On the Term "Village-in-the-City"

If you are familiar with Chinese urbanism, you know about “villages-in-the-city” (chengzhongcun). These are villages, predominantly found in China’s south, that have been “swallowed up” by the city. In most cases, the village’s rural land has been expropriated by the municipality, but villagers have retained their housing construction land. The formally planned city extends around the village, but the village remains intact, institutionally insulated from the municipality and its planning regime. Land use intensifies within the village, often generating a densely packed and finely grained spatial form that is distinct from the broad boulevards and superblocks of the surrounding urban fabric. Villages-in-the-city are a product of China’s dichotomous system of urban-rural governance, and among most Chinese planners they are perceived as an aberration.

Huanggang, a village in the city of Shenzhen, is one of the most extreme examples of this phenomenon I have ever seen. It is located right on Shenzhen’s central axis, and it has taken full advantage of its strategic location. In the words of one Shenzhen planner, Huanggang is “even more urbanized than the city.” 

 Huanggang's ancestor hall, overlooked by high-rise apartment buildings

Huanggang's ancestor hall, overlooked by high-rise apartment buildings

 See my chapter on page 34!

See my chapter on page 34!

I recently published a chapter on Huanggang in an edited volume entitled Villages in the City: A Guide to South China’s Informal Settlements. The book goes on sale today at your neighborhood Amazon store, and it includes several wonderful contributions, including chapters by Margaret Crawford, Marco Cenzatti, and the volume’s editor, Stefan Al. There is also a collection of really interesting visual analyses of Shenzhen’s villages.

My contribution to the volume investigates Huanggang as a potential source of urban renewal and spatial revalorization for downtown Shenzhen. The argument “flips the script” of China’s urban renewal discourse, which usually assumes that it is the municipality that must renew and revalorize the village. I encapsulate this inversion with the term “city-in-the-village” (cunzhongcheng).

The chapter begins with an exploration of the term “village-in-the-city,” including its oxymoronic logic and its implicit normativity. I’ve excerpted the first few paragraphs below:

Rooted in the urban-rural dualism of the nation’s administrative system and catalyzed by rapid urbanization unleashed by post-1978 reforms, China’s “urban villages” have been decades in the making. As these villages became more widespread in the late 1980s, scholars and policy- makers began to refer to them as “villages inside the city” (dushi li de cunzhuang). This phrase, descriptive and matter-of-fact, reflected a relatively non-normative discourse, which treated such villages as isolated “phenomena” (xianxiang) that needed to be better understood. Attention focused on both the positive and negative effects of urbanization within such villages, while the potential challenge they posed to cities remained a distant future possibility.

By the mid-1990s, this possibility had become reality, and urban villages were identified as an urban “problem” (wenti) in need of a solution. This change coincided with the emergence of the neologism “village-in-the-city” (chengzhongcun), which inscribed the newly pejorative view of urban villages into the very language of the discourse. Through its concatenation of the characters for city (cheng) and village (cun), the new term de-emphasized urban villages’ functioning as villages per se and instead highlighted their role as contradictory, illogical, and aberrant pieces of the city. Attention turned away from the internal logic of these villages and towards their negative influence on the surrounding city. 

This shift in focus is reflected in the metaphors and imagery that are still used to describe “villages-in-the- city,” particularly their portrayal as “malignant tumors” (duliu) in the city’s organic body. They are “dirty, messy, and inferior” (zang luan cha) spaces that degrade the city’s “form” (xingxiang) and harbor urban ills such as crime and vice. This “infection” adversely influences the city’s healthy development, including land use efficiency, land values, safety, urban competitiveness, globalization, modernization, sustainability, and capital accumulation.