Shenzhen, At First Glance – Rae-Leigh


I arrived to Shenzhen about two weeks ago. My friend from Portland was traveling through China and spent a few days in Shenzhen. I was lucky to have a smiling face pick me up from the airport! It was great because it was 11 pm and after 24 hours of travel time I was half asleep. If it wasn’t for that ride, I may have never made it to my hotel 😉 Thanks Althea!

The first few days were chaotic and a bit overwhelming – in a good way. The location of where we’re staying, Difu Hotel, and where we’re working, The Urban Planning and Design Institute of Shenzhen (UPDIS) is in the Futian District of Shenzhen. There is a lot going on with shops, restaurants, and parks all within a short radius from us. There’s even a Walmart (surprise!) steps from our door.



Shenzhen is a very young city and has only begun to develop within the last 35 years. It was declared a Special Economic Zone in 1979. Prior to its industrial boom and rapid development, the city was non-existent. It went from an area with a few small fishing towns to a city of 12 million. The first metro station opened in 2004; now there are 131 stations. In 2014 there were three metro new lines being built simultaneously.

To put it into perspective I thought about the last two cities I lived in. Columbus, Indiana, a small city south of Indianapolis, has a population of 48,000 – Shenzhen is 250 times larger. Portland, Oregon, where I live now, has a population of 620,000 – Shenzhen is 20 times larger. That blows my mind!


UPDIS is a large planning firm, which does contract work for the federal government. It’s different then firms in the US, as it can best be described as quasi-governmental. I work within the transportation department. Our department is a year old and is made up of about 30 people. The department hired 9 recent graduates, from all over China, who arrived shortly before I did. We had a celebratory department dinner to welcome their arrival with delicious food and a chance to get to know each other.

I haven’t gotten too deep into Chinese planning yet, but from my little experience, it is very different than what I’m used to in the US. I’ve been a part of a few meetings dealing with the strategic planning of a new district, Xiang Jiang, in the Hunan Province. It currently has a population of 850,000 with plans to become the home of 1,600,000 by 2025. UPDIS is creating a new city center and they’re envisioning this area as a transportation hub. They’re looking at the transportation system at a regional scale with development plans for roads, transit lines, and an airport. They determined that the existing airport is not in the right location and is not suited to keep up with the future demand. They’re looking at a new airport location and how to best connect it within the city and the transit system.

During one of the meetings to discuss the new district, they asked me how I would start a city with a blank slate. Planning is unreal here. I cannot even imagine starting a city, a large city, from basically a blank slate like they’ve been doing. The population, density, and migration to urban areas are on a whole different scale than the US.


Shenzhen is fun! During my first weekend here, my colleague took me to sing karaoke and then to my first ping-pong match. Her and her friends love the game and met online as a fan group that travels to the competitions together. There is a yoga studio and a swimming pool nearby that I go to after work. In addition to Lea and I, there are several other foreign interns that we hang out with. We go to dinner, venture out in the city, and have even found some good dancing spots.



2 thoughts on “Shenzhen, At First Glance – Rae-Leigh

  1. Ray Atkinson says:

    Thanks for structuring your blog post with subheaders. They help make your post easier to read.

    “There’s even a Walmart (surprise!) steps from our door.” I’m assuming national planning in China isn’t similar to the Netherlands if a Walmart is located in a dense section of a major city. Was the Walmart designed to be urban or suburban? As you may know, Walmart has been building smaller, urban stores in cities like Washington, DC that have strict zoning rules. Planners in the Netherlands informed me that Walmart and other big box stores weren’t allowed to be located within the dense section of a city. The Netherlands actually enforced this rule, which is surprising.

    “Our department is a year old and is made up of about 30 people.” One year old! Wow!

    “During one of the meetings to discuss the new district, they asked me how I would start a city with a blank slate.” I’d recommend discussing how Houten, the Netherlands was started from scratch. Here is a video that explains how Houten was planned from scratch to prioritize biking over driving. I realize Houten is a small city compared to Chinese cities, but planning can be scaled to fit larger cities.

    Another city that was planned from scratch is Brasilia, which is the federal capital of Brazil. Brasilia was planned and developed by Lúcio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer in 1956 in order to move the capital from Rio de Janeiro to a more central location. I don’t know of any sustainability highlights, but I though of Brasilia because you wrote about an airport. Brasilia is shaped like an airplane when you fly over it.

    Look forward to reading your next post!


    • Thanks for the comments, Ray! I added a picture of the Walmart so you could see how it was developed. The one in our neighborhood fits within the surrounding scale. It is a smaller, urban model that is 2 stories. It’s not a mega sized store, but it is still quite large with a lot of products (think the Target in downtown Portland).

      I’m going to check out the video of Houten next. Thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

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