Urban Villages and Sponge City Development

Never have I seen more efficient use of space in built environments than in Shenzhen’s informal settlements, known as “urban villages”. These urban villages are often referred to as “handshake buildings” because structures are so compact and close together that residents of neighboring buildings are often able to reach out their window and shake their neighbor’s hand.

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These informal settlements are referred to as urban villages because until recently, they were classified as “rural” land by the Chinese government, despite being surrounded by urban landscape. They simply maintained this official classification status because they used to actually be rural villages (usually fishing villages) that were eventually consumed by Shenzhen’s unprecedented sprawling growth, as the government acquired these villages’ farming land but allowed them to continue residing in the village collectives. With little opportunity for making a living after their farmland (or fishing access) had been confiscated, villagers turned to capitalizing on Shenzhen’s surging population growth by renting below-market rate dwellings to in-migrants. What resulted after these processes began to transpire just a few decades ago is manifest in these villages’ extremely compact orientation and resourceful character.


The resourcefulness cultivated in urban villages begins at a young age

Urban villages have grown to be a hallmark of Shenzhen’s historically unparalleled growth, as they house over six million residents (an estimated 18 million, however population figures and estimates are wildly inaccurate and inconsistent due to the area’s rapid growth and massive informal population).

It is clear that urban villages have aspired to maximize utility with the little physical space at their disposal, constantly playing cat-and-mouse with municipal development authorities by evading density and height regulations. Unfortunately, their optimization of space does not extend to green space and green infrastructure. Green infrastructure has far more benefits beyond aesthetics, and particularly in Shenzhen (as in much of the rest of the world), it is playing an increasingly integral role in stormwater management. This is especially relevant to urban villages and Shenzhen, which is historically and increasingly prone to flooding risk. The Chinese national government’s response to the country-wide urban flooding problem was to roll out their ambitious “Sponge-City” program, specifically intended for reducing flood risk by incorporating more green infrastructure to reduce stormwater runoff rates, increase natural groundwater recharge rates, and reduce the amounts of pollutants carried into natural waterbodies from stormwater runoff.

The crux of my research at the Urban Planning and Design Institute Shenzhen (UPDIS) rested on integrating China’s ambitious Sponge City concepts into urban villages, which are especially vulnerable to flooding risk due to their lack of adequate drainage facilities and green infrastructure. Consequently, Shenzhen’s flooding and “waterlogging” incidents, or sewer overflow, are acute in urban villages.


One of the many clogged stormwater drains I encountered in Baishizhou Urban Village

Due to the limited resources at my disposal, I was unable to conduct any thorough study of appropriate sponge-city design concepts beyond simple desktop research. My department at UPDIS – urban renewal – was particularly interested in planning and planning-related practices from the US, and therefore wanted me to determine which types of Low-Impact Development (LID) – green infrastructure designed to slow runoff rates and filter pollutants — strategies may work best for the different types of urban village redevelopment. I pulled several strategies from Portland’s Green Streets program and Portland’s Stormwater Management Manual. Furthermore, my colleagues were interested in policies around green streets and market mechanisms for encouraging LID. I did not employ any technical or elaborate methodology for determining which types of LID would work best for urban village redevelopment — I made judgments from field visits and observations at urban villages. All of this culminated into a presentation I provided about half-way through my internship here. If any readers are curious of the specific strategies or have any questions, I would be happy to share my presentation report with you or answer said questions.


IDSS @ Tongji University

This past week, many of us PSU MURP students had the chance to participate in the International Design Summer School hosted by the College of Architecture and Urban Planning (CAUP) at Tongji University in Shanghai. This 10-day workshop-style event brought together students from all over the world, with the challenge to work as teams in creating a waterfront revitalization design proposal at the intersection of the Hongpu and Yangtze Rivers.

Architecture, landscape architecture, and urban planning students from universities in Austria, Germany, Australia, South Korea, Canada, China, the UK and the US hit the ground running to quickly learn the existing conditions of the site and then develop a design for the 7.66 sq. km area. Each of the six student teams were to create a design that incorporated components of wetland restoration, culturally relevant design, and a connection with the nearby cruise terminal infrastructure. The expected deliverables of “summer school” provided students with a simulation of the actual Shanghai Urban Design Challenge that will be accepting proposals this fall. The specific deliverables were to present a concept design mid-week and a final presentation of our master plan at the end of the summer school.


I will spare you the play-by-play details of all the challenges and breakthroughs many of us experienced- but needless to say, it was a rigorously rewarding experience that we all learned something from. I had the pleasure of working in a group of amazingly talented landscape architects and urban planners from China, Austria, and the US. Accompanied by the counsel of Tongji University associate professor, Nannan Dong, we serendipitously came together around a playful and experimental working group style that generated intriguing products and many fond memories.

Here are just a handful of takeaways from my experience at Tongji last week. I recognize that these takeaways are all over the place (from introspective to superficial) so just bear with me:

  1. Prioritizing good team chemistry before project deliverables is a sure bet to cultivating a more trusting, respectful, and comfortable working environment.
  2. Being creative means taking chances. It also takes time to feel confident in expressing and sharing your creativity with others.
  3. Eat a big lunch because the dinner canteen offering will always be slightly underwhelming.
  4. I really like working on teams. #teamworkmakesthedreamwork
  5. Sometimes–when you have an talented cast of puppeteers, tactful narration, and an amazing soundtrack–shadow puppets are the perfect way to avoid giving a boring ol PPT presentation.

Now back to observations & adventures in Shenzhen!

PS – Here is a photographic comparison of lunch offerings vs. dinner. I’ll let you be the judge:

I <3 Chinese Food

As I was perusing the streets near my hotel and catching fleeting whiffs of durian fruit, it finally occurred to me that traditional Chinese cuisine seems to have a wider diversity (at least in terms of different types of foods found in single dishes) than western cuisines. I began to develop my own — admittedly incomplete — theories on the diversity of (what I’d imagine) traditional food options as compared Europe and North America. I figured these personal theories might be worth sharing.

Could the diversity of consumption options (fancy way of saying “food”) be by virtue of simply being a more biodiverse region, and they’re therefor exposed to more and diverse things to eat? Could it be because China is an ancient civilization, to which Chinese culture has simply had more time to develop a variety of dishes and cuisines? Maybe it’s due to more recent events, such as the massive famine that corresponded with Mao’s rule. Chinese people are maybe more willing to eat differing, “exotic” or what westerners would perceive as unpalatable, simply as a survival trait in response to trying times. As a result,  this seeming acceptance for a such a diversity of foods appears to be deeply ingrained in Chinese society and culture. 

This all makes me wonder: how is it that we find certain foods (from a western perspective) to be “gross”? Is this simply taught or conditioned from our culture? If so, why are there certain foods that we generally judge as gross or untouchable in the West, while others – such as milk and eggs – really are pretty strange when considering the source. I would imagine it likely boils down to (no pun intended) what we are familiar with in our cultures, or in other words, what we are regularly exposed to and inevitably grow accustomed to. I’m sure there are various foods that we regularly eat in the West that most Chinese would find strange or repulsive. 

All that being said, I have loved the food here thus far (aside from the lack of cheese, a pillar of my diet). I should also acknowledge that none of this is really based on empirical evidence, but simply my initial reflections (and western biases) from my surface level experience in this part of the world. I invite any and all who might actually have legitimate answers to these questions, or if you also have interesting ideas/theories. Nonetheless, I’m excited to continue indulging in new foods that my various senses have never encountered!

P.s. This would ideally be an opportune blog post to share pictures of food, however I unfortunately do not have any. Once again, it would be best to consult Ayo, as she has been doing a remarkable job of documenting many of our meals. I promise to share photos on my next post. Until then, if anyone is dying to see pictures of other things from my trip, I’d be happy to share my google photos album with you. Although I must warn you, my photography skills are very poor, hence my reluctance to share pictures on various social media platforms.  Apologies for the extensive “p.s.”.