Urban village (China)

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Urban villages beside skyscrapers, near Huaqiangbei, Shenzhen circa 2005

Urban villages (Chinese: 城中村; literally: "village in city") are villages that appear on both the outskirts and the downtown segments of major Chinese cities, including Shenzhen and Guangzhou. They are surrounded by skyscrapers, transportation infrastructures, and other modern urban constructions. Urban villages are a unique phenomenon that formed part of China’s urbanization efforts.

Urban villages are commonly inhabited by the poor and transient, and as such they are associated with squalor, overcrowding and social problems. However, they are also among the liveliest areas in some cities and are notable for affording economic opportunity to newcomers to the city.


Modern life in China's urban village is vastly different from the traditional agricultural way of life due to the lack of farmland. A new lifestyle has developed in which landowners build multi-story houses (which is allocated by the village collective) and rent them to the city’s floating population, who are not able to afford an apartment in the better parts of the city.

Urban villages are not regulated by any form of centralised urban planning. Most of them are heavily populated, intensely developed, and lack infrastructure. Some villages' building density is greater than 70%. They are composed of crowded multi-story buildings ranging from three to five (or more) floors, and narrow alleys, which are difficult for vehicles to pass through. Inside villages, it can be dark and damp year round and lighting may have to be kept on even during daylight hours. However, many villages have designated areas at their core which house cultural facilities and examples of historic architecture, while others have special shopping and market streets, sometimes reserved for pedestrians.

On the one hand, the villages serve to provide cheap accommodation for the impoverished population who come from the rural areas to try to make a living in the city. On the other hand, they have become the breeding grounds for social problems such as crime, drug addiction, alcoholism, and prostitution. Some consider urban villages to be a form of slum with Chinese characteristics. Whether these issues are a function of economics or spatial realities is up for debate.

Causes and solutions[edit]

Although perspectives vary, the household registration system of the People's Republic of China is considered to be one of the fundamental causes for the development of urban villages. The villages used to be located on the outskirts of the city, but with the expansion of the city, farmlands formerly cultivated by the villages were compulsorily purchased and turned into urban land by the government whereas the villages themselves were reserved due to the high social and economic costs: to compensate the villagers for their lost dwellings, the government had to arrange jobs and larger apartments in the city for these unskilled villagers. Such inefficient planning was usually abandoned during the early period of China's reforms.

Soon after their purchase, the villages tend to be surrounded by rising skyscrapers. Though situated in the midst of the urban area, they are still "rural" and villagers still share a rural household identity in terms of municipal administration. Consequently, the villages become de facto independent kingdoms, outside of urban planning, infrastructure construction, and other forms of administrative regulations and public policy.

Because of the prosperity of the neighbouring area, the value of the villages' land also increased dramatically. Village landowners became rich landlords and built much larger buildings in the villages, making any urban renewal planning difficult due to the huge corresponding compensation that would have to be paid. While the villages are often a hub for a transient population, authorities are wary of any plans to rapidly remove them, fearing possible negative social effects and instability.


The urban development process as well as various changes in government decisions can be read from the evolution of different urban villages in China. Take Baishizhou, the biggest urban village in Shenzhen, for instance. Located in the city center, the 0.6 square kilometer of land in Baishizhou, contains 2527 buildings, which consist of about 50473 rental rooms. Based on a rough calculation, at least 3 million people have lived in Baishizhou since 1990. As a highly developed urban village, Baishizhou has finished its process of turning farmland into residential enclaves, becoming embedded in the high dense urban fabric, with few reflecting its original agricultural remaining. Since 2005, the government has decided to renew specific areas of Baishizhou, which consistently makes the immigrants living in the village worry about their continuous stay in the city. However, the planning bureau of Shenzhen finally launched an urban regeneration proposal in June 2017, indicating a new era of development in Baishizhou.

It is difficult to judge whether the demolition of urban villages is a wise or a detrimental strategy since the problem of urban villages is not a simple dichotomy. On the one hand, the current urban villages own a large number of unplanned lots surrounded by urban streets, which leads to the congestion of the traffic. The land use within urban villages is comparatively complex, resulting in problems with further development. Furthermore, the living conditions in urban villages are normally bad, with poor building and infrastructure quality. Additionally, the residents living in urban villages are faced with daily problems, such as the lack of public facilities and green space. On the other hand, urban villages provide a good sense of "home" for urban immigrants and rural laborers, and also create harmonious neighborhoods. Meanwhile, rents within urban villages are usually more affordable, offering a more vivid first-level commercial, and mixed-use space for urban life.

Urban villages in books[edit]

In order to understand the urban village more, one can refer to Stefan's Villages in the City: A Guide to China’s Informal Settlements, which explores five cities (Shenzhen, Dongguan, Guangzhou, Foshan and Zhuhai), and their unique urban villages, via illustrations inspired by Terasawa Hitomi’s graphics in the Japanese book Daizukan Kyuryujyou. Info diagrams and an abundance of photographs give an immediate “snapshot” of the village, adopting an emphasis on low-tech “lomography” to capture the vibrant and saturated colors, accompanied by highly detailed axonometric drawings and sections that underscores the density, the liveliness, the exuberant activities that permeate these communities.

Since so much of participatory design and community building can only be understood from a subjective standpoint, the book also features “profiles” of residents of local communities that showcase insiders’ perspectives of an understudied and overlooked topic. Rather than incorporating only the views and the analysis from experts or scholars, the book offers opinions of the actual participants in the movement of place-making in order to offer its readers a richer understanding of these unique urban phenomena.

See also[edit]


  1. 罗赤,透视城中村,出自《读书》,2001年,第9期。
  2. 马星,"城中村"问题的形成与更新改造,出自《特区经济》,2007年1月。
  3. 代堂平,关注"城中村"问题,出自《社会》,2002年,第5期。
  4. Terasawa, Hitomi, and Hiroaki Kani. Daizukai Kyūryūjō. Tōkyō: Iwanami Shoten, 1997. Print.
  5. Stefan et al., Villages in the City: A guide to South China's Informal Settlements, Hong Kong University Press, 2014.

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