six year reprieve?

So, many of you know that Shenzhen has been debating what to do about urban villages. Half of the city’s population lives in one village or another, most of the city’s population has lived in a village at one point in their lives, and millions have set up mom & pops in a village, providing for themselves and their families through small capital investments. Just recently, the city approved the “Shenzhen Urban Village (Old Village) Comprehensive Remediation Plan (2019-2025) (《深圳市城中村(旧村)综合整治总体规划(2019-2025)》).” The key point, of course, is that the city is now choosing to remediate and upgrade village spaces, rather than demolishing and evicting residents.

Inquiring minds may be wondering, how will this impact the cultural geography of Shenzhen?

The first thing to think through is the distribution of urban villages and their enterprises, and what we see is that it’s not only that the majority of urban villages are located in the outer districts, but also that the majority of developed land in the outer districts is actually village developed. As a friend in urban planning once said to me, “no one realized that while the government was building a city in the SEZ, the villagers were building another city.” So, we’re probably looking at increasing polarization of the inner and outer districts.


Map of location of urban villages, including housing (yellow), village level industrial parks (brown), other uses (red), and village held undeveloped land (grey).

A second consideration is that the scope of remediation will vary from village to village. There are still many acres scheduled for remediation, and many of those villages, including Baishizhou have already been approved for demolition and redevelopment. So, I’m not yet for sure about the extent of remediation that is already happening or will be happening at the red dots. It does seem to me, however, that these differences of scope will introduce unexpected diversity into the urban landscape.

A third consideration is, of course, the identification of village functions. In the official analysis of spatial use, the villages have overwhelmingly been identified as either residential or industrial use. But there’s the rub: all villages are mixed use, and (at least) the first floor of all handshake buildings are used for economic activities that range from small food markets and convenience stores to cottage industry workshops and restaurants. In other words, “the Plan” has completely ignored the mom & pops economies of the villages. What this will mean in terms of how officials understand their new mission is still unclear.


Map of village areas that have been targeted for remediation.

What I do know is that many intellectuals consider this a victory of sorts because it is explicitly recognizes the importance of the villages to Shenzhen as a city. Indeed, we are now trying to come up with new ways to talk about these neighborhoods as urban, rather than as rural areas waiting redevelopment. This doesn’t mean, however, that the city will not continue to intervene in and transform these spaces. One interpretation currently circulating suggests that:

“Plan” pointed out that the organic renewal of urban villages should be comprehensively promoted, removing  the hidden dangers of urban villages, improving living environments and supporting services, optimizing urban spatial layout and structure, improving social services, and pushing forward a total developmental transformation of the urban villages. At the same time, powerful, large-scale enterprises with a sense of social responsibility are encouraged to altruistically (不以追求利润为目的) and enthusiastically participate in the comprehensive rectification of urban villages, and to participate in the unified management of properties to ensure the sustainability of urban villages.


Now how you get companies to participate in renovation in the absence of profits seems to me disingenuous. It also seems to me to call for increasing participation of various kinds of state-owned enterprises and associated institutions to get directly involved in the villages. So what we may be looking at is a reorganization of regimes of governance in Shenzhen as city officials reconcile themselves to the fact that the “temporary” population is here to stay, begging the question of official status for the Shen 2s without Shenzhen hukou.

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