Can new energy projects exceed urban development boundaries?

By Lu Ke, Zhilin Law Firm
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Yang Jun, deputy director of the Territorial Spatial Planning Bureau of the Ministry of Natural Resources, stated during a media seminar on 24 December 2023 that according to the decision-making and deployment of the CPC Central Committee and the State Council on the establishment of a territorial spatial planning system and the deepening of the “integration and optimisation of multiple plannings” reform, in 2022, provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities have co-ordinated the delineation of urban development boundaries for cities, towns and various types of development zones using both top-down and bottom-up approaches. This was done in accordance with the unified deployment of the “Three Zones and Three Lines” control rules, which delineate land use using three zones marked by three lines.

What is an urban development boundary? What are the management requirements for urban development boundaries? Can new energy projects break the urban development boundaries for construction? This article aims to analyse these questions.


鲁轲,Lu Ke,Zhilin
Lu Ke
Zhilin Law Firm

On 1 November 2019, the Communist Party of China Central Committee and the State Council released guidelines on co-ordinating the delimitation and implementation of the three control lines, including the red line for ecological protection, the red line for protection of permanent basic cropland, and the boundary line for urban development. This document marked the first authoritative definition of the urban development boundary. According to regulations, the urban development boundary refers to the concentrated development and construction of urban areas, including cities, designated towns and various development zones, primarily to meet the needs of urban development within a specific period.

Project construction

The Opinions of the CPC Central Committee and the State Council on Establishing a National Territory Spatial Planning System with its Supervision and Implementation provide that construction within the urban development boundaries follows a control method of “detailed planning + planning permit”. Construction outside urban development boundaries follows a control method based on zoning for dominant uses, employing “detailed planning + planning permit” and “obligatory targets + zone access”. The opinions specify that adjustments to urban development boundaries require approval from the original approval authority for territorial spatial planning.

These documents provide relatively simple requirements for the management of construction outside the urban development boundaries. However, the Notice by the Ministry of Natural Resources of Effectively Administering Urban Development Boundaries (for Trial Implementation), released and implemented on 8 October 2023, for the first time systematically provides rules on the issue, guiding the concentration of urban construction land within the urban development boundaries, promoting the intensive and clustered construction of urban development to enhance land efficiency and conservation. Outside urban development boundaries, concentrated urban construction is prohibited, as well as the planning and construction of development zones and industrial parks. Residential land planning within these areas is also prohibited although scattered urban construction land with specific site requirements may be permitted outside urban development boundaries.

New energy projects

It is, however, not clear whether land for new energy projects such as wind power and photovoltaics (PV) falls under this category of scattered urban construction land as it is not explicitly addressed in the notice.

However, the “Notice on Deepening the Reform of ‘Multiple Reviews Combined into One, Multiple Certificates Combined into One’ for Planning and Land Use”, issued and implemented on 4 May 2023, provides for the implementation of comprehensive site selection and the evaluation of projects located outside urban development boundaries. For transportation, energy and water conservancy projects located outside the urban development boundaries that involve arable land, permanent basic cropland and the ecological protection red line, the local natural resources authorities shall integrate various assessments – including planning site selection, arable land survey, permanent basic cropland occupation adjustment, impossibility of avoiding the ecological protection red line, land-saving evaluation, etc. – into comprehensive site selection assessments to prevent duplicate reviews. The assessment report is used as the application material for the preliminary review and siting opinions on construction project land. The projects outside the urban development boundary listed in this provision include energy construction projects.

Regarding specific land use policies for the new energy industry, the Ministry of Natural Resources, National Forestry and Grassland Bureau, and the Comprehensive Department of the National Energy Administration issued the Notice on Supporting the Development of the Photovoltaic Power Generation Industry and Standardising the Work Related to Land Use Management on 20 March 2023, specifying that under the premise of complying with the “Three Zones and Three Lines” control rules, relevant projects that pass feasibility studies can be integrated into the national land use planning map. This serves as the planning basis for additional land use for forests and grasslands, including new PV projects. The supporting notice requires PV project land to conform to these control rules and does not deny that the project land can be outside their scope. Whether the development can continue needs to be determined according to relevant control rules.


Based on the previous analysis, the following conclusions may be drawn:

  1. Urban development boundaries are defined as regional boundaries primarily designated for concentrated urban development and construction, driven by the needs of urban development over a certain period. They encompass cities, designated towns and various development zones.
  2. Under certain conditions, scattered urban construction land with specific site requirements can be planned outside urban development boundaries.
  3. According to national and some provincial policies, energy projects are categorised as types of projects that can be sited outside urban development boundaries. Considering specific land policies and the characteristics of new energy projects, there should be no legal barriers to their construction beyond urban development boundaries. Consequently, compared to ecological protection red lines and basic farmland, it is less likely for natural resources management authorities to object to project land on the grounds of exceeding urban development boundaries during the development process.

Lu Ke is an associate at Zhilin Law Firm

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