J. Design Research, Vol. 12, No. 3, 2014
Urban villages in China: guidelines for an alternative to current demolition strategies Brechtje Spreeuwers MLA+, Postbus 730, 3000 AS Rotterdam, The Netherlands E-mail: email@example.com Abstract: In the past few years, international journals have published numerous theoretical analyses on China’s urban villages. Architectural magazines featured practical redesigns for specific urban village sites. While the two elements could mutually reinforce each other, no research was published that combined general analysis with practical design in a systematic way. This study aims at bridging this gap and uses research and design as two interrelated components of one study to find an alternative to current demolition strategies. A literature overview and analysis of two urban villages in Shenzhen and Guangzhou formed the basis for a set of guidelines. These guidelines were tested during the design process of an urban village in Chongqing and afterwards adjusted, when needed. In this way, the resulting alternative scenario that is rooted in both theory and design provided a practical tool that aims for gradual and adaptable development while maintaining current qualities of urban villages. Keywords: urban villages; China; guidelines; demolition strategies; research; design; alternative scenarios; redesign; Shenzhen; Guangzhou; Chongqing; political; economical; social; development strategies. Reference to this paper should be made as follows: Spreeuwers, B. (2014) ‘Urban villages in China: guidelines for an alternative to current demolition strategies’, J. Design Research, Vol. 12, No. 3, pp.173–187. Biographical notes: Brechtje Alida Spreeuwers is Sinologist and Dutch Registered Architect with a strong interest in urban development. She received her MSc in Architecture from Delft University of Technology, The Netherlands and MA in Chinese Studies from Leiden University, The Netherlands. She contributes regularly to international design studios and seminars that deal with urban challenges in China, for example at Delft University of Technology, Chengdu Southwest Jiaotong University, Beijing University of Technology, Wuhan University and Wuhan University of Sciences and Technology. She presented her research work on urban villages at the Informal Market Worlds II Forum held at the Shanghai Branch of the University of Hong Kong, organised by Goldsmiths, London. Currently, she is employed as Architect and Urbanist on Chinese projects at design studio MLA+ in Rotterdam.
Introduction: background of Chinese urban villages and study aims
The main objective of this article is to formulate a set of guidelines for the Chinese phenomenon of urban villages that can offer an alternative to current demolition Copyright © 2014 Inderscience Enterprises Ltd.
strategies. Urban villages (城中村, chengzhongcun) are former peasant villages that in recent years got enclosed by neighbouring growing cities. Although this new position offers opportunities for indigenous residents, rural-urban migrants and urbanites, local governments merely perceive urban villages as a negative consequence of urbanisation. An important factor in the emergence of urban villages can be found in China’s urbanisation over the last thirty years. Since the launch of the economic reform programme in 1978, China experienced a transition from a socialist, planned economy to a ‘market economy with Chinese characteristics’ (Ma and Wu, 2005). This evoked an urbanisation process that, together with present political significance of urban land, caused local governments to search for new land to convert into urban land (Hsing, 2010). Rural villages in the periphery provide welcome resources of available land. Since agricultural land – in contrast to built-on land – is much cheaper and in terms of property rights easier to confiscate, local governments are often inclined to develop those areas. Reinforced by the 2007 Property Law that only allowed local governments to urbanise agricultural land (Erie, 2007), the city expands through rural farmland, and ‘urban villages’, i.e., formal village houses within urbanised areas, are officially ‘out of bounds’. Subsequently, consolidation and growth of urban villages is only possible due to the enormous demand for affordable housing in the Chinese city of today. Indigenous residents of urban villages, most of them originally farmers, satisfy this demand for affordable housing by renting out their inexpensive, but often illegally and poorly constructed extensions to their family homes (Liu et al., 2010; Zhang et al., 2003). Hence, ‘the rental housing market in an urban village reflects a mutually beneficial support between two groups of peasants (indigenous villagers and rural migrants) during the course of economic transformation’ [Zhang et al., (2003), p.926]. Other roles of urban villages lie in providing spaces for small-scale open markets as well as human interaction. Residents often mention ‘human scale’ and intimacy as strong qualities of their direct environment. Moreover, the absence of any physical barriers makes urban villages surprisingly accessible; this in contrast to newly built peripheral urban developments. Nevertheless, local governments tend to refer to the phenomenon of urban villages as ‘cancer in the city’, places of crime and an agglomeration of all sorts of illegal activities (Du, 2010). In combination with a profit-led real-estate market and central locations of most urban villages, this attitude often results in a massive short-term demolition strategy. At first glance, development of new properties on the site of urban villages looks financially lucrative, but the net economic and social profit is debatable. As mentioned before, indigenous farmers hold the property rights of their dwellings. Consequently, during an upcoming redevelopment different actors have to raise an enormous amount of money to buy out the farmers (Wu et al., 2007). Moreover, as the stream of migrants is expected to grow in the coming years, new real estate does not offer a way out to the increasing demand for affordable housing. After demolition, migrants who used to live in a particular urban village have to search for new affordable housing. In this case, the migrant ‘problem’ will only be transferred to another urban village in the city. Hence, expected proceeds might not match reality.
Urban villages in China
Current research around urban villages mainly evolves around analysis and offers few if any practical alternatives to prevent short-term demolition strategies. Specific research regarding the role urban villages could have in providing housing for rural-urban migrants (Zhang et al., 2003; Song et al., 2008; Wang et al., 2009) alternates with broader research concerning the emergence of urban villages in relation to social and economical trends (Tian, 2008; Zhang, 2011; Liu et al., 2010; Yin, 2006). Investigations into already implemented redevelopment projects offer valuable background information about possible failures and success, but this information is not converted into concrete design-oriented recommendations (Hin and Xin, 2011 Hao et al., 2011). Hence, the gap between research, urban planning and design widens, while the actual interplay between them potentially offers more than just the sum of its parts. This study aims at bridging this gap.
In this research an approach has been adopted that uses research and design as two interrelated components of one study. First, a literature review offered valuable information about the current state of affairs. Both English and Chinese-language sources were consulted. Although Chinese-language articles are not always structured according to prevailing scientific standards, they can provide an indication of the opinions of Chinese researchers or reflect the position of authorities. Second, an explorative analysis of two already fully developed urban villages in Shenzhen and Guangzhou was conducted in the summer of 2011 The choice for Dongmen Village in Shenzhen and Sanyuanli Village in Guangzhou derived from their level of development (mature) and location within the city (in the city centre with good access to public transport). I conducted interviews based on a predefined set of themes to discuss. Closed questions regarded themes such as income, monthly rent and occupation. Open questions asked for opinions about the current state of affairs within the village (environment, buildings quality and general safety) and the desired future of the interviewees (with regards to public spaces, apartments and peopleâ€™s personal affairs). I approached random people on the streets or in front of their shops. Based on the above-mentioned literature review and explorative analysis, a set of guidelines for future development of urban villages was formulated. These guidelines are both applicable to growing as fully developed urban villages. The guidelines were tested during the design phase of Yudaishan urban village in Chongqing and knowledge derived from this process provided direct feedback to the guidelines. Subsequently, the guidelines could be strengthened and, if proved necessary, supplemented. In this way, research and design worked together to develop tools that could steer current development of urban villages in the direction of more adaptable and sustainable processes.
Map showing the location of the researched cities
Analyses of Dongmen Village and Sanyuanli Village
3.1 Dongmen Village Dongmen Village (东门村) in Shenzhen is situated in the Luohu district of Shenzhen (see map of China), one of the four districts in the Special Economic Zone of Shenzhen. From the establishing of its SEZ in 1980, Shenzhen experienced an unprecedented growth that was in particular accelerated by the influx of rural immigrants. At present, although numbers vary, rural to urban migrants take up more than 82% of the total population in Shenzhen and their numbers reached 12 million people in 2010 (China News, 2010). Partly due to this influx of migrants, Dongmen Village is only one of the more than 300 urban villages within the urban fabric (Hao, 2012). Dongmen Village is highly accessible from the main street and connected on four sides with the surrounding district. The nearest metro station (Shaibu station, line 3) is about 300 metres from the centre of the village. The nearest bus stop is 100 metres from
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the village. Surrounding real estate measures up to 30 floors in height. Dongmen Village has an approximate surface area of 0.176 km2, a population of 4804 and a density of 27,295 inhabitants per square kilometre. The average number of floors lists seven in Dongmen Village and when labelling the streets ‘main street’, ‘sub street’, and ‘alley’, the average width of the streets was: 6 m, 2.5 m and 1.5 m. Within the borders of the urban village there were no clearly defined public spaces. The average rent for a room was around 400 Yuan (≈ 48 euro) per month. During the interviews it was hard to find indigenous farmers. This might indicate that they live outside the village and consequently manage their housing stock at a distance. However, one should be aware of the fact that I conducted interviews during the day and indigenous farmers might have other obligations in daytime. Further, I observed that Dongmen Village offered a set of social services such as a primary school, clinic, village committee’s office, a temple and a police branch.
3.2 Sanyuanli Village Sanyuanli Village (三元里村) in Guangzhou (see map of China) is situated in Baiyun district about 4 km from the city centre. Guangzhou is the capital of Guangdong province and experienced an enormous growth between 1980 and 2003. In that period the built-up area expanded from 136 km2 to 298 km2 and the population increased from five million to 10.1 million (Tian, 2008). Among the 10.1 million residents, three million are rural hukou holders. Urban villages developed in a similar pace and add up to a total number of 138 urban villages in 2010 that took about 25.7% of the total built-up area in the city (Liu et al., 2010). Sanyuanli Village is only accessible from the northeast side, blocked by the highway to the north and fenced off to the south and the west. The nearest metro station (Sanyuanli station) is about 150 metres from the centre of the village. The nearest bus stop is about 50 metres from the village. Surrounding real estate is about nine floors in height. Sanyuanli Village has an area of 3.6 km2, a population of 49,000 inhabitants and a density of 13,600 inhabitants per square kilometre. The average number of floors lists four in Sanyuanli and when labelling the streets ‘main street’, ‘sub street’, and ‘alley’, the average width of the streets was 5 m, 2 m, 1 m. Within the borders of the urban village there was no defined public space except from an empty building lot. An average room costs 600 Yuan (≈ 72 euro) per month. The houses stood very close to each other and terms that are often used in relation to urban villages such as ‘handshake buildings’ or ‘kissing buildings’ could be applied. The outer main street was still fairly wide, but the deeper one walked into the heart of the village, the narrower passageways became. Those small passageways were unpaved, with garbage, dead rats scattered across the passageway and barely any light falling onto the streets. Sanyuanli Village offers the same set of social services as Dongmen Village, but in a larger amount. The village is considered an inner-city urban village. According to one interviewee, the central location makes the village so popular for migrants that rents increased sharply in the past few years.
178 Figure 2
B. Spreeuwers Area and main access roads Sanyuanli Village, Guangzhou (see online version for colours)
Source: http://edushi.com and Google Earth; edited by author Figure 3
Area and main access roads Dongmen Village, Shenzhen (see online version for colours)
Source: http://edushi.com and Google Earth; edited by author
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Extremely high densities in Sanyuanli Village, Guangzhou (see online version for colours)
Source: Picture by author Figure 5
Narrow streets in Dongmen Village, Shenzhen (see online version for colours)
Source: Picture by author
Literature findings: problems and opportunities
Literature showed that current â€˜naturalâ€™ development (state of affairs) of urban villages frequently ends up in demolition of these villages (Song et al., 2008; Zhang, 2011; Liu et al., 2010; Gransow, 2010). It also revealed current problems like extremely high densities and dilapidated environments, ambiguous property rights of buildings and land, lack of integration between residents and urbanites and political problems related to the occupation of high-value urban land. Future problems are likely to be found in the loss of elements that possess little economical value, but high cultural value. Currently, local governments take under the guise of economic development rapidly decisions that radically alter the urban fabric. Informal settlements such as urban villages or migrant enclaves could be the victim of this development. Besides that, the central government currently encourages new development strategies for cities. While the emphasis used to be on development strategies based on the urban core of cities, recent focus shifted to development strategies based on the periphery (Kuang, 2011). Such a drastic change of approach will probably stimulate local governments to invest more in the periphery. Pressure on the development of embryonic and growing urban villages could be a challenging result. At the same time, urban villages also possess qualities that are sometimes neglected by policy makers. Spatially for example, through a form of bottom-up urbanism, urban villages have an enormous capacity to adapt to changing urban or social circumstances. Moreover, the absence of any rigid edges or fencing can be regarded as a strong quality and even an opportunity of urban villages within the city centre. In the social field, urban villages offer a stepping-stone for rural-urban migrants to enter urban life and, as shown by the explorative studies, mature villages also offer services specifically aimed at migrants. Facilities such as primary schools for migrant children and affordable clinics were visible in Sanyuanli Village in Guangzhou and almost impossible to implement in more formal areas of a city. Feelings of identity and community are other notions that can be associated with urban villages (Siu, 2007). Moreover, urban villages offer affordable housing to rural-urban migrants that are not eligible for urban housing owing to their rural household registration, and a new source of income as landlord for indigenous farmers who lost their farmland. Finally, this research also found that urban villages have flourishing local economies that benefit indigenous farmers, rural-urban migrants and passers-by. Based on the above problems and opportunities, the following aims for the future were formulated: 1
increase density under the condition of acceptable livability
offer space for future adaptability
slow down current pace of development
maintain and expand the housing of low-income groups.
Guidelines for developing urban villages were then formulated. They strive to eliminate problems, enhance qualities and search for new ways to reach the formulated aims. Note,
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characteristics of urban villages differ per village, depending on location (inner-city or periphery), development stage (growing or mature) or population structure (proportion of old to new generation migrants). The generic guidelines should therefore be used in combination with location-based guidelines. In the political field, two following two guidelines were formulated: 1
implement barriers in the development process
offer local governments alternative scenarios.
As visible in the analysis, local governments choose, by force of habit, quickly for demolition strategies. Barriers, such as implementing a commercial programme to increase the impact of demolition or uniting inhabitants in interest groups that can take legal actions against demolition, can be conducive to slow down the process. Further, since ignorance and profit-led short-term visions are important reasons behind demolition, offering local governments in their eyes â€˜attractiveâ€™ alternative scenarios could already lead to changes in local policies. In spatial terms, guidelines are: 1
propose gradual development
promote adaptability of new and old architecture
maintain accessibility of urban villages
control densification of growing urban villages.
Demolition of urban villages is followed by the construction of new high-end districts. The residential blocks in these areas are often designed along similar principles: fenced-off clusters of apartment buildings varying in height between 20 and 40 floors. Besides the obvious loss of former street patterns and associated human scale in those areas, another disadvantage of this strategy lies in that it is impossible to adapt such towers to changing circumstance or housing demands. Given that the future of Chinaâ€™s urban areas remains to be seen, a gradual development of urban villages offers opportunities at different periods in time to reflect upon decisions and set new values with regards to housing and other factors. Promoting the adaptability of newly-built architecture relates to this gradual development and can offer migrants the possibility to upgrade within the village. The third guideline of maintaining accessibility cherishes the feature of openness and transparency of urban villages. Finally, current problems in urban villages partly emerge from uncontrolled growth and subsequent dangerous housing situations. However, growth of urban villages seems inevitable since the number of migrants continues to grow, housing on the market continues to be inaccessible to low-income households and affordable housing is not fully implemented yet. Instead of demolishing urban villages, the final spatial guideline therefore proposes to control densification by offering a framework in which urban villages can grow and in this sense preserve a form of livability and quality within the borders of urban villages. Focusing on social issues, guidelines are formulated as: 1
set up communal activities
research specifics of urban villages.
Communal activities can stimulate intergroup interactions. Researching specifics of urban villages proved to be necessary to get a grip of often highly differentiated divisions of population in urban villages. In the economical sphere, guidelines are set as: 1
add new commercial activities
introduce property tax (Hao, 2012).
Adding new commercial activities can be beneficial in two ways. Firstly, it will prevent immediate demolition and secondly, it will provide new sources of income for indigenous farmers. Commercial activities should be based on the location of the specific urban village (inner-city or periphery) and location of the functions itself. Hao (2012) argues that a property tax will be beneficial to local governments as a (stable) source of revenue. Moreover, since a property tax secures the future of existing buildings, indigenous farmers might be more willing to invest in their houses and hence by themselves improve the image of the village. However, one should be aware of that fact that a renovated room costs more than a dilapidated one. Extra guidelines should be implemented to help migrants bear the higher rents. Finally, long-term guidelines are formulated as: 1
preserve informal settlements within the urban fabric
offer retraining courses to farmers.
One could say that informal settlements solve problems and deficiencies brought on by the current formal sector. Despite rigid five-year plans, the Chinese city is at present in transition and therefore, it is almost impossible to predict the long-term future state of affairs. Informal settlements offer ‘adaptable’ areas within the urban fabric, which almost naturally move in line with changing circumstances. The second guideline is aimed at indigenous farmers. The amount of rural to urban migrants is expected to grow in the coming years, but with China’s current focus on a more service-based economy, the influx of migrants might diminish or change in nature. Farmers will then once again face the challenge of finding new sources of income. I see therefore two possible directions of retraining courses. One course can focus on the transition of farmers from rural residents to urbanites. This should involve training in urban skills and culture. Another course can focus on training farmers to conduct more innovative new ways of farming. In this way, confiscated farmland will be compensated by a higher yield from remaining farmland or even by practising urban farming.
Testing the resulting guidelines: designing a development plan for Yudaishan Village
Yudaishan Village is situated in the city of Chongqing, a major city in Southwest China along the Yangtze River (see map of China), and one of the four municipalities under direct government control1. Yudaishan Village is located about six kilometres west of the city centre and bounded by the Jialing River to the west, a small creek to the southeast and a brick wall to the east. Hence, the main ‘entrance’ of the village is to the north. A
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large industrial property of a logistics company occupies a fairly large area in the geographical centre of the village. Across the road to the north and east sides high-end residential and commercial complexes are under construction. The design area is located at the eastern part of Yudaishan Village and measures 0.04 km2. A population of an estimated 420 inhabitants leads to a density of 10,488 inhabitants per square kilometre. The main entrance road to the north contains the main facilities of the village such as a small restaurant, a massage salon, various shops with household goods, an open market, a public telephone booth and a small medical clinic to the end. This road is also the only paved road in the village. Based on interviews with local residents I learned that local indigenous farmers, in comparison with more mature urban villages, still live in the village and inhabit their original (but mostly expanded) houses. The average monthly rent of a plain room in Yudaishan Village is about 200 Yuan (≈24 Euro). Perhaps Yudaishan’ most striking characteristic is its current low density. Yudaishan Village has not yet reached the boundaries of its capacities. A low density in combination with the knowledge that the stream of migrants will continue to grow and the absence of a clear planning strategy could in the future lead to an overcrowded neighbourhood as seen in mature urban villages. Moreover, Yudaishan’s distorted infrastructure might hinder a redevelopment. In comparison, Sanyuanli Village in Guangzhou has a ‘Manhattan-like’ grid that can be altered to a more liveable environment by removing certain blocks. The infrastructure of Yudaishan Village does not offer any starting points for redevelopment and merely consists of unpaved small roads. Another specifically Yudaishan problem is the shortage of public functions and amenities. All functions are located at one main road in the village and there is for example no primary school, temple, variety of restaurants, police station, kindergarten, library, etc. Planned public spaces such as public parks or children playgrounds appeared to be absent, but I did notice an informal usage of ‘open’ spaces within the village. For instance, a fresh open market was held in a corner between two buildings and people played mah-jong in an open area in front of a shop. However, all these open spaces looked dilapidated and poorly maintained. In the final design for Yudaishan Village (see Figure 6) a gradual development is proposed that successively develops the area in different scales. It thereby slows down current developments and offers room for adjustments. To achieve this goal, in the design currently available open spaces are used as foundation for a new routing throughout the neighbourhood. By adding a new commercial and public programme to buildings adjacent to the network, a balanced budget can become reality: the local township village enterprise2 (TVE) will be responsible of financing the renovation and can collect rents afterwards. A park and new social housing form the last two nodes on the network. The farmers will renovate their own housing outside the main network. In this process they can make use of pre-designed affordable solutions that will increase both density and quality of the housing. Finally, real estate developers are allowed to design new social housing at the borders of the village. In the end, the whole network can be beneficial on a regional scale and expanded to other parts of the neighbourhood. Although set up as a simulation project, the design process offered by its specific location-based research valuable insights into the practical execution of the formulated guidelines. The first issue that presented itself in practice was closely related to the question of money. Guidelines such as ‘add commercial activities’, ‘promote adaptability of old and new architecture’ and ‘set up communal activities’ all carry an economic
component. Hence, during the design process a greater emphasis on the question of which actor had to bear the expenses was needed. In the design, the local TVE is responsible for the establishment of the commercial street and thereupon allowed to collect the rents of the commercial buildings. Farmers are expected to bear the costs of the renovation of their properties themselves, but can ask for higher rents afterwards. Local governments need to construct communal facilities and profit in terms of social stability. Finally, real estate developers are allowed to build new affordable housing at the borders of the village. However, this approach is location-based and not suitable for every site. By developing a framework in which the financial responsibilities of different stakeholders are clearly defined, one could overcome this problem and at the same time strengthen current guidelines. Another issue of importance appeared to be the â€˜imageâ€™ of an urban village in its development. Especially in the Chinese context, the appearances of a city and its neighbourhoods are of utmost importance for the career paths of local leaders. Only during the design process it became apparent that the exterior of a village is at least as important as implementing new regulations. In the design, I therefore proposed a (permeable) border of newly designed social housing that is financed by real estate developers. This measurement would on the one hand improve the first impression of the village and on the other hand offer opportunities for migrants to upgrade from cheap renovated farmhouses to new social housing. Hence, as a result of the design process, one could add another spatial guideline: take the outer appearance of a village into consideration. Figure 6
Testing the resulting guidelines during the design process for Yudaishan Village, Chongqing (see online version for colours)
Source: Satellite images: Google Earth, edited by author
Urban villages in China Figure 7
Sections of proposed development model for Yudaishan Village, Chongqing (see online version for colours)
Finally, it proved to be difficult to implement barriers while at the same time offering alternative scenarios. After all, scenarios are aimed at showing future possibilities in the development process whereas barriers merely try to counteract a certain development. In the end, rapid implementation of a commercial street served as both a barrier and an alternative scenario in the design, but weakness lies in the limited applicability of this measurement. For example, if an urban village is situated in the periphery and commercialised streets are not lucrative, new opportunities should be explored.
The concept of urban villages is a special phenomenon of Chinaâ€™s urbanisation and economic reforms over the past years. With a form of bottom-up urbanism, urban villages absorb deficiencies in the current formal planning system, especially with regards to providing housing for low-income groups in society, job opportunities for farmers whose farmland was confiscated, places of rural-urban transition for migrants, community feeling and high accessibility.
Nevertheless, current pressure points in the development of urban villages, such as extremely high densities, dilapidated housing, lack of integration or even discrimination of residents, and relatively high economic and political value of land in the city, often lead to short-term demolition strategies, thereby erasing the mere existence of the urban village phenomenon. An alternative strategy that includes spatial guidelines is proposed to bend off the current development process while enhancing existing qualities. This alternative strategy is based on existing knowledge from both Chinese and foreign sources and strengthens these guidelines in a simulated development process. The guidelines are divided into political, spatial, social and economic categories that obviously interact and do not have clear-cut boundaries. The essence of the guidelines came down to counteract current short-term development strategies while at the same time offering alternative scenarios. These alternative scenarios are not bound to any specific development phase of the urban village, but ideally focus on gradual development that is adaptable to new circumstances and promote densification with preservation of current qualities. Offering residents social programmes can increase livability and integration where at the same time commercial programmes may empower residents against real estate developers. In addition, the design process showed that it is important to reach agreements about the division of costs before the start of the development process and that the ‘image’ of a neighbourhood can be of decisive importance in establishing future strategies. Moreover, the design process strengthened the guideline about the necessity to research specifics of urban villages, especially with regards to implementing barriers and offering alternative scenarios. Future research could then focus on the long-term social and spatial implications of the existence of informal settlements within the urban fabric. On the one hand it offers a shelter place for low-income households, but on the other hand it also encourages spatial segregation in the city. Hence, more research could be useful in unravelling the different aspects of a long-term approach.
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Notes 1 2
The others being Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin. A township village enterprise (TVE) consists of indigenous farmers and owns the land-use rights of rural land associated with a particular village. Villagers lease their farmland from the TVE. In contrast, all urban land is owned by the state.
In the past few years, international journals have published numerous theoretical analyses on China’s urban villages. Architectural magazine...
Published on Aug 8, 2014
In the past few years, international journals have published numerous theoretical analyses on China’s urban villages. Architectural magazine...