USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

The Urban Village

The urban village: quite an oxymoron of a title on the surface.  But in the Pearl River Delta, particularly in Shenzhen, this is a concept that is not quite so contradictory.

Shenzhen is currently the experimental city of China, a special economic zone that has undergone extremely rapid development in the past 30 years. This pace of development inevitably resulted in the displacement of the agrarian population that formerly occupied the area, who were initially put into new housing developments all paid for by the government. When this model proved to be unsustainable, they designated portions of land for the villagers much in the same way that the United States reserves lands for the Native Americans. These plots of land, known as Villages in City (VIC), are run by the migrant workers, not under any urban planning, infrastructure construction, or other form of administrative regulation. Unlike Native American reserves, these lands are right across the street from a metropolitan cityscape.

In The Metropolis and Mental Life, Simmel discusses the differences in intellectual levels between the population of the metropolis and that of the rural, the former requiring a higher intellectual level in order to survive in an environment of overwhelming amounts of information. Simmel’s discussion however treats the two as separate worlds. In Shenzhen, one world completely envelops the other, and thus there is a bleeding of sorts between the two. College students and intellectuals seeking cheaper accommodations walk their bags over the gate to live in these villages, and villagers who have struck it rich over night cross a few roads in the other direction to live in the more expensive metropolis.

As I walk through the Huang Gang VIC, the children running about in the street, the vendors pushing food carts along, vaguely remind me of my grandmother’s village back in Indonesia. Then I look up at a backdrop of skyscrapers and high-rise apartments, and all of a sudden a completely different picture paints itself. The physical image, one of towers seemingly sitting right atop a temple, calls out to me to pull out my camera and snap a shot.

This collision of two completely different socio-economic worlds begins to create a dynamic that could partially define Shenzhen as a city. The overlap between the urban and rural creates a very intriguing sense of friction between what one would expect to see and what one actually sees in a particular environment, e.g. a person spitting on the floor of a mall in the middle of the city center. It may not necessarily be a culture, but it is something unique to the city that is a result of an urban growth rate most are too afraid to attempt elsewhere.

It is true that Shenzhen currently lacks a culture and a sense of connectivity between the city and its inhabitants due to the extremely short time span in which the city evolved, or rather, mutated. It is true that this desire to make the currently valuable land of China more and more profitable continues to destroy the old fabric in order to make room for new development. But, as Simmel states, money is the dominant driving factor of any city, and cultural and socio-political qualities are byproducts of the economic growth process.  Perhaps it is in the VIC’s like Huang Gang, physical byproducts of Shenzhen’s economy, that we can find the seeds of a “Shenzhen culture.” Or perhaps the current model will continue and soon these villages will be destroyed for high-rises. Worse still, could this bubble of unprecedented growth burst before any such definitive culture is established? We can only wait with bated breath.

– Muhi


Filed under: Urban Village

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AAU FALL 2013:

University of Southern California
School of Architecture
Asia Architecture and Urbanism
Study Abroad Program

Andrew Liang
Bu Bing
Steven Chen
Yo-Ichiro Hakomori
Andrew Liang
Yuyang Liu
Neville Mars
Academic Contributors:
Thomas Chow, SURV
Bert de Muynck, Movingcities.org
Manying Hu, SZGDADRI, ITDP, Guangzhou
Clare Jacobson, Design Writer, Editor, Curator
Laurence Liauw, SPADA, Hong Kong
Mary Ann O'Donnell, Shenzhen Noted, Fat Bird, Shenzhen
Paul Tang, Verse, Shanghai
Li Xiangning, Tongji University, Shanghai
Daniel Aguilar
Hong Au
Michael den Hartog
Caroline Duncan
Nefer Fernandez
Christian Gomez
Isabelle Hong
Jin Hong Kim
Ashley Louie
Javier Meier
Paula Narvaez
Ashlyn Okimoto
Tamar Partamian
Samuel Rampy
Luis Villanueva
Krista Won
Tiffany Wu

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