Under the ironic pressure to modernize a city less than thirty years old, the city of Shenzhen has been attempting to erase a continuously expanding form of urbanism.  In resistance to the pressure this urban type has literally begun to climb on top of adjacent buildings and spread across rooftops in search of economic space.  It has also jumped the city boundaries, its efficiency exploited in the landscape of production.  The urban condition itself illustrates the polarity of the global forces interacting with its unique form.

The buildings are always laid out in a tight efficient grid, often not more than 1.5 meters apart - less including exposed duct work, gas lines, and plumbing. They range from 8-15 floors in height with small retail spaces at the base of their square plans.  The compression of space and activity in the narrow shafts between buildings is remarkable.  Work spills onto the narrow streets: clothing is washed next to outdoor dining glass is cut next to a hair salon, welding is done on the street outside a massage parlor. Every surface is tiled from street drain to window sill and is easily sprayed down to conform to constantly changing uses.  Where the grids of each block meet one another, or other adjacent geometry - breaks appear, forming casual market spaces that flow into the ground floors between.

The local name 'urban village' undermines the shear density and activity that occurs within these spaces.  Comparing this dense urban collage to a village or medieval city is a false analogy.  As Foucault observed in his study of heterotopias, medieval space [and that of the village], is the space of emplacement, where the sacred and profane are separate and form a hierarchic ensemble of places.[1]  In contrast, these ‘urban villages’ are a type of heterotopia, where multiple, often incompatible sites and activities are juxtaposed.  They exist outside the norm of society while being linked to specific periods in time, functioning between extreme polar conditions.[2]  In this case, the urbanism itself forms the hinge between low-cost labor and global market demand.  This urban heterotopia and its series of overlapped uses are the result of a single economic invention: the Special Economic Zone.

Shenzhen, once a fishing village of 25,000, is a city of constant change having expanded in size 31 times since its designation as a SEZ in 1980.[3]  In 2005, only one million of its of roughly 10 million residents were considered permanent,[4] current estimates report the population in excess of 17 million, although the actual number may be much higher since many residents do not report their residency status. Virtually everyone is transient with an average age of less than thirty.[5]  Migrant construction workers, restaurant servers, boutique clothing store employees, and other service workers live in these dense housing environments for around twenty-five Euros per month.  The density inside the urban village can be as high as 9000 people per sq km, the highest population density in China.[6]  Surrounded by luxury construction with rents forty times as high, their presence is both physically and economically compressed.  The density, the scale, the flexibility of use, social condensation, and the pure response to functional requirements are all attractive to the architect looking at these spaces, but the economist and opportunist sees them differently.

Once these ‘urban villages’ were a source of urban crime, feared by wealthy residents. Their streets are now heavily policed and their reputation has changed.  The government of Shenzhen has begun to recognize their value through recent popular press.  The city has even begun to rebuild them.  However, this has occurred through destruction and reconstruction for higher rent, or by re-facing in more pleasing copies of European styles.  Oddly, copies of European oil paintings are also made here.  Eager to profit, Shenzhen is attempting to market them as a tourist destination for travelers from Hong Kong.[7]  Aside from becoming a potential source of tourism, the urban type exists as a function of the service and industrial demands around them.  Romanticized in the center of the city, these residential blocks fuel the industrial production that has grown steadily north.

When driving the elevated highway between the dense urban environments of Shenzhen and Guangzhou one cannot help but look out across the Pearl River Delta's landscape of networked streams. The anticipation of seeing a horizon line fades into the warm grey colored fog of factory production and transport.  Chinese diesel fuel is 133 times higher in sulfur content than American maximums.[8]  As far as one can see there are smokestacks marking the paths of the crisscrossed streams as they flows through the delta, depositing waste directly into the river.

Between these two megacities lies the sprawling production city of Dongguan. The densely gridded 'urban villages' reappear as worker quarters, filling the gaps between highway, factory, and river. Without the development of high rise towers wrapping around them the buildings look more like the materials stacked within the factories themselves.  Young labor from surrounding areas has been drawn in by the prospect of higher wages and organized adjacent to workplaces with pure efficiency.  Dongguan is famous throughout China for its massive production capabilities.  It is equally well known for another form of work that solicits the population of young women available for 'entertainment' within the numerous clubs for traveling businessmen.  Karaoke bars are famous for lining up a selection of young women for businessmen to choose from as they walk in the door, the event sponsored by the host company.

Besides high tech luxury goods [Foxcon manufactures most ipods and iphones for Apple here], staggering quantities of building products are produced adjacent to urban villages: glass, aluminum, concrete, and stone are processed and abroad on the low cost of diesel fuel.  Stone for example, is shipped from Italian or Turkish quarries, processed, and shipped back to the origin country simply due to the low labor cost of processing.  Inside the factories, young women assemble mosaic patterns for luxury American housing projects wearing thin dust masks.  The masks are psychological, doing little to protect from the volatile organic glue compounds in the air.  Coal and garbage fired power plants power the region and its factories with inexpensive electricity.  Urban village housing runs adjacent to power plants where the levels of pollution are highest, their continuous tile surfaces dark with soot.  Aside from the air, the effects of this production are felt in the rain.  Black rain, so full of sulfuric acid falls staining clothing, stinging the skin, and burning the eyes.  The black rain was tested at a PH of 3.53, acid rain is classified as any rain with PH less than 5.6.  Plant leaves were left perforated by the ink black rain, automobile finishes and building surfaces eroded on contact.[9]

This urban type is a compressed representation of China’s simultaneous growth and entropy on multiple scales.  Economic power shapes their form and maintains their existence. The west exports pollution with production while employing the labor within their walls.  The Chinese regime praises the steady climb of the stock market and posts eleven percent economic growth rates monthly: nearly five times that of most western Democracies.[10]  The effects are experienced on the streets of an urban landscape both exploited and successful.

Michael Kokora
Document, Issue 1, 2008.

[1] Foucault, Michel. Of Other Spaces (1967).  Heterotopias.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Population in Shenzhen Increases 31 Times in 25 Years.  Xinhua. August 21st 2005.

[4] Hong, Chen, Feeling the pinch of a growing population.  China Daily. July, 23rd 2005.

[5] Urban Charisam Enriches Shenzhen Culture.  Shenzhen Daily.  August 25th 2005.

[6] Shenzhen is Highest in Population Density.  People Daily. March 30th, 2001.

[7] Shenzhen Government Online. January 26th, 2008.

[8] Bradsher, KeithTrucks Power China's Economy, at a Suffocating Cost. The New York Times. December 8, 2007.

[9] Southern Metropolis Daily. August 24, 2007.

[10] Output, Prices, and Jobs.  The Economist. Jan. 24th 2008.

 Satellite Imagery by Google Earth.  Photographs by Author.