Tag Archives: special economic zone

Urban design and development in Shenzhen

            As promised, I will dedicate this blog post to the history of Shenzhen. Shenzhen is one of the most important cities in China and also the world, due to its history of urban innovation and its economic and political significance. It is one of the newest major cities in the world, and as a result has experienced rapid population growth to reach its current “mega city” status. I will examine some of the policies and strategies for growth and development in this post.

            Shenzhen’s modern history can be traced back to 1979, when China opened its doors to foreign investment and free market reforms, with Shenzhen being the first Special Economic Zone (SEZ) starting in 1980. Prior to this, Shenzhen was a small fishing village – granted, a small fishing village of about 300,000 people, but still much smaller than its current size. One of the most fascinating differences about Shenzhen compared to any modern American city (or really, just about anywhere) is that the city planner’s primary function was viewed as simply providing the physical infrastructure necessary for the city so that it could attract international private investment (Zacharias and Tang 2010). Investment was then almost guaranteed to follow on its own accord, given the great new appeal to foreign investors with the SEZ. What a simple job (sort of).

            This is very different from American cities which are normally cash-strapped and struggling to make infrastructure investments in the first place. Furthermore, just because these improvements are made does not guarantee that private investment will follow. For example, a light-rail extension in the United States will hopefully attract commercial and residential development near stations, however, it is not guaranteed to attract large companies or even enough increased tax revenue to offset the cost of the infrastructure. Since so much of the cost for transportation projects is dependent on funding from the federal government’s scarce resources, the competition to land grants for such projects is very steep and as a result many worthwhile projects do not materialize.

            In addition to the financing of physical infrastructure projects, the geography of Shenzhen has played an interesting role in its development, since it is located in a very long and narrow East-West area between Hong Kong on the south and neighboring mountains to the north. In order to fit a population of over 10 million people in such an area makes it difficult to have a “core-periphery” model of urban development that is historically how Chinese cities were designed. This was discarded in favor of a “clustered linear planning principle,” which concentrated development in a number of nodes along a main corridor (Zacharias and Tang 2010). The following quote from a New York Times architectural article, can be applied quite nicely to Shenzhen, although it is referring in this case to Beijing.

“Because of this density, cities like Beijing have few of the features we associate with a traditional metropolis. They do not radiate from a historic center as Paris and New York do. Instead, their vast size means that they function primarily as a series of decentralized neighborhoods, something closer in spirit to Los Angeles. The breathtaking speed of their construction means that they usually lack the layers — the mix of architectural styles and intricately related social strata — that give a city its complexity and from which architects have typically drawn inspiration” (Ouroussoff 2008).

            In other words, in addition to the geographical constraints encouraging such a model of growth, the characteristics of Shenzhen as a very new city with less of an established city center makes this “clustered linear” model arguably more appropriate.

            Overall, Shenzhen and China more generally provide interesting perspectives on urban planning and governance. On the one hand, it is inspiring that such rapid and large-scale change is possible in a world where we increasingly are faced with very difficult environmental, economic and social problems that must be addressed in an expedient way. On the other hand, the speed at which change occurs often results in projects that could have used more foresight and planning to be the most effective. That however, is the topic for another blog post.



1. John Zacharias and Yuanzhou Tang, “Restructuring and repositioning Shenzhen, China’s new mega city,” Progress in Planning, Volume 73, issue 4 (2010): 209-249.

2. Nicolai Ouroussoff, “The new, new city,” The New York Times, June 8, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/08/magazine/08shenzhen-t.html?pagewanted=4&_r=0&ref=magazine.

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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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Shenzhen started out as a collection of farming and fishing villages along China-Hong Kong border. In 1979 it was designated 1st of China’s Special Economic Zone. The plan was to create a sealed off enclave to experiment with market reforms before implementing them in other parts of the country.

Xin’an Ancient City

Xinan Ancient City

There has been town on this territory since 4th century, but much of it has been demolished and replaced by 8-story residential buildings. The Ming Dynasty wall and gates still remain, as well as the temple outside the gates and few other structures within. The flavor of old town still remains and one can feel it while walking along its narrow streets.

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