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.