(光明新区)楼村: Of what use is [urban] planning?

Located in Guangming New District (光明新区), Lou Village has the largest area of any in Shenzhen and a villager population of 4,000. Of course, it is no longer Lou Village but Lou Village Neighborhood (楼村居委会) and its population is no longer under 5,000 — and therein lies today’s tale.

At the 15th Anniversary of the Establishment of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone, the second line (二线) still divided Shenzhen into two distinct administrative structures, the SEZ (now called guannei or “inside the gate”) and Baoan and Longgang Districts (now called guanwai or “outside the gate”). The year was 1995 and Baoan and Longgang District governments had been built and staffed, 25 urban markets soon to be precincts (镇 into 街道办事处) had been designated, and consequently the work of incorporating over 200 guanwai villages into the municipal apparatus begun. Economic advancement was an important aspect of political incorporation precisely because 15 years into reform, Shenzhen had discovered that “allowing a few to get rich first (让一部分人先富裕起来)” undermined social stability.

1995 was also the year that the Municipal Government began the (ongoing) Get Rich With Project (同富裕工程). Tellingly, the project goal was and remains,

To accelerate rural urbanization, to improve the production and living standards of original villagers, and to promote the development of collective economy in order to preserve social stability (加快了我市农村城市化进程,改善了欠发达村原村民生产、生活条件,促进了集体经济发展,为维护社会稳定发挥了积极作用.)

Importantly, urban incorporation, notwithstanding, the unit of social development and planning has remained the “village” and this area is spoken of as Lou Village, its urban status notwithstanding. This has had important consequences for the built environment.

First, Lou Village is divided into New and Old sections. New Lou Village is blocks of six to eight story handshake buildings and tiled alleys and plazas; Old Lou Village is a mishmash of tile-roofed housing (瓦房), two or three-story single-family housing made out of low-grade concrete, and what we might call “starter” handshake buildings.

Second, the layout of New and Old Lou Villages conforms to stereotypes about rural or village housing. New Lou is a grid of 10 X 10 sq meter plats that have been organized into blocks. In Old Lou, the single family houses and starter handshakes have also been built on 10 X 10 sq meter plats. However, unlike New Lou, where the grid dominates, in Old Lou, alleys and plazas from the original village settlement continue to shape the built environment.

Third, the respective layouts of New and Old Lou shapes the possibility for local economic development. In New Lou, only those handshakes that face the open street have viable commerce. Those buildings inside the block do not face a street, which means that their first floor shops have limited pedestrian access and the owners’ primary income must be rent. In Old Lou, commerce is centered around the plaza. Rents in Old Lou are cheaper than in New Lou, which also influences the level and kind of commerce. However, renters in both New and Old Lou hope for jobs in local factories, which were built through Get Rich With funding.

With all this planning going down, it’s clear that the overall plan is not exactly an urban plan, nor is part of grassroots development, which more often than not happens despite municipal plans. It’s also clear that ideas about what villages are or might be continues to shape local possibility despite the fact that Lou is not only structurally part of the urban apparatus but also slated for further urbanization. Two examples of what we might call the village effect.

First, at the level of spatial organization, the grid of 10 X 10 sq meter plats continues to dominate Shenzhen urban planning because it seems that locals and officials continue to think of these spaces through rural metaphors. 10 X 10, of course is considered the “standard” rural homestead (宅地). And yet New Lou the real economic differences between having a handshake plat that faces the street and a plat that doesn’t have not only built in economic inequalities, but limited the connections between residential, commercial, and public areas. In obvious contrast, the layout of Old Lou seems to offer more interesting possibilities for rural urbanization in that it has interesting connections between residential, commercial and public areas, including stretches of what in Philadelphia we would call row houses with shared benches.

Second, despite the amount of money that has been channelled into the village/neighborhood through various urban plans,  Lou remains one of Shenzhen’s “poor areas (贫困区)” and faces / prepares for / welcomes future Municipal interventions, including the Guangming New District Plan (深圳市光明新区民经济和社会发展总体规划2008-2020). Which seem to be more of the same, despite the clear need for fresh ideas. More to the point, incorporating Lou into the municipal apparatus has strengthened and further instrumentalized village hierarchies, creating a situation in which the village head / party secretary fundamentally shapes the social ethos of the area. For example, online corruption allegations also continue to surround Village Secretary / local emperor (土皇帝), Chen Donghua, who it is said has absconded with several hundred million yuan (几十亿) — more than enough to have renovated the Lou and to have created a diversity of industries and commercial ventures.

Images of the Western Area of Old Lou Village Neighborhood, below.

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