to improve the rural governance capacity of local actors at different levels.