Urban Villages in Shenzhen: Part 1

I am constantly reminded by the value of the exchange of varied cultural experiences, as well as in the purpose of this trip – to exchange ‘planning’ expertise.  In this short month, I am already sensing a shift in my own ideas of planning and the myriad ways humans encounter one another in a city.  The Chinese Academy of Urban Planning and Design (CAUPD) and their planners are consummate professionals – who all voice a pride in their country and their work.  That said, I was unclear how my style of community development, or what they call “social planning,” would go-over a midst their meticulous detail and care with physical planning.  I am learning first hand that there can be an essential nexus of these two, all too often disparate camps, to make cities work well.  Planning is more like an analog clock, maintenance and a little tinkering is required, and ofttimes this becomes an art unto itself.

Again, since few formal social planning projects are conducted at CAUPD – my manager had a hard time placing me at first.  Fortunately for me, the national office has contracted with Chongqing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen branches to delve deeper into the question of the growing inequality between people in China.  In Shenzhen, they are taking a closer look at the experiences of the residents of “urban villages” and the dynamics these communities present in terms of livability and affordability.

What is an Urban Village?  

Urban villages were once rural villages that were slowly annexed as Shenzhen grew.  Much of what is now Shenzhen was mountainous forestland and fertile farmland along the coast of southern China. Shenzhen is a unique city, particularly because of its nascent 33 year urban development history.  While other Chinese cities boast hundreds if not a thousand years of evolution and growth, the Shenzhen municipality recently formed in 1979, and did not break ground until 1980.  At formation, economic policies were also loosened, designating the municipality as a Special Economic Zone (SEZ), further jump starting development and investment.  In these hyper-rapid conditions, Shenzhen teams with constant construction and demolition, to accommodate an estimated 15 million people.  Walking the streets you get the sense, and many planners agree, “Shenzhen is a migrant city of a lot of young people in their 20s and 30s.”  Young people come from all over China seeking work after receiving their newly minted undergrad/grad degrees.  Rural migrants also come seeking income mobility in the hopes that cities can bring increased wages.

Streetlife on a Saturday night in Gangsha Village.

Streetlife on a Saturday night in Gangsha Village.

Naturally, young and single, family or no, we all need a place to live.  CAUPD estimates that 60 percent of Shenzhen lives in areas that are designated urban villages.  Common knowledge around the city says that this is where the cheapest rents can be found, in a city where the mean sales price of an apartment is almost $3,500 USD per square meter.  Local human resources officials report the average monthly salary is about $670 per month.  To provide some perspective, average costs per square meter in Manhattan are $14,391 and in Portland $2,215 (source: trulia, July 2013).  Not to worry, I’m still digging up rental data here, which is hard to find because of the informal nature of rental transactions, and of course my language barrier.  Moreover, planners suspect that there may be marked inequality of income, educational attainment, as well as basic services for those who are residents of the urban villages.


What was previously rural land became “urban” overnight, in terms of zoning designation in the new Shenzhen Municipality.  This is significant in many ways.  In simple terms rural land is for food production, and urban land is for concentrated urban uses such as housing, industry, and commercial activities.  The local, provincial, or national government owns and dictates the use, leasing, and development of all urban and suburban property.  However, Chinese law set aside property rights to rural residents in the form of rural “communes” which granted collective ownership to groups of villagers.  Worker communes are a concept and term that was a holdover from Maoist reforms, years earlier – more on this historical policy framework in a later post.   This arrangement with the “villagers” is important in that they are not subject to government regulations on development or design standards.

Left:  Plannned Chegongmiao Area in Futian Right:  Xiasha Village, Futian District

Left: Planned Chegongmiao Area in Futian
Right: Xiasha Village, Futian District

Essentially they get to develop independently of Shenzhen, and so they have.  They have built quickly and densely.  These buildings rent commercial, office space, and housing, which have made many urban villagers very wealthy people.  In effect the urban villagers have become influential developers in their own right.  In some cases, urban villagers no longer live in the communities they own, opting instead for high-end housing in other locations around the city.  The government has voiced several concerns about this type of tight and “informal” development in the urban villages, namely that the design and urban form is not consistent with that of the rest of the “planned” city – often chaotic and some say “unsightly.”    For the purposes of the study on inequality in China, CAUPD is concerned about basic infrastructural services like water, sanitation and waste management, electricity, fire protection, and access to public transit and healthcare facilities.  Since many of the village structures were informally erected to maximize the best possible rent value of the land, CAUPD would like to know what types of basic services might be deficient, or alternatively offered by the village communes themselves, and how might the government be able to improve these inequities of service?

Another unique feature is that urban villages are scattered throughout Shenzhen.  The Futian District contains several business districts strung along the southern edge of the city, kind of like the city’s central waistband of commercial and financial activity which also borders Hong Kong.  All subway lines criss-cross to transfer and many of the skyscrapers that make up the impressive skyline are found in Futian.  High-rise housing also dominates – many are high end and planned-gated buildings with recreation and garden amenities included on their grounds. The map below gives you a sense of how co-mingled urban villages are with the rest of the city.  There are also tens of dozens of villages in other districts across the city, not shown here.  Don’t fret, some of these outlying villages will also be included in the study.

Urban Villages Located in the Futian District

Urban Villages Located in the Futian District

In the coming weeks I will be observing CAUPD planners as they survey hundreds of urban village residents about their experiences of basic services, as well as their conceptions of community and livability in their neighborhoods.  They will also begin to develop a basic services analysis based on available data, in order to make sense of what life is like in the busiest parts of this massive metropolis.  Planners hope to emerge some indicators about their quality of life, particularly for those who they are calling “vulnerable” populations in urban areas. As an interesting comparison, planners have assigned me and my colleague Jason P. McNeil, to provide cases of US experiences with studies of inequality and quality of life such as this.   In this short process, I hope to scratch the surface of conditions I witness in Shenzhen, and gain a greater understanding of inequality on a global scale.

Out of my own curiosity, what do you as a reader want to know about urban villages?  Shenzhen?  Anything come to mind?  Leave a quick comment, and I will try to dig up the dirt if possible, providing insights as best I can, in this series of posts about urban villages.

(images pphan, 2013, basemap courtesy of CAUPD, Shenzhen, 2012)

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7 thoughts on “Urban Villages in Shenzhen: Part 1

  1. Marc F says:

    Hey Pam, This is really fascinating stuff. Thanks for writing. I will keep following.

  2. dsdauphin says:

    Sounds like you’re really going to get some experience working on urban villages. Jenny and I worked on a pilot quality of life study in Chongqing and the biggest challenge we found for trying to study this is that immigrants and longer-term residents have very different needs/wants. The neighborhood I was involved in surveying had older residents who were actively involved in community programming and very satisfied except for their fears of getting sick (due to the lack of a healthcare safety net). The younger immigrants didn’t partake in any of these activities and were distrusted as a result by long-term residents. They valued amenities such as transit access, park or open space, and affordable restaurants/grocery stores. I would imagine this has a unique flavor in Shenzhen where there are very few “long-term” residents. I look forward to hearing what you find!

  3. pamphan says:

    Thanks for your comments Derek! You’re right on, as “Long-term” is very relative, since we are talking barely 30 years of community evolution here. Planners have found that older/elder residents tend to be more involved in cultural or neighborhood based activities, siting crime/safety watch as one. I am also wondering as Shenzhen’s economy really takes off – how will young migrants, rural migrants, and the rare long-term Shenzheners negotiate a collective identity as the city matures? Masterplanning is the norm here, however visioning is almost unheard of. It is often the vision of officials at higher and higher levels, that get implemented. It’s really exciting to watch this process of community perspectives coming to light!

  4. Yiping says:

    I have heard that factories in the coastal area have suffered relocation to western China or some south Asia countries. Do these urban villages also experience the change of rental demand?

  5. Andy says:

    Wonderful work so far, Pam. I wonder how the speed in which some of these urban districts have sprung up affects the meticulous planning you mention early in the blog? Is there tension there?

  6. James Thompson says:

    Thanks for the good post!

    I am planning to go to SZ late this year for 1-2 months to learn 普通话. I am planning on staying in a handshake apartment/flat in an urban village. I am looking for somewhere with few english speaks. (this shojld not be hard!)

    Can you recommend an area?

    James

  7. Filip says:

    How can non-shenzhen residents be allowed to use these new public services? isn’t there a hukou related problem?

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