GUANGDONG, South China — At night, in the shadow of glowing high-rises, Nantou Town is hardly noticeable. But walk past its ancient gates and you’ll find the hustle and bustle of a colorful community. In the crowded, narrow alleyways extending in every direction are stores offering all kinds of services — from cellphone repairs to acupuncture.
The ancient town is one of the 320 “urban villages” in China’s southern tech hub, Shenzhen — the result of rapid urbanization that has seen the city swallow up previously rural neighborhoods in the blink of an eye. Once on the fringes of development, some villages have become prime downtown real estate. Due to the low cost of living, urban villages are the first stop for many migrants to Shenzhen — a driving force behind the city’s growth.
Yet the villages have long been described as malignant tumors of the city: The streets are dirty, living spaces crowded, and facilities old. Some are home to local gangs that threaten residents’ safety and security.
In the early 2000s, the Shenzhen government began “transforming” urban villages — some through revitalization campaigns, and others through demolition. In China, rural land belongs to village collectives, while urban land belongs to the state. Despite growing efforts to preserve these communities, urban villages are still seen by many as obstacles to urban development. Gentrification seems unstoppable, and urban villages face an uncertain future.
“Urban villages accommodate about half of Shenzhen’s population, but this fact has long been overlooked,” says Meng Yan, curator of this year’s Shenzhen-Hong Kong Bi-City Biennale of UrbanismArchitecture, for which Nantou is the main exhibition venue.
Urban villages have been a central topic of discussion at the event, which began in 2005 and aims to inspire dialogue on urban planning through art and architecture projects. This year, with the biennale held in urban villages for the first time, curators hope to examine how people from different backgrounds and social classes can coexist in the city, and how to diversify communities in the process of urbanization.
Meng is well-versed on the subject, having curated a Shenzhen urban village exhibition at the 2010 Shanghai Expo. He is a co-founder of award-winning Chinese architecture firm Urbanus and has taught architecture at the University of Hong Kong.
At his office in a renovated factory, Meng spoke with Sixth Tone about the history of urban villages in Shenzhen, their transformation, and their future. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Meng Yan poses for a photo, Dec. 9, 2011. Courtesy of Urbanus
Sixth Tone: What role do urban villages play in Shenzhen’s development?
Meng Yan: Shenzhen has experienced rapid urbanization over the past few decades, and its population grew from 300,000 to more than 20 million. Drastic increases in urban population and a lack of affordable housing have resulted in sprawling slums in countries like Mexico, while in Shenzhen, they’ve created urban villages.
Many believe that only low-income migrants live in urban villages. But things have changed over the years. If you go to Baishizhou [the biggest urban village in Shenzhen] in the morning, you will find people in suits leaving to go to work. These residents walk to their offices near their apartments in urban villages.
In fact, urban villages solve many of the city’s problems. If all the urban villages in city centers were demolished, these people would be forced to move to the suburbs, and they would need to travel a long way to work. That could cause traffic and other problems for the city.
An aerial view of an urban village in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, Dec. 5, 2017. Courtesy of Urbanus
Sixth Tone: How have the attitudes of the government and the public toward urban villages changed in the last decade?
Meng Yan: It was unimaginable 10 years ago to hold the Bi-City Biennale in an urban village.
In 2005, the Shenzhen government destroyed Yunong Village, and that signaled their intention to get rid of urban villages. The government planned to transform all the urban villages in Shenzhen from 2005 to 2010, but at that time, this simply meant demolition.
Urban villages were once viewed by the media, the public, as well as the government as nightmarish places filled with violence, drugs, and all sorts of social problems. There have been discussions of alternative solutions for urban villages besides demolition since the first Bi-City Biennale. But the exhibition elicited lots of criticism for openly displaying the city’s “tumor.”
A colorfully decorated fruit shop in Nantou Town, Guangdong province, Dec. 16, 2017. Liu Yi/IC
However, by the end of the Shenzhen government’s five-year plan, 2005 to 2010, the original goal of demolishing 20 percent of the urban villages had not been met due to strong resistance and the complexity of negotiations [with villagers]. Meanwhile, attitudes toward urban villages had changed during this period. Discussions about the positive influences of urban villages began in the media and among the public, and people started to believe that demolition should not be the only answer for urban villages’ futures.
The year 2010 was a turning point, when Dafen, an urban village developed to support the art and painting industries, was presented as a case of successful revitalization of Shenzhen’s urban villages. It demonstrated that with proper measures, social problems in urban villages can be solved, and [the village] can become part of the city. In the following year, with the growing power of social media and WeMedia, more voices of support for urban villages were heard.
Sixth Tone: What roles do different parties — including government, real estate companies, villagers, and tenants — play in the transformation of urban villages?
Meng Yan: Urban transformation is just another type of land reform, though this time, it entices villagers to give up their land with money instead of political mobilization [like in the mid-20th century, when the Communist Party took property from landlords and introduced peasant landownership].
Many see Shenzhen’s urban village transformation as a “win-win” initiative. Villagers receive large sums of money in compensation [for their land], and some even became millionaires through the demolition of their ancestral homes. The government solves social and safety problems in urban villages, and real estate companies take their share of the profit.
But this view overlooks one group: the thousands of tenants living in each of these urban villages. They are the silent majority and have no say in the negotiations. Yet they are what’s driving the city’s development, and they should be taken into consideration in the transformation projects.
Sixth Tone: Some argue that this year’s biennale has contributed to gentrification of urban villages by renovating spaces at the exhibition venues. Do you agree?
Meng Yan: [Some opponents of demolition] would prefer to change nothing about these urban villages to avoid gentrification. But I think that is too idealistic. Gentrification is unavoidable, and if nothing is changes, it gives the government reasons to demolish these buildings, since they are still perceived as dirty and dangerous by some officials.
During this year’s exhibition, a Shenzhen government official familiar with Nantou said to us after an exhibition tour, “The biggest contribution of this exhibition is that it can probably save Nantou from demolition.” I believe the most pressing task now is to preserve these urban villages.
Views of Nantou Town in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, Feb. 20, 2017. Courtesy of Urbanus
Sixth Tone: The theme of this year’s biennale is coexistence. How does this concept benefit urban development?
Meng Yan: Coexistence requires tolerance. Unlike the central business districts and modern residential areas in the city, urban villages comprise a mixture of people with diverse backgrounds, and the communities serve multiple functions. Urban villages are open communities that accommodate new migrants. At the same time, they preserve the history and culture [of the original village] in the modern urban environment.
In China, we prefer a neat, tidy, strictly planned urban space — an influence from the Soviet Union — and we dislike chaos and filth. I believe it is OK for an ecosystem to be chaotic and complex. What I dread is a monocultural community in which everyone speaks with the same voice.
Our theme this year is a call for coexistence in cities in the future, a future where urban planning is no longer driven by the former Soviet style of modernism or market-oriented total utilitarianism.
Sixth Tone: What can city planners learn from urban villages?
Meng Yan: China has built plenty of modern cities in the past three decades, yet there are criticisms from the public that these cities and towns all look alike. I believe it is because urban development is often carried out in the same way and monopolized by giant real estate developers. Organic organization and diversity is what many modern cities lack right now. The diverse and vibrant communities in urban villages are the result of negotiation among the various parties involved, and such ecosystems can inspire future urban planning.
The crowded communities inside urban villages may seem chaotic, but they are organized by their own logic. If you visit urban villages in Shenzhen, you will find that every village has its unique history, resources, and even village chiefs with different leadership styles. The impact of transformation projects will differ greatly from one village to another.
A view of Nantou Town in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, 2018. Courtesy of Zhang Chao/UABB
Through this exhibition, I hope to bring people from the urban center into these villages and invite them to learn from these communities and reflect upon our country’s urban planning and construction over the past three decades.
Sixth Tone: What do you think the future holds for urban villages?
Meng Yan: Some urban villages have already been slated for demolition, and [demolitions of] several more are in the negotiation process. The profits that the landlords, developers, and government stand to make from acquiring these properties are too great to turn down. But after years of struggle, more voices and opinions have been heard in the discussions about urban villages, and demolition will therefore be more complicated and difficult than it was in 2005.
Editor: Doris Wang.
(Header image: A family stands in an alleyway in Nantou Town, Guangdong province, Dec. 16, 2017. Liu Yi/IC)