Urban Design and Inequality: The Case of Urban Villages in China’s Megacities

I would like to discuss some of the major planning and design challenges over redeveloping informal settlements in China’s megacities. Specifically, I will focus on the settlement type of the “urban village,” which is commonly found in cities in the Pearl River Delta in southern China, where migrant workers rent rooms from farmers- turned-landlords and form their enclaves. Guangzhou, the capital city of Guangdong province, has one of the largest numbers of migrant urban villages. The city government has recently identified 138 of such settlements and some of them have been “successfully redeveloped,” as claimed by the government. However, to date, the “successful” redevelopment approach in Guangzhou has been to demolish all existing structures and build high-rise apartment towers instead. Some of the apartment units are distributed to villagers to compensate their loss and the rest is sold on the market for a profit. A better planning and policy solution is needed to redevelop these urban villages that are vital to the survival of migrant workers in China’s large cities.

The redevelopment of urban villages is a highly contentious process, involving constant negotiations over compensation between developers and villagers/lease holders, and this is often mediated by the local government. But, whatever the compensation terms might be, migrant tenants are always the victims of the  redevelopment. Without any title to either the land or the housing structures, they are simply forced out once their urban village is slated for “redevelopment.” The current approach of demolishing the old and building new is costly, in both economic and social terms. The local government does not have sufficient funds for compensation and construction, and therefore, redevelopment is left to private developers. Moreover, redevelopment pushes migrant workers further away from the city, thus causing a shortage in the labor market. In most cases, migrant tenants have to start all over again, move to a more remote location, and form a new enclave—until their new home is “redeveloped” again.

A needed focus is to identify more equitable and sustainable design and policy solutions to improve the lives of migrant tenants in urban villages. This would require critical input from researchers and practitioners from different disciplines, such as urban planning, design, architecture, humanities, and social sciences.

The rest of this memo is a series of photos taken during my last fieldtrip to Guangzhou in May of 2013, showing three urban villages at different stages of redevelopment. The first is Shipai village—a lively migrant community untouched (yet) by redevelopment. The second is Xian Village, for which redevelopment has been suspended as developers and some of the villagers cannot reach an agreeable term over compensation. The last one is Leide village, a completely “redeveloped” vertical village of high-rise apartment towers, where the former village houses were completely wiped out. Leide is promoted by the city government of Guangzhou as a model for urban village redevelopment.

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Shipai village is the oldest urban village located at the center of the city of Guangzhou. A large portion of village land has been redeveloped and the picture above shows the remaining part of the village. The apartment buildings are self-constructed by villagers, and the rooms are rented to migrant workers at affordable prices.

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Shipai village is a very desirable place for migrants. There are many small stores and businesses catering to migrants’ needs and budgets. This picture is a busy alley in Shipai village with fruits and vegetable stands, small shops, and restaurants.

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Xian village is located right next to the Central Business District of Guangzhou (i.e. the skyscrapers in the background). The redevelopment of Xian village has been suspended as the negotiations between the developer (Baoli Group, a state-owned enterprise) and villagers are still ongoing. Some villagers have moved out and are waiting to be allocated new apartment units, but others have chosen to stay put in order to negotiate for better compensation. The tension is high between the two groups of villagers.

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A woman sitting in an alley recycling scrap metal. On the wall are propaganda posters from the local government urging villagers to agree to compensation terms and move out as quickly as possible.

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The facades of the half-demolished apartment buildings in Xian Village. Buildings are immediately torn down after the owners agree to move out. The village is a mixture of standing, but empty, apartment buildings and demolition debris. Right next to the village, the first W Hotel in China has just opened in the spring of 2013.

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Leide is an urban village at the end of its life cycle, a completly “redeveloped” vertical village. The red pavilions and courtyards are brand new constructions mimicking the old village ancestral halls. Former villagers now live in the high-rises, and developers sell most of the units on the market for a profit. Leide is held as a successful example of urban village redevelopment by the city government of Guangzhou.

About the Author
Xuefei Ren is an associate professor of sociology and global urban studies at Michigan State University.
Posted on July 23rd, 2014.