Home InfrastructureGreater Bay Area Architect Juan Du discusses Shenzhen’s migrant dwellers, city planning, and urban villages with Paul French

Architect Juan Du discusses Shenzhen’s migrant dwellers, city planning, and urban villages with Paul French

by Paul French
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Shenzhen night


Juan Du is Associate Dean of the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) and a founding director of the Shenzhen Centre for Design. Her new book ‘The Shenzhen Experiment: The Story of China’s Instant City’ (Harvard University Press) emerged from her active involvement in the ongoing development and planning of the city.

It’s a study of a city planned to foster innovation, business and co-operation, as well as a new home for millions of migrant workers and their families from across the country.

Juan Du asks whether Shenzhen is the blueprint for a modern Chinese city, and what lessons have been learned since Deng Xiaoping supported the opening up of a Special Economic Zone (SEZ).

Paul French caught up with Juan Du on her commute between Hong Kong and Shenzhen.

Juan Du

PF: You’ve long shuttled between Beijing and Hong Kong but what first attracted you to Shenzhen?

JD: I was based in Beijing when I first started travelling to Shenzhen to work on the First Shenzhen Biennale of Architecture/Urbanism in 2005. Shenzhen’s so-called ‘villages within the city’ quickly caught my attention. Their unique street culture, diverse architectural and urban form, as well as the way people lived and inhabited the public spaces, were in such a stark contrast to the rest of the city.

These neighbourhoods struck me as being quite opposite to the outward image of Shenzhen – an overnight instant city without a history or culture of its own.

Shenzhen was certainly not a small fishing village, at least not during its past millennium of history.

I moved to the US in early 2006 to teach at MIT. However, my mind kept returning to China, and especially to Shenzhen. So I decided to accept an offer to teach at HKU and one motivation behind this move was Hong Kong’s proximity to Shenzhen.

Over the next 14 years, I worked with various communities in both cities. The initial fascination of Shenzhen’s urban villages gradually developed into a more comprehensive understanding of the overall city and the surrounding region.

PF: You challenge the idea of Shenzhen as a ‘blank canvas’ where nothing much existed before. What was Shenzhen, before it was Shenzhen? 

JD: While it has gone through many reincarnations throughout the past centuries, Shenzhen was certainly not a small fishing village, at least not during its past millennium of history.

Just prior to the designation as the City of Shenzhen in 1979, the approximately 2,000 square kilometres of land was known as Bao’an County, with a population of around 300,000 distributed across 2,000 villages, as well as small townships.

From serving as an important salt-production and administrative capital during the Han Dynasty to that of a major port on the South China Sea’s ancient maritime Silk Road, the area’s history was no less remarkable before it became Shenzhen.

During the more recent history, Bao’an County’s agricultural and aquacultural productions, such as lychees and oysters, were important exports in the 1950s.

From long-established agricultural, fishery, and sea-faring activities, to the industrial, commercial, and cultural enterprises of the past century, the existence of a productive population with deep connections to an extensive regional and international network absolutely impacted Shenzhen’s urbanisation into the city as we know it today.

Shenzhen Experiment cover

PF: You talk about the ‘villages within the city’ – can you explain what these are and whether they are likely to survive?

JD: The ‘villages within the city,’ or ‘urban villages,’ are densely populated neighbourhoods where indigenous villagers built and own most of the properties. During the first decade of Shenzhen’s urbanisation, in order to meet the demands of a massive population of migrant workers seeking housing in the city, the villagers tore down their two-story houses and built up four- to eight-story tall mid-rise housing. These rentals gave the villagers sources of income and provided homes to the millions of migrants in the city.

There are approximately 300 urban villages in Shenzhen today. Collectively, they house around 10 million residents – about half the city’s total population. While the municipality has made efforts to demolish and redevelop urban villages, the population was too large and negotiations on property rights so complex and expensive, that only a handful of urban villages have been demolished and rebuilt.

In more recent years, Shenzhen has recognised the importance of these neighbourhoods as providers of affordable housing to the city’s working population, and the current urban planning policy is indicating a different approach – one of rehabilitation rather than total redevelopment.  Over the next decade, while the socio-economic characteristics will continue to change and evolve, I believe most of the urban villages in Shenzhen will remain.

PF: Shenzhen was so important to the early decades of Deng Xiaoping’s Reform and Opening Up movement, but now with so many cities being designated Special Economic Zone (SEZ), what, if anything, remains unique and important about Shenzhen?

JD: There have been hundreds of SEZ’s and new areas established in China since the 1980s, but not even one comes close to Shenzhen. This has not deterred more ongoing efforts of economic or industrial zone developments in China. Viewing Shenzhen’s role as an industrial or economic zone only would be a mistake for anyone wishing to understand or emulate its development.

Shenzhen started as a SEZ, and it quickly evolved into a complex and multidimensional city. While various pioneering commercial activities in the industrial zones of Shenzhen contributed to its unique development, this city of 20 million offers important lessons not only on economic or urban development, but also on the cultural and social importance of cities in general.

At the time of researching and writing my book, I found that the most unique aspects of Shenzhen are often contrary to the current model of industrial zone development, such as the role of the local indigenous population, the collective economic power of SMEs, as well as the importance of affordable housing for migrants.

PF: Many foreign companies with investments and factories in Shenzhen say it is the newness of the city – not just the buildings and infrastructure, but also that nobody has traditional ties to the city – that makes it a good place to do business. You butt up against far fewer social and cultural problems than you might elsewhere. Do you think this is true, even now after four decades of Shenzhen?

JD: I understand the sentiment. This newness of the city and lack of traditional ties is reflective of Shenzhen as a migrant city – from the government to the factory managers.  Everyone is in Shenzhen because he or she made a choice to leave their hometown to come to a new city. This motivational quality is one of the most overlooked unique aspects of the city.

In addition, Shenzhen was the first city in China to break the mould of state-owned enterprises with tenured employment. Not only was the city new to the arriving population, but the rules of work were also new.

PF: Shenzhen – an interesting experiment or a model city of the future?

JD: Shenzhen is an experimental city that can provide many valuable lessons for future cities.  However it is not a model city in the ways in which it has been generalised – that of central planning, government control, foreign direct investment, etc.

Shenzhen was not only China’s tentative test of a market economy, rather it was a critical experiment. The city was a site of cultural, social and political experimentations that were directly opposite to the way the rest of the country existed in the 80s and 90s.  I hope Shenzhen continues to be a critical experiment for China and the rest of the world.

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