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.
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.
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.
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.