border theory

End of last semester, I attended the review for MArch 1 studio: Inbetweeners taught by Joshua Bolchover, The Department of Architecture, The University of Hong Kong. Six teams offered analysis and plans for the Shenzhen-Hong Kong border. I have found it useful to think through and against the students’ work because when juxtaposed, our respective points of departure highlight critical issues that need to be thought if we are to create a genuine cross-border society. So, thoughts:

1) From the perspective of Hong Kong, the SZ-HK border is peripheral to the city proper or downtown. In contrast, the border was the reason that Shenzhen was established. Two areas in particular — Luohu/Wenjingdu and Huanggang — have been exceptionally important to Shenzhen’s ongoing self-construction and yet remain, on the Hong Kong side relatively marginal to the larger society. Luohu and Wenjingdu were of course the points where respectively people and goods passed during the Mao era and early Reform. In fact, Dongmen refers to the area that used to be Old Shenzhen Market and was the commercial area that thrived once the border reopened as both Chinese and Hong Kong residents went there to purchase goods and services unavailable or unavailable that cheaply back home. Huanggang, of course, is an extension of the new central axis and with the construction of the Lok Ma Chau Loop will become even more important to Shenzhen’s construction of its border-crossing cosmopolitan identity.

2) The disproportional population growth in Shenzhen and Hong Kong complicated by residential densities in the region. Over the past thirty years, Hong Kong has had one of the world’s lowest birthrates, growing from a population of roughly 5 million in 1980 to a little over 7 million in 2010. During that same period, Shenzhen’s official population exploded from 300,000 to over 10 million in 2010. However, I have heard that the Shenzhen’s administrative population (管理人口) is over 17 million, while Hong Kong’s population continues to hover at 7 million. Moreover, even though Hong Kong has one of the highest residential densities in the world (6,420 people per square km), Shenzhen has surpassed it (7,500 people per square km), and continues to grow. How to feed, shelter, and provide for the well-being of this population, which is also concentrated along the border fundamentally shapes and will continue to shape both how we imagine the integration of these two cities as well as the social and environmental forms that integration will take.

3) All this begs the question of the appropriate scale of planning and designing for a cross-border society in the absence of a vision of what that society is and/or might be. Does the border area refer to those who live there? Those who cross through? Or those who benefit from the way the border sustains the international division of labor? We all know that borders are social artifacts, built and maintained for particular ends. And that’s the rub: in order to design and plan a better border, we need a vision of how the border might benefit both Shenzhen and Hong Kong, or maybe a vision of how Shen Kong might be differently lived. A story perhaps of membranes and sutures, rather than borders and exclusions.

Impressions from the review, below:

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2 thoughts on “border theory

  1. Interesting post. Thanks.

    If you look at the longer history of the area, I’ve been struck by the way boundaries have shifted in position, but somehow retained some of their character.

    For example, in the old days of the Canton trade, western traders were not allowed inside the city walls. The area of the thirteen factories were regarded as culturally (and politically) dangerous and licentious, but economically necessary. Later, a similar situation seemed to develop outside ‘boundary street’ (as it is now called) – the original, pre New Territories border between China and Hong Kong. Then, much later, Shenzhen SEZ became the market/factories zone outside the castle walls, as it were. But the border moved once more, when the SEZ expanded. Now, perhaps, Dongguan is positioned as the extra-mural, culturally dangerous, factory zone.

    So perhaps there is historical take on the meaning and evolution of such boundaries.

    • Hi David,

      Thank you for your informative reply. I agree that the history of the shifting borders between China and Western countries is fundamentally linked with, on the Chinese side, a desire to maintain social autonomy and, on the Western side, a desire to expand capitalist enterprise onto Chinese soil. Indeed, one of the lessons of the Shenzhen – Hong Kong border is that these two desires are not mutually exclusive, even if many Chinese can’t understand why the Westerners don’t stay at home and many Westerners don’t quite get why the Chinese might rather have autonomy than expanded trade networks.

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