Dongguan is residual sprawl.  While it is called a city onto itself, Dongguan is actually a broad swath of delta where Shenzhen and Guangzhou meet. Moving through the Pearl River Delta region it is difficult to ascertain where one city ends and the other begins.  With approximately 45 million people the combined cities of Guangzhou, Dongguan, and Shenzhen form the largest megacity in the world. Arrive at the Dongguan train station and one will find black and white rental posts, not for housing, but for factories for rent at 8 ¥ (76 pence) per square meter. Workers in these factories come from all over rural China to earn the equivalent of 190 £ per month. With this simple equation: low cost space + low cost labor it is no wonder why Dongguan is known as the factory of the world - and its built landscape a direct expression of the global market economy.

There are many first impressions of Dongguan. Leaving the dense urban environments of Guangzhou or Shenzhen one anticipates looking across the flat delta landscape of interweaving streams and seeing a horizon line in the distance.  This desire fades in the warm grey fog of transport and smoke stacks in a view that is as beautiful as it is frightening. At least ninety percent of the water in Dongguan is polluted.  Black rainstorm warnings occur when the rain is actually black, this rain is so acidic that it perforates plant leaves, erodes paint on cars, and stings the skin.  While the city is known for manufacturing nearly every type of light industrial product, from toys to high-end electronics it is also known for the back of house activities that come with doing business. Many of the young girls who arrive at the factories later choose higher paying occupations. They become ‘entertainers’ for the factory owners who try to entice their high rolling customers with ‘extra services’, nearly every karaoke bar, sauna, or massage parlor is a brothel. 

Acutely aware of its less than clean image, Dongguan spent the first several years of the past decade on a rescue mission trying to build itself a new reputation. This came in a predictable format common to nearly every new Chinese city - an over scaled rectangular plaza with a government building at the head of its long axis with flanked with cultural buildings.  The scale of the 35 hectare plaza is so daunting that people rarely venture in, except for the occasional staged government photo op. Dongguan’s government website reminds citizens that, “The Plaza displays a modern, fashionable and clear sense of culture.  It represents Dongguan as a city of new culture.” This newly built city center exists only as a symbol - an enormous poster sized backdrop superimposed onto one of the largest production landscapes in the world.

Proposal: Go to the source.

So many young people come to Dongguan that the permanent resident population of 1.7 million is dwarfed by the 10 million temporary workers that come to live and work in the factories. These young workers leave their families in poorer parts of rural China after they complete the government financed part of their secondary education. Those whose families cannot afford further schooling drop out at age fifteen, acquire fake identification, and go on to work in the factories three years earlier than the legal age.  This is China’s rural youth, it is China’s future, its opportunity, and is the population the city’s planners should serve.

Instead of superimposing desperate symbols of order government planners should embrace what they already have - vibrant factory cities filled with China’s rural youth. In Dongguan, the factories are grouped into zones by type: textiles, toys, food processing, furniture, building components, electronics, etc.  Within each zone each factory is self contained with communal living, eating, and bathing facilities. Rather than isolating these factory cities from one another (one only needs to read the recent headlines about the string of suicides at Foxcon’s Apple factory to understand the effects of isolation) they could be directly linked together and connected to surrounding villages. In fact, Dongguan is already planning metro lines that will connect to the Shenzhen and Guangzhou metro systems – this metro system needs to connect the factory cities and allow greater freedom of movement between factories and neighboring villages. Large corporations should be required to donate a specific percentage of area to community services: daycares, schools, recreation facilities, even universities between the factories. These young workers sacrifice further education to learning a single task, and thereby limiting the future potential of China’s labor force. Rather than allowing these young peoples’ skills expire when the market turns elsewhere they could be educated while they work, and generate an educated and diversified labor force. Additional communal facilities would allow for greater social interaction between factory cities and while engaging the surrounding urban fabric. Greater engagement and investment by factory owners and the government alike could result in greater environmental efforts and achievements as well.  In other words, rather than building expensive superficial projects, government planners might only need to make a slight of hand gesture.  A simple set of guidelines could create a grassroots effort to expand and develop a completely new form of live-work urbanism.  The result might just be a progressive and innovative workforce that could generate a new type of city planning the world has yet to see.

Michael Kokora
July / August 2011 Issue 45 Volume 5 Monocle