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.