Rough Urban Renewal In Guangjhou

Peter Ramsden

By Peter Ramsden, on February 11th, 2014

> Read Peter Ramsden's articles

When you read reports of the third plenum of the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China about the new rights to be given to migrant workers and the new emphasis on harmonious and integrated urban development it is easy to be seduced by the rhetoric.  
The reality of urbanisation in China is more brutal. As cities grow the parts that were once rural villages become overwhelmed by the new city. These urban villages were never properly planned but they often have a vitality and character totally lacking in the high-rise technocratic dream of modern urban China. 

Urban villages are often very dense. This neighbourhood of Xiancun in Guangjhou was four to six stories high and so crowded that balconies touched each other across the street and the end walls had just enough room for cats to chase rats. According to some reports there were as many as fifty thousand people living in the 4 square kilometres.

We were at an urbanisation conference in the 5-star Hyatt less than half a kilometre away but the Xiancun neighbourhood of the city was not mentioned.  The dynamics of what Ivan Tosics called  ‘rough urban renewal ’ in his work for URBACT NODUS project were never broached.

[For Ivan Tosics’ work on Urban Renewal, see URBACT Projects Results Publication, page 51. Put roughly: 1970s – extensive physical interventions, ‘rough urban renewal’,  1980s – efforts to keep the original population in place with ‘gentle urban renewal’,  1990s – combining physical, economic and social interventions, ‘integrated urban renewal’.]

Street Life and Demolitions

SAM_0605I was able to walk through a Police checkpoint at the main entrance to the neighbourhood.  The guard was dozing and did not notice a lanky foreigner with a camera pass until too late.  He shouted after me but did not leave his post or draw his gun and so I pressed on and was soon engulfed by the crowds. Ahead of me the streets alternated between shops and market stalls selling all the usual things that you see on a Chinese street and  already demolished buildings replaced with piles of rubble three metres high. It was clear that demolition was going on despite the residents still living there.

Looking later on the internet I found this youtube clip showing a building actually being demolished apparently with people still in it. Photographs on blogs about the neighbourhood show children playing amongst the rubble in pictures reminiscent of European cities just after the war.

This area of Guangjhou was close to our hotel and near to the attractive central park built over an underground shopping mall surrounded by luxury hotels and banks. Most of the development in the area is high rise luxury apartments built in the last two decades and ultra high office development. In the centre is  100-storey Guangjhou international finance centre, one of the tallest buildings in the world. At the Southern end of the park is the river and the main stadium built for the opening of the  2010 Asian Games.  So this is prime development land and the centre of the financial service industry.
PR4I walked through a maze of narrow streets, past the market where live fish in tanks are still on sale, and was propositioned in a good-natured way by a gaggle of prostitutes before stopping at the local barbers for a haircut. I was fast-tracked to the front of the queue and asked for a short back and sides using sign language. My brother later told me that it was a George Orwell cut, which somehow seemed appropriate. I found my way out of the village through a different gate but as I was passing the guard I realised that I had left my glasses behind at the barber shop. Panicking slightly I wondered if I could retrace my steps through the narrow streets. I soon went wrong but miraculously found the street. They laughed when I appeared and handed me my glasses. I said a quick  xiè xie (thank you) and left again. I was even more wary this time as I passed the gutted buildings hoping that I would not become the story.

Xiancun’s Future Developpments Are Contested by Residents and Migrant Workers

It was only later that I found out what is happening to the area.  Developers in the shape of a state owned enterprise called Poly Real Estate are demolishing the urban village to make way for a vast new development consisting of 7.5 hectares of 33-storey  condominiums which will be sold but will also be where any relocated residents will live. The residents will also own a second area of 2.5 hectares in which there will be a mix 29-storey buildings for commercial or industrial use and a replacement of the street market.  The rest of the site is the key to the whole development.  It will contain a 50 storey office building and other high rise towers for the financial service sector as well as a luxury hotel.  Residents and migrant workers have both objected and there have been frequent demonstrations.  There is lack of trust in the compensation process and a widespread belief that their own village development corporation is corrupt.

SAM_0598According to the draft legal document  for agreement between displaced owners and the Xiancun corporation residents will have the right to return to the area after it is redeveloped.  There is also compensation of approximately 1800 RMB per square metre to be paid to resident owners.  This would mean that a small 50sq m apartment would be worth about 8000 Euros in compensation.  Many complain that they will lose their rental income although some may benefit from income from the  collective.

Migrant Workers Will Be Displaced to the Margins

The real losers in the whole affair are the migrant workers who are non resident. They were renting from the villagers and therefore receive no compensation.  Moreover, they are losing their homes in one of the last affordable areas of central Guangjhou. The police cordon is there to keep out the migrants, perhaps to prevent them from squatting the gutted buildings. Only residents and construction workers have been granted entry passes.

The socio spatial geography of the city is being transformed. There are 128 of these urban villages which are in various stages of  demolition and rebuilding. The city is rapidly being rebuilt to align with the high market values that the property boom has created. In the process the migrant poor are excluded, their communities broken up and they are increasingly driven to the margins with long commutes to get to jobs in the centre.

Part of the driver is the high level of debt among municipalities in China. Land deals are one of the few sources of free income to the city and also a major area of corruption. Estimates suggest that altogether municipalities and state owned enterprises hold around 3 trillion dollars of debt.

The case for a more integrated approach

The irony for China is that these urban villages are the most vital and alive urban neighbourhoods in the cities. In my short visit I had more interaction in Xiancun than in any other part of Guangjhou. It is the sort of area that Jane Jacobs would have celebrated. In comparison to these dense and complex neighbourhoods waiting for demolition, the 32-storey blocks that replace them are urban deserts with no life at street level.

Reflecting back one can only hope that the results of the third Plenum help China to move towards Tosics’ second and third stage of urban renewal in which the needs of the residents are taken into account and a more integrated approach is adopted. Maybe URBACT cities can support integrated approaches to disadvantaged neighbourhoods in China.



By Peter Ramsden, URBACT Thematic Pole Manager

3 Responses to “Rough Urban Renewal In Guangjhou”

  1. Kristine Sergejeva Kristine Sergejeva says:

    Comment from the LinkedIn Planetizen group:

    doug pollard
    sustainable development consultant

    Thanks for that article Kristine. I was once shown the sites of some new neighbourhoods just outside Shanghai and yes they were exactly that ..small rural villages with indigenous agriculture etc. etc or fields currently in production. The model to be used to replace them was a endless series of headstone like towers (all identical and identically spaced and oriented) with absolutely no local retail or work opportunities, very little landscaping and conventional building services and infrastructure. Transportation to places of employment etc. was apparently going to be added somehow but the commute would have been very long indeed. I was also told the new neighbourhoods would be sustainable. You can draw your own conclusions.

  2. Another comment from LinkedIn – European Urban Knowledge Network Group:

    Luca D’Acci
    Visiting Professor in Urban Studies (seeking)

    Just some (possible?) ideas about renewing ghost villages:

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