Urban Villages in Shenzhen: The Phenomenon of Ancestral Homes in the Urban Jungle

(From The Atlantic) A car stops beside a house in the middle of a newly built road in Wenling, Zhejiang province, November 22, 2012. An elderly couple refused to sign an agreement to allow their house to be demolished. They said that compensation offered was not enough to cover rebuilding costs, according to local media. (Reuters/China Daily)(http://www.theatlantic.com/infocus/2012/12/2012-the-year-in-photos-part-3-of-3/100420/)


To say China is a nation of superlatives has become a cliche at this point.  Of course the nation of a billion people, over 500 million of whom have risen from poverty in the past three decades. In 2011, for the first time China's urban population surpassed its rural, with over 690 million people living in cities.  In early 2013, the Chinese government pledged to add 230 million more over the next decade. Of course, it's difficult to grasp the scale and speed of Chinese urbanization. An easier perspective to explore, perhaps, is to look at some of the odd situations this rapid growth had led to.

I didn't understand the concept of an Urban Village until I personally witnessed the phenomena on my class field trip to Shenzhen this weekend. The realization ran in the face of much that Westerners think they understand about Chinese urbanization.  In the US, one primarily hears about the Chinese government using its land ownership rights to force mass migrations. We hear the stories of the construction of giant public works projects displacing tens of thousands of people; the media outrage over the displacements caused by construction of the Five Gorges Dam near Chongqing is a good example. Eminent domain seemed to be the sole method in Chinese city planners' toolbox when dealing with urban expansion. Urban villages, however, offer an insightful exception.

Urban Villages in China are a completely separate concept from the American definition. Chinese UV are the result of a collective land ownership assigned to members of a village that has been encroached upon by an urban area. The villagers, primarily the peasant farmers, function like shareholders in a corporation whose sole asset is the real estate. Their rights are limited by the government—they can not sell or lease the land use rights, however, they are permitted develop the land for themselves. Many of these regions, which were hastily given their status in the early 90s, at the time were primarily on the outskirts of towns. Today, however, as a reult of the rapid urbanization within China, the villages have become completely enveloped by China's megacities. The owners of the formerly agrarian areas found themselves in control of significant pieces of centrally-located urban property.

To illustrate the development of UV, it is useful to look at their institutional origins in China's unique, new urban landscape. A good example is Shenzhen, located in the Pearl River Delta. Primarily built in the past 30 years, ShenZhen is an anomaly of urban development, although its example is not uncommon in China. Essentially an underdeveloped region of agrarian villages before 1979, the 792 square mile area was designated as a SEZ in 1979 due to its proximity to Hong Kong, a source of FDI. The region was initially unsuccessful at attracting foreign investment, so land rights were initially carved up between various state enterprises. These SOEs could then lease or develop the land as they saw fit. The impact of this decision can still be seen today in the uneven and starkly contrasting developments through the different parts of the city. This lead to seemingly incoherent urban planning and desperate bordering land uses. A city park lies next to the slums, expensive malls near industrial sectors—these are the results of border lines between two different SOE jurisdictions. However starting in the early 1990s, FDI became to flood into the city and caused rapid development. As population boomed and migrant workers flooded in, the urban area expanded uncontrollably.

The existence of the Urban villages is actually due to the government's city planning bureaucracy giving a level autonomy to the ancestral villagers. Awarding the villagers land use rights seemed a better alternative to urban expansion along the fringes rather than spending money on compensation and relocation efforts. Now in Shenzhen, there are about 100 urban villages across the city which occupy sometimes valuable, central real estate. Developers had hoped wanted to work around them, even benefitting from their farming as a sustenance source, rather than displacing them within the city. However, the result of this almost altruistic action 20 years later is more ambiguous. On their former fields the villagers have built poorly constructed tenements, usually 8 or 9 stories high. These “hand-shaking buildings” are built so close that neighbors can lean out their windows to shake hands with the apartment owner across the street—a clear violation of building codes and general safety standards and a real threat from fires and sanitation standards. Many of the actual original villagers have moved away from the land, using the money from renting out their homes in the Urban Village to buy better apartments in the inflated real estate market of Shenzhen. In turn, the Urban Village tenements serve as affordable housing for the massive influx of migrants into the coastal city, their only viable alternative to homelessness.

The demographics of Shenzhen tell a story by themselves. Of the over 14 million people living in the urban area, only 2.5 are official residence card holders and therefore have access to public services. The rest are primarily migrant workers from central China, looking for work in a factory or servicing the massive population. For these migrants the UV are their only option. However, many young professionals also take up residences there. The cheap, centrally located housing enables them to save their salaries towards entering into the expensive SZ housing market. The professor of my Economic Geography class, Professor Xu, had lived in a UV in Guangzhou before working at Chinese University. The demand for housing is not being served by the government nor the legal real estate developers, so they both turn a blind eye to the Urban Village collective owners who supply the residences. However, the issue is a continual thorn in the side of the city planners, and an eyesore in a city attempting to become a global business hub, and will eventually need to be addressed.


The model is an interesting one, and I am not sure I've come across analogs in the United States. It's reminiscent in some ways of Native American Reservations, which exist in a semi-autonomous state outside of much US law. However, the land reservations occupy are often far from urban areas, in deserts or other resource-scarce regions. Regardless, reservation land owners also leverages it's autonomous status to set up casinos, utilizing their land use privileges to create a cash cow for the tribe members. The same is true of the Urban Village tenements.

It also provides an interesting insight into urban policy. In the US, government using eminent domain is often seen as destructive policy displacing neighborhoods and often causing gentrification. One can look at the example of Seneca Village, the former freed slave town which was destroyed in order to build New York's Central Park. However, China's urban villages offer a disturbing alternative. Even though the residents were awarded land rights, their inability to sell those rights paired with lucrative economic incentives have caused the villagers to distort the original purpose of the land. They became landlords to decrepit slums, and have retained barely any aspects of their traditional home. For the urban village I visited, the only remnants were the ancestral tree and the small shrine beneath its branches in the midst of the crowded buildings.  Though beautiful, this tree and shrine stood in stark contrast to the surrounding squalor. This threat to sustainable urban development cannot easily be solved this far down the road through urban policy. The city government of Shenzhen had a recent success in purchasing landrights from the villagers of one UV, destroying the residences, and selling the land to a developer.  However, the cost to the city was extremely high, and repurchasing did not show itself to be a sustainable solution.

At this point, the solution remains unclear. As more and more megacities coalesce around the globe, the lesson from Chinese Urban Villages should be well understood: hasty, myopic urban policies have serious lasting consequences.