In 2011, bulldozers tore down nearly the entire village of Dachong, in China, destroying over 10 million square feet of village housing and evicting more than 70,000 residents, many of them migrants. In what was called one of the key urban “upgrades” of the decade, a vibrant community had been turned into a rubble-ridden demolition site. Only a few old trees, historic temples, and ancient wells were preserved, further accentuating the bleak new hole that formed amid the skyscrapers of Shenzhen.
Located inside the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone, Dachong Village had become a prime real estate location when it was engulfed by the explosive development of the surrounding city. Developers and government officials saw the village’s adjacency with a new high-tech industrial zone as both a major nuisance and business opportunity. Following the familiar tabula rasa approach to planning, the village would be subsumed in the anonymity of the surrounding city only after it was razed. Billboards with images of corporate office towers, a five-star hotel, and a colossal mall already visualized the future of the village on the demolition site. It was to be the largest redevelopment project of its kind in the Pearl River Delta, aspiring to become a national model for upgrading older urban areas.
A few families had refused to transfer their property rights, but after the district government approved eminent domain, the remaining homes were razed as well. Those who had agreed to transfer their land rights were given more than 100 million RMB compensation to sell their properties, propelling the former farmers into the nouveau riche: some of the villagers even made it to the ranks of RMB millionaires.
Dachong Village is just one of the countless villages wedged within new urban areas and is now being eliminated. But what the local people call a “village” is in reality an urbanized version of a village: an “urban village.” Literally “villages within the city,” or chengzhongcun, these are previously agricultural villages that have been engulfed by the city.
Parallel with the surrounding urbanization, these villages have too become “urban,” but in their own way. They no longer consist of the picturesque farms of rural China, but of high-rises so close to one another that they create dark claustrophobic alleys — jammed with dripping air-conditioning units, hanging clothes, caged balconies and bundles of buzzing electrical wires — crowned with a small strip of daylight, called by locals “thin line sky.” At times, buildings stand so close to another they are dubbed “kissing buildings” or “handshake houses” — you can literally reach out from one building and shake hands with your neighbor.
Although it is easy to see these villages as slums, a closer look reveals that they provide an important, affordable, and well-located entry point for migrants into the city. Yet, most of these villages are on the brink of destruction, affecting the homes of millions of people and threatening the eradication of a unique urban fabric. It is the largest urban demolition in the world’s history, but has so far been given little attention outside of China.
Instead of demolition, China’s urban villages could be treated like the older historical villages that some Western cities have been smart to incorporate in their greater urban fabric—places like Gràcia in Barcelona, or the West Village in New York City. Their irregular and small grain of urban fabric provides a welcome variety to the larger homogeneous city grid, whereas the small lots provide opportunities to smaller businesses.
As in any city, buildings come and go, but streets, open spaces, and everything else that gives long-term identity to a place can be sustained and even integrated into the future of the city.
Stefan Al is a Penn IUR Faculty Fellow and Associate Professor of Urban Design in the Department of City and Regional Planning of Penn Design. This article is adapted from his book Villages in the City: A Guide to South China’s Informal Settlements, which argues for the value of urban villages as places.