thoughts on the spatial distribution of shenzhen’s population

How many people actually live in Shenzhen? The numbers vary. Current Shenzhen Party Secretary Ma Xingrui says 20 million. However, the administrative population supposedly hovers at 18 million, while the city itself has never admitted to more than 15 million. Rough estimates suggest only 4 million people have Shenzhen hukou, another 8 million have permanent residency, and another 5-8 million “float” unofficially within the city

These statistics obscure how Shenzhen’s urban villages spatially organize these three administrative classes. For example, Shi’ao (石凹) Villagehas a local population of 4 to 500 people and a renter population of 20,000, making the ratio of local to renters residents 1:40. The ratio of local to renter populations in Baishizhou is an astonishing 1:77. Moreover, it is clear that renters–even floaters–aren’t actually leaving the city. Instead, they are finding newer (and often) narrower niches within the village.

Much like US American suburbs which manage inequality through distance, Shenzhen’s urban villages do the hard (and socially productive) work of managing inequality within the city. The majority of floaters and a large percentage of permanent residents live in the villages and tend to work in service and the semi- and informal economies, while hukou residents and wealthier permanent residents occupy “official” housing estates and tend to work in the formal economy.

So how do villages manage the inequality?

Firstly, the village corporations are responsible for providing water, electricity, and sanitation services. For the last decade, the city has allowed villages to connect to the urban grid and provide these services via the market. Before 2006ish, the villages themselves provided these services through a variety of tactics, including using local wells and generators and unofficial tying into the municipal grid.

Secondly, villages tend to absorb the population working in nearby businesses. Shi’ao (石凹) Village abuts Dalang’s Fashion Valley and textile factories. Many of the workers and their families live in Shi’ao handshakes. Moreover, shop spaces in some handshake  shops have been converted to workshops where piecework can be done on an ad hoc basis. Baishizhou has a higher end group of renters who work in the architecture and design firms of the neighboring OCT as well as in hi-tech park. However, the principle–villages provide housing for neighboring businesses–holds true in both inner and outer district villages.

Thirdly, villages provide low-capital spaces for start-ups and shops. The first story of every handshake building is designed for commercial use, while many factories have already been retrofitted as offices. This is especially true in inner district urban villages.

Fourthly, the city increasingly expects the villages to provide social services for renters. To this end, street office and district governments fund social workers and social projects that are run at the village level. In Baishizhou and other villages, for example, social workers have offices within the village from which they launch various services, such as after school programs and consultations.

Dalang Street Office has taken the idea of using social work to mediate potential social contradictions to the next level. In addition to upgrading a dormitory and running a library and education services at the Youth Dream Center, it is also working directly with villages to develop effective social programs. In Shi’ao, for example, Dalang District is working with a city NGO, Public Force (公众力) and the village party committee to support a project called, “the Textile Gang (布艺帮)”.

The Textile Gang does not aim to make money, but rather to generate social harmony while producing and selling enough products to break even. The project teaches sewing, weaving, and the-dying skills to anyone who lives in Shi’ao. The idea is that by working together to learn textile arts, residents will be able to build bridges across the divide between landlord and renter, creating a more harmonious society.

The Textile Gang matters because it indicates that Shenzhen is not only maturing as a society, but also recognizing that migrants aren’t leaving. Moreover, those migrants who can afford to send their children to school in Shenzhen are raising families in the villages.

Impressions of the links between the Textile Gang project in Shi’ao and piecework workshops on lanes within this outer district urban village, below.

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