USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

Illegal Urbanism

“Almost a quarter of new land acquisitions in Chinese cities are illegal, according the Ministry of Land and Resources”

Hold on a minute, what??

“…About 51 percent of new land-use projects in 90 cities were illegal and the figure was as high as 80 percent in 17 cities,”

Now, if you don’t think illegal land use/acquisition is a problem in China, think again. BYD, a prominent Chinese automobile manufacturer, was caught for illegal land usage and zoning. The company built 7 new factories on 49 hectares of land bought from an undisclosed development agency in Shaanxi. However, 45 hectares of that land was zoned for strictly agricultural.  This case is unprecedented not in the fact that this sort of illegal activity is happening for the first time, but the fact that this company is being brought to court and convicted of violating the law. It is not all too uncommon for local city government officials and bureaucrats to ignore these zoning violations, and the consequences have hit mainly the agricultural industry the hardest. The Ministry of Land and Resources states that the nation’s arable land has decreased by 6% over the past 10 years. Illegal acquisitions for new construction developments have left many farmers jobless and homeless. The farmers lose complete rights to reclaim the land, nor do they often receive an adequate amount for their property. Only recently has the problem been acknowledged by the central government and actions have been taken to check land law and enforcement; already, many officials have already been caught for land-related corruption that include illegal land appropriation and land sale proceeds.

So what does that mean for China’s urban policy and planning? It’s evident that China is continuing to grow stronger, and the fact that the nation is increasing in productivity, resources, employment, etc. all point to signs of a need for urban expansion and development. For politicians, GDP means promotion and land is an attractive resource for foreign and domestic investors alike. The drive for economic growth brings new companies into higher competition and productivity, which necessitates new facilities. Instead of dealing with all the bureaucratic red tape, these companies are given the go-ahead from local government officials, who both politically and economically benefit from supporting land sale revenue. So now, the Chinese government has a dilemma in place: will it sacrifice the integrity of the law and enforcement of land usage for the sake of becoming a productive, post-industrial, first world country? The bigger dilemma may perhaps be that China is growing too fast, too much, and does not have enough resources to handle the growth; 1.4 billion people living, operating, working in an industrial China equals potential problems, one of which is sprawl. It is often important to remember that the city and the urban is often the consequence and result of policy, both economic and political. Certain rules and parameters form the city fabric and ultimately the experiential nature of the urban. For years, China has been turning the blind eye towards illegal land use, allowing corporations and industries to wipe out farmland and urban villages to be replaced with skyscraping office towers and residential units. This trend of illegal land acquisition and zoning violations have ultimately played a large role in perpetuating the sprawling urban condition that plagues modern China.



Illegal Land Use Poses Major Threat”, http://english.people.com.cn/90001/90776/90884/6264973.html

“Over 20 Percent of Land Acquisitions in China’s Cities Illegal”,


“Cracking Down on Illegal Land Use: The BYD Case”


Filed under: BYD, China, illegal, planning, public policy, sprawl, Urbanism

Urban Sprawl and the Peri-Urbanization of China

The transformation of a once rural China into the urban, mega-giant it is today has forced the process of urbanization to become to catalyst of a physiological/urban phenomenon known as the “peri-urban”. What is the peri-urban? Quite simply, it is the point at which the city fabric meets the rural; a rural-urban fringe, if you will. If we take the analogy of a city being a layered cake, the core would constitute the urban fabric, next would come the per-urban, then the suburban, and then finally the countryside/rural. What then is the different between the suburban and the peri-urban? Unlike the suburbs, the peri-urban still has relative importance to the overall economic/industrial component of big cities, just pushed off to the edge. In most cases, village entrepreneurs who desire this peri-urban land for programs like golf courses, entertainment centers, amusement parks, etc transform urban villages. Over time, these peri-urban villages become outgrowths of the expanding city and, if successful, become enveloped into the fabric. In all likelihood, the use of peri-urbanization is most likely a strong support for urban sprawl within a growing city. A main proponent of why Chinese cities are beginning to sprawl more and more is rooted in employment. Unlike urban developmental phases in the West, which was led by residential development, China took on the approach of using jobs as a key factor in increasing urban growth. In the 1980’s, China’s policy encouraged the industrialization of the rural, resulting in a large growth of peri-urban area spread over wide regions.  Peri-urban areas became strong attractors for local, and inter-provincial migrants to fill up jobs in these developing areas.

The present policy has now adopted a more market-based strategy by strategizing to concentrate on the most dynamic peri-urban zones, closer to the city center. Two major factors of current land-use policies and urban development drivers point to more aggressive establishments of peri-urban, which leads to suggest that China is still in pursuit of urban sprawl. First, the creation and removal of industrial factories and public institutions from the city into the peripheries. China is still in an industrial state, but the question of transitioning into a post-industrial nation still looms. It seems likely that as cities begin to grow, the need to relocate some essential industrial manufacturing companies to the outskirts will be a major move towards cleaning up the urban core. By conglomerating industries into one region, these specialized peri-urban zones are easily accessible, yet far enough to relieve the urban fabric from industrial congestion. The second major move is the steady rise of residential development in the peri-urban. Essentially, the migrant workers have begun to spring up permanent residences within these regions under the protection of the village commune. In some cases, these urban villages develop on their own, evolving into almost corporations. As fixed real estate, the government is all to readily eager to integrate and purchase the property to redevelop and lease out. As the current trend of these “random” housing developments sweeps across the peri-urban regions of China, perhaps a new wave of sprawling developments are in place to further expand the growth of Chinese mega-cities.



“Peri-Urbanization: Zones of Rural-Urban Transition”, http://www.eolss.net/EolssSampleChapters/C14/E1-18-02/E1-18-02-TXT-02.aspx

Filed under: Architecture, China, peri-urban, public policy, rural, sprawl, suburban, Urbanism

Parallel Cities

After returning to Hong Kong from Shenzhen, it occurred to me that the urban villages of Shenzhen and the Mong Kok area of Hong Kong were similar in its mix-use, low-rise housing developments. Also, Shenzhen’s Central Business District (CBD) was eerily familiar to Hong Kong’s financial district. Both instances in each city are distinctive enough to justify their differences, but because Shenzhen lacks the critical mass present in Hong Kong, this results in these two varying city development and experiential conditions.

Critical mass can be observed in the macro scale of a city especially if it has undergone either densification or sprawl. Sprawl allows for individuals a relief from population congestion, but increases the reliance on vehicular transportation. Therefore, it increases congestion on transit routes. On the other hand, individuals living in dense cities do not have this relief, but in exchange have increased efficiency in both pedestrian and vehicular movement.

In Hong Kong, there is an apparent density, especially with the clusters of pencil towers soaring 60 floors with pipes relocated to the exterior of the building. Every square meter is valuable and cannot be wasted on unusable space. Hong Kong has a condition of vertical density as a result for horizontal sprawl limitations. However, in Shenzhen, there are housing towers clusters and office buildings, but the proximity of each is quite generously spread apart. Shenzhen was established 30 years ago as an economic experiment, and has since established multiple city centers. Shenzhen has a condition of a continuously sprawling city that has not yet achieved a critical mass of people to occupy its expansive development.

As a result of densification, Mong Kok’s Market Street is bustling with life that extends beyond the sidewalk. An additional layer of temporary structures eats away at the street that was intended for vehicular traffic while the pedestrians take over the residual space. It is the presence of this critical mass that has allowed both the ground floor retail and temporary shops to thrive. Without this critical mass, it would possibly look like the urban villages of Shenzhen. In Shenzhen, each housing development also has ground floor retail and housing above, but lacks the additional layer of temporary market that Mong Kok has. The restaurants and shops are mostly empty and shop owners oftentimes sit outside killing time by playing cards or socializing with their neighbors.

Hong Kong’s financial district is lined with overhead walkways to separate pedestrian from vehicular traffic. This allows people and cars to move more efficiently rather than have both occurring on the same level at the same time. However, in Shenzhen, the boulevards are fairly wide and oftentimes littered with jaywalkers impatiently beating the pedestrian light. Sometimes streets have overhead walkways. It is not to make the pedestrian and traffic conditions more efficient, but rather to allow pedestrians to safely cross over the wide avenues if cars are driving at higher speeds.

It is difficult to say that density is bad, sprawl is good, and vice versa. Both yield different effects that offer various types of analyses. The lack of people in Shenzhen illustrates the importance of having a plethora of individuals occupying the city. Having people in a city is a commodity, and without it, conditions like Mong Kok and the Hong Kong Financial district’s overhead walkways would not have been conceived. Because of people, cities must accommodate for and create ingenious ways to deal with pedestrian, vehicular, and subterranean traffic to make them more efficient and less problematic for all parties. Critical mass allows for these new activities to take off, reinforce itself, and cluster, making a city more layered.

The presence of a critical mass contributes to the layering of a city, instigating the interactions between activities that would otherwise be segregated. This level of hybridization is what ultimately defines and dictates the quality of the experience.


Filed under: critical mass, densification, Density, experiential, layering, sprawl, Uncategorized


The views and opinions contained in this blog are solely those of the individual authors and do not represent the views and opinions of the University of Southern California or any of its officers or trustees.



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