Visit one of China’s skyscraper-filled metropolises and you will find many of its residential communities are crammed with haphazardly built illegal constructions. This phenomenon is common both in older neighborhoods and in new areas built to accommodate rural and urban residents whose homes have been torn down in the name of redevelopment. In these communities, ground-level residents sometimes turn public spaces into vegetable gardens, chicken runs, or car parking spaces. In more extreme cases, they even erect additional buildings on public land, for use as residences, business offices, or storage areas.
Illegal structures impair access to neighborhood public spaces, cause conflict between residents, and are a headache for city officials. For the people who build them, however, illegal construction efforts are a way for residents to exercise their right to create better lives for themselves.
My research shows that when residents violate building regulations, they are usually motivated by one of three things. First, there are those who want to turn public space into parking spots. As China’s economy has grown, more and more residents own cars and scooters, yet many old neighborhoods were not built to accommodate such vehicles. As a result, residents sometimes build crude garages in front of their buildings, or simply park in public space in front of their neighbors’ houses.
Second, there are those who convert ground-level housing into commercial areas in order to supplement their incomes, either by running their own businesses or by renting the space to those who do. This practice is common in communities with high concentrations of relocated farmers, laid-off workers, or other low-income groups. Others operate mobile stalls in alleys or by the side of the road.
One woman I interviewed, a resident of Nanjing surnamed Lin, lost her job as she was approaching her 40th birthday. At the time, Lin’s son was in a local primary school and she also needed to care for her elderly parents, both of which meant that she couldn’t move elsewhere for work. In the end, she decided to earn her keep by selling clothes from a roadside stall, and later renovated the front of her house into a full-fledged store. She has now been in business for more than 10 years, even though she has frequent run-ins with the city’s authorities. Lin insists that she is nothing more than an honest businesswoman: With a son preparing to go to college and aging parents to think of, she sees no other way to stay afloat financially.
Finally, people with low incomes often build illegal shacks to expand their living space. Some put together small rooms of wood and sheet metal next to existing residences, while others build simple structures in between buildings, which they then rent out.
Practical concerns, such as the need to make ends meet, motivate illegal construction in Chinese cities. However, unauthorized buildings often cause conflict between those who build them and frontline city officials. To the latter, unlawful construction violates the regulations that they are supposed to enforce, and on which their performance is judged. At the same time, grassroots officials and neighborhood committees are keenly aware of the difficulties of the urban poor, and are weary of stoking conflict with those who refuse to abide by the rules.
China’s chengguan, or city management officials, enforce the demolition of illegal constructions after neighborhood committees bring the often-unwanted buildings to official attention. In practice, however, chengguan have almost universally adopted an attitude of avoidance, partially because they are often subject to verbal or even physical abuse from residents. When neighborhood committees demand that they tear down illegal shacks, chengguan often employ delay tactics, try to persuade residents to demolish their own constructions, and generally shirk the responsibility of laying waste to people’s homes.
Neighborhood committees are responsible for communicating with residents when deciding whether to tear down illegal constructions. To the majority of residents, neighborhood committees are a nuisance, and many put up vociferous resistance when their homes or businesses are threatened with demolition.
As a result, the complex relationship between low-level officials and rule breakers is a never-ending game of cat and mouse. Residents may agree not to obstruct public space when chengguan visit their property, then wait until officials leave the area to build a structure anyway. So how should we resolve the issue of illegal construction?
The question has long stumped city management officials, who have historically attempted to enforce the rules by heavy-handed means. In reality, however, we need to reframe the problem. If illegally occupying public space is a last resort for residents trying to improve their lives, then shouldn’t we first fix some of the practical problems they face, rather than eradicate their sources of income?
A pioneering community in the eastern city of Nanjing offers a potential alternative. Established in 2005, Community H, the pseudonym of a neigborhood in the city’s Gulou District, has adopted a plan that facilitates the so-called marketization of space instead of clamping down on it. Many residents moved here from other parts of the city to make way for urban renewal projects, but due to a lack of parking spaces, recreational areas, and commercial streets, illegal constructions quickly popped up across the neighborhood. Residents seized control of communal basements, knocked down walls to open their own stores, marked out private parking spaces, planted gardens in public areas, and built storage sheds. Frequent conflicts broke out over who had the right to occupy public space.
From around 2012, however, the community’s neighborhood committee decided to marketize access to parking spaces. As part of this plan, the committee redrew public parking spaces and charged residents a fee for using them.
Importantly, new parking space was created through a process of discussion and compromise, rather than unilaterally deciding to tear down illegal constructions. Residents agreed to give up self-drawn parking spots, as long as the neighborhood committee then provided plentiful parking spaces to be run under market conditions. This, in turn, provided the community’s residential maintenance company with ample funds to make additional improvements to public spaces. It also allowed the neighborhood committee to restore order to the community.
The experience of Community H shows that by marketizing public spaces currently occupied by illegal constructions and investing the resultant revenue back into the community, China’s low-income urbanites can satisfy their basic needs and live better lives. It is a model that deserves to be rolled out more extensively across China’s conflict-ridden residential communities.
Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Lu Hua and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: A view of the illegal rooftop ‘villa’ built by Zhang Biqing on the top of his apartment building in Beijing, China, 12 August 2013. IC)