polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

Shenzhen: Villages in a City

by Natalia Echeverri

Sheraton and Gangsha Village/City, Shenzhen.

Shenzhen is known as the city that was "built over night." It is a case in which growth outpaced politics, leaving behind an anachronistic urbanism. Its urban landscape began to change after Deng Xiaping introduced capitalism by creating the Special Economic Zone in 1978. Although, before Xiaping, Mao had passed a law by which land was owned by the state in the cities, in the rural areas, it was owned by the farmer collectives. This law had great impact in the way the city grew.

Figure ground of two "villages within a city" in the urban context.

Before the Special Economic Zone was implemented, the area of Shenzhen was composed of several farming and fishing villages. After the economic opening of 1978, Shenzhen's cheap land and its proximity to Hong Kong attracted foreign investors and land speculators. Their expanding developments quickly engulfed the existing villages. The population increased 400 times in 22 years. Since the farmer collectives were the owners of the land, the villages did not disappear with the fast urbanization. They resisted to be bought by developers or by the local government, which would have destroyed them to create new developments, since the land became so valuable.

"Hand Shake" Street and VIC lively alleys.

These “villages within a city” (VIC), as they are now called, have defied the industrial city’s speculation boom, although they have undergone their own special type of expansion. With the rise in land value and their proximity to city jobs, the existing one-story dwellings have extruded to 7 stories, occupying the entire lot in which they were built originally. The streets remain the same, very small, looking more like alleys between tall buildings, and in some cases the buildings are so close together that they are called “handshake” streets.

Currently, there are 241 VIC, spread across Shenzhen, 67 of them are in the Special Economic Zone. They mostly house the migrant population. However, the city is running out of land; “from a total of 195,284 hectares in the city, only 2.23% is still available for use” (Feng). Therefore, real estate prices have skyrocketed making the VIC land more desirable.

I see the VIC as a positive phenomenon, an example where a speculative boom consolidated a community and a social fabric. Each village in the city has its special gate, which differentiates it from the others. Inside, you really feel a city life. They offer cheap housing and a sense of community and belonging, as opposed to other areas of Shenzhen like the Overseas Chinese Town, which is a mix of theme parks, gated communities and golf courses.

Theme park and gated community in Overseas Chinese Town.

Unfortunately, these “villages within the city” will soon disappear because property rights are not legally inherited and the government is already trying to change the existing property laws. However there are architects, like Urbanus, who are exploring the fine grain that makes these villages so vibrant. This is not common in most of the new developments.

Credits: Photos of Shenzhen and diagram of VIC by Natalia Echeverri.