good bye OCAT

By now you probably know that the Overseas Chinese Town Contemporary Art Terminal (OCAT) has closed, marking the end of an era and no doubt (in retrospect we will discover) the beginning of another. Those of us who were here when OCAT opened in 2005, remember it as contemporaneous with the first Shenzhen-Hong Kong Bi-City Biennale of Architecture\Urbanism (UABB). Indeed, three of the first four biennales were held in Overseas Chinese Town, a massive endeavor that was facilitated by OCAT and its influential first director, Huang Zhuan. Circa 2005, OCAT was an important signal, a sign that Shenzhen was thinking about urbanization in relation to a diversity of urbanisms and futures.

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配合: how do we change the world?

Yesterday, I participated in a day-long conference to promote environmentalism. I think I was invited for some combination of two reasons: I’m a recognized foreign friend of the city and anthropologists tell better stories than scientists do. Although technically, I’m a scientist, too! (Social science for the win–hee!) Anyway, the other guests have been diligently working alongside and via the government apparatus to create green spaces throughout the city. Event host, Nan Zhaoxu 南兆旭, for example, wrote The Shenzhen Natural History Encyclopedia 深圳自然博物百科 and event organizer, Meng Xiangwei 孟祥伟 has been director of the OCT Wetlands Field School since its establishment seven years ago. Their efforts have been instrumental in elevating district-level events to municipal, provincial and even national levels, not only contributing to Shenzhen’s status as China’s greenest first-tier city, but also to getting environmental sustainability on the city’s urban planning laundry list.

So, now you’re wondering: what was my takeaway from the event? Just how sustainable is Shenzhen’s environment? And what can environmentally conscious people do via an apparatus that is structured to sustain a political environment, rather than an economic let alone non-human environment? Unfortunately my thoughts are not so grand. Instead, I ended up thinking about the cultural forms of environmentalism:

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SZ8X80205//The Myriad Transformations//City on the Fill: Beached Babes in Toyland

Once you have a house on the beach, what do you do there? You play. And where were the toys once made? In factories built along the old new coastline. Continue reading

public intellectuals we be

Last Friday evening, Yang Qian, Chen Hongjuan (Melon), and I participated in a public talk on “Designing Escapist Experiences”. The event was the first in a four-part series on experience design that is co-produced by the OCT A3+ space and the Baptist University of Hong Kong, Master’s of Visual Arts in Experience Design. As with many talks in currently salon obsessed Shenzhen, the talk quickly exceeded its proscribed limits, this time steering into discussions of whether or not art was by definition “escapist” or if it constituted an opportunity to re-imagine the world, with particular reference to the every changing utopian project of the PRC. Also as with many of these discussions, commerce came in, guns blazing: was it really so horrible to pay for the delights of Disney princesses or to imagine oneself as middle class if only for a few moments? Indeed, it is an exciting time to be in Shenzhen where public debate–especially minjian debate–is enjoyed and well-attended. Young and old, well educated Shenzheners and recently arrived professionals, everyone wants to learn and is eager to share “true thoughts” with receptive interlocutors. After two hours of intense conversation, we took a group photo and went home, refreshed and somewhat hopeful in the lingering delights of conversation.

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affordable housing II: more on dormitories

Yesterday I was talking with a tourist destination designer from the Tourism Division of OCT. He explained that each themepark hires approximately 1,000 workers who are housed in dedicated buildings in OCT holdings. From the mid-eighties through the mid 90s, these apartments were allocated to single workers in OCT management. However, as they moved into larger apartments, which they bought through housing reform policies, the use of the dormitories changed. As did living densities. Continue reading

self governing trade zone, thoughts from

Speculation about what the 自贸区 (self governing trade zone) continues to shape all sorts of conversations. On Monday I participated in a public planning forum for the OCT, where comparisons between China Merchants in Shekou and Overseas Chinese Town in its eponymous neighborhood, the OCT illuminated contours of Shenzhen’s history. Four ideas of note popped up.

First, that China Merchants (in Shekou) and OCT (in the OCT) have been the two state owned enterprises most responsible for creating the Shenzhen image. During the post 1992 era, many of the images of reform (in terms of built environment) were of the OCT and its neighborhoods, tourist industry, and theme parks. Continue reading

thinking density, shenzhen population of, 2013

The day before yesterday I participated in a Biennale forum on high density living. I thought high density living referred to number of people living in so much space. Rumor has it, for example, that there are roughly 19.5 million people living in Shenzhen — a mere 4 million over the official unofficial population count (read generally accepted and quoted). Shenzhen has an official area of 1,952 square kilometers, which would make the SEZ’s estimated actual population density to be around 10,000 people per square kilometer. The population density of people with hukou would be significantly less dense, around 1,300 people per square kilometer, but no one believes that figure. On the recently updated Chinese Wikipedia the population density is given as being 5,201 per square kilometer.

Population density can be appropriated to give us a sense of forms of social inequality. Baishizhou, for example, is located in Shahe Street Office, which has an area of approximately 25 square kilometers. The estimated population is around 260,000, giving us an average population density of 10,400 people per square kilometer, which is close to the guesstimated municipal average above. However, when we account for Baishizhou, we see an interesting realignment.

Baishizhou occupies an area of .6 square kilometers (the rest of the area’s original holdings has already been annexed by the state). It has a guesstimated population of 140,000 people. This means that Baishizhou has a population density of 23,333 people per square kilometer, while the rest of Shahe, which includes Overseas Chinese Town and Mangrove Bay estates has a population density of 4,898 people per square kilometer. So Baishizhou has a population density which is over twice the municipal average and OCT and Mangrove Bay areas have a population density that is less than half the city average.

I was wrong in thinking that population density is the only way to operationalize unequal access to space. In archi-parlance (that’s a personal neologism for “how architects and urban planners talk about the world and stuff they’re building), there are two more definitions of density that they’re interested in measuring– floor area ratio (FAR) and dwelling unit density (DU). And if you’re wondering do they further abstract these descriptions of the built environment by using acronyms, the answer is a resounding yes! The density atlas provides an illustrated explanation of terms. Below, I try to work through what these terms might tell us about the spatialization of unequal access to space through and within Shenzhen’s urbanized villages.

FAR density refers to how much building occupies the space. And it’s three-dimensional. So floor area ratio means the total area on all floors of all buildings on a certain plot. Thus, a FAR of 2 would indicate that the total floor area of a building is two times the gross area of the plot on which it is constructed, as in a multi-story building. So, a FAR of 10 would be ten stories, if the base was consistent (as in a box). (And yes, I’m grappling to get my mind around this kind of abstraction so I think in simple terms, or word problems if you will.)

In order to calculate DU density, you posit so many square meters per person. A 100 square meter building with a FAR of 6 would have 600 square meters. If we then posit 20 square meters per person, our 600 square meter building could shelter 30 people. In other words, if we were to take standard person to space ratio used by many Shenzhen urban planners, then 30 people could comfortably live in one handshake building.

But clearly that’s a calculation for one, single purpose building. Once we start allocating space for functions, we need to make value judgments. How much space for business? For women’s restrooms in public spaces? For sleeping? In other words, to allocate spaces within the built environment we need to make decisions that will reveal and confirm our sense of what is the good life and how we will share that life and it’s material components. To return to our hypothetical 6-story handshake building, if we give the first floor to business and then build subdivide a floor into (3.5 X 6) 21 sq meter efficiencies (still above the magic 20), three on one side of the hallway and one on the other, we would get four rooms. However, if we further subdivide those rooms, we could get eight even smaller rooms (leaving space for hallway and stairs).

In practice, design is not that simple. But the numbers do begin to operationalize inequality in terms that resonate the ethical discourse modern education has equipped us with. For example, the layout of Handshake 302 shows a living space of (4.335 X 3.06) = 13.2651 square meters. There is a small cooking space and toilet which also allows for standing baths. Our neighbors live in similar sized rooms, and share the space and rent among two or three roommates. This suggests that the actual DU in a Baishizhou handshake efficiency can be as low as 4.4 square meters per person. At 850 per month, wear talking a rental cost of 64.1 yuan per meter.

In contrast, it costs 18,600 to rent a condo at neighboring Zhongxin Mangrove Bay, for example. The flat has four bedrooms, two living rooms, and three bathrooms that take up a total of 265 square meters, or slightly less than half a handshake building. It is a family home, so let’s guesstimate a pair of grandparents, a set of parents and one kid, totaling five people. Each of them enjoys 53 square meters of living space. Each square meter has a rental cost of approximately 70 yuan, which is not that much higher than Baishizhou.

Admittedly, one can tell many stories with statistics, but the square meter story of Baishizhou and its neighbors is one of gross inequality. Mangrove Bay residents can occupy anywhere from 15 to roughly 18 times the space of Baishizhou renters, and pay about 22 times the cost for that privilege. At this scale, one can begin to imagine what razing Baishizhou means in terms of affordable housing on the one hand and potential profit on the other. Point du jour, however, is that there is no “standard” square meter per person ratio, just expanding levels of inequality.

So, some stats du jour that should give us pause to reflect on the values we are constructing into the built environment.

laying siege to the villages: baishizhou


5. Baishizhou: Neighborhoods for the Working Poor

As of 2013, Baishizhou was the largest of the so-called urban villages in Shenzhen’s inner districts. With respect to the overall layout of Shenzhen, Baishizhou occupied both the southern and northern sides of Shennan Middle Road, at peripheries of both Luohu (moving west) and the Nantou Peninsula (moving north), making it one of the most centrally located transit centers in the inner districts (map 8). As of 2013, Baishizhou had a total area of 7.4 km2 and an estimated population of 140,000 residents, of whom roughly 20,000 held Shenzhen hukou and 1,880 were locals. The population density of Baishizhou had breached 18,900 people per square kilometer, more twice that of municipal average of 7,500 people per square kilometer, a statistic which in 2012 had made Shenzhen the fifth most densely populated city on the planet. There were 2,340 low and mid-rise buildings in the area, with an estimated 35,000 units. Monthly rents ranged from 700 to 3,000 rmb, which were significantly cheaper than in neighboring Overseas Chinese Town (OCT) or nearby housing estates, where a “cheap” apartment could rent for 4,000 rmb.

master plan

Map 8: Location of Baishizhou, 1996 Master Plan

Many of the garbage collectors for the area live in the cheapest rentals, rural Mao-era dormitories where it is possible for three workers to share a 30 m2 dorm room for 200 rmb a head, plus electricity and water. Old Cai, for example, was 65 years old, when interviewed. He came to Shenzhen after retirement because his monthly pension is 40 rmb per month, but he and his wife need 20,000 rmb annually, or about 1,700 a month to meet their expenses. In Baishizhou, he makes a living collecting and reselling cardboard boxes and other garbage. He says he can save money this way because although there’s no real profit, he makes enough to support himself and to bring a little home for Chinese New Year. However, the diversity of Baishizhou residents also includes working families who have lived in the area since migrating to Shenzhen over twenty years ago and young professionals who are sharing their first flat independent of their families. One family from Sichuan, for example, rents a 60 m2 two bedroom apartment for 1,700 rmb a month, which the husband, his wife, her mother-in-law, and their two children share. During the day, the parents work at one of the OCT themeparks, while the mother-in-law takes care of the children and housework. In addition, many of Shenzhen’s young designers and architects who work in the OCT Loft, a renovated factory area for creative industry live in higher-end handshake buildings, which sometimes include parking space for a car.

In addition to rental properties, the first floor of most Baishizhou buildings was used for commercial purposes and the area boasted several commercial streets, at least two night markets and entertainment areas, in addition to independent vendors and office space for independent carpenters, builders, and handymen. There was an elementary school and several nursery schools. Moreover, in between two of the abandoned factories of the Shahe Industrial Park enterprising migrants have set up the Baishizhou Pedestrian Street, which mimics the Dongmen Walking Street. There are food stalls and toy vendors, and several juvenile rides.

Clearly, using the term “village” to describe this level of settlement density and diversity is misleading – Baishizhou is a vibrant urban area composed of five neighborhoods – Baishizhou, Shangbaishi, Xiabaishi, Xintang and Tangtou, which under Mao had been organized into a state-owned agricultural collective, Shahe Farm. In the early 1980s, 12.5 km2 area of the Shahe Farm was partitioned into two enterprise areas – Overseas Chinese Town in the eastern section and Shahe Enterprises in the western section. In the mid-1980s, both OCT and Shahe built factories for assembly manufacturing. However, the management teams and access to investment capital were significantly different. OCT was a state-owned enterprise and its management team educated professionals from China’s major cities. In contrast, the former collective leaders managed Shahe and its development. In the post Tian’anmen era when Shenzhen’s low-tech low cost manufacturing had ceased to be as profitable as during the 1980s, OCT developed themeparks – Splendid China, Window of the World, and Happy Valley – to stimulate the economy. In turn, this investment also enhanced the rental value of the area and drove the redevelopment of the former industrial park into a Soho like creative area.

long ago and far away

The OCT Dongfang Garden villas were built in the 1980s before the age of theme parks and land reclamation. A glance at the relevant OCT real estate webpage indicates how close the villas were built to Shenzhen Bay as well as the basic suburban layout of free standing homes. Over the past decades, the area was forgotten and is in the midst of being re-gentrified by a second generation of homeowners. Nevertheless, the neighborhood still feels abandoned despite being nestled between the Splendid China and Windows of the World. Impressions below.

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walls and sun

Today I walked the OCT Eastern Group buildings between meetings.

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