The sustainable regeneration of Chinese informal settlements

by Fulong Wu and Zheng Wang

6 Jun 2017

When thinking about resilient urban economies, what often comes to mind first are perhaps financial centres such as Canary Wharf or science hubs such as Silicon Valley. Especially for city planners and urban policy makers, to sustain a resilient economy is often dependent on developing new knowledge centres or erecting new business districts in the city. However, for many cities in the world and particularly in the Global South, informal settlements are a very salient feature. They provide a home to the cheap labour that keep cities running (migrants and low-skilled workers) and, therefore, form an important aspect of the urban economies, especially in the Global South. However, their impacts on the poor are debatable. Informal settlements are regarded by some as a pathway out of poverty, serving as an important stepping stone towards a better life. For others, however, informal settlements are considered a cancerous part of cities that not only brings higher crime but also traps its residents in eternal deprivation.

In China, the rapid growth of cities has led to the proliferation of informal settlements, also known as “urban villages”. Urban villages were originally rural villages that due to the rapid expansion of cities were suddenly encroached by urban development; hence they are also called “villages in the city”. These urban villages are collectively owned by rural farmers, who having lost their farmland land now depend on renting out their properties to low-income urban residents such as rural migrants. Despite being Chinese citizens, rural migrants are unable to access public housing as their welfare entitlements are only valid in their place of origin. Their number has grown rapidly in Chinese cities, and in many cases rural migrants outnumber indigenous residents. They work in low paid but crucial jobs such as the service or construction industries. Urban villages are, therefore, important in providing landless farmers with a new source of income and in offering housing to migrants from the Chinese countryside.

Despite their importance, the dominant approach to urban villages so far has been to demolish them. City authorities often cite poor housing quality, inadequate safety features and a negative impact on the image of cities as justifications for removal. Whilst some urban villages are indeed in poor shape, particularly in cities such as Shanghai where strict building regulations discourage private landlords from improving their properties, many urban villages such as in Guangzhou or Beijing are in fact of fairly high quality. The demolition of urban villages is also fuelled by the local governments’ wish to profit from redevelopment into expensive commodity housing estates or office buildings. Whilst many of the rural farmers who own urban villages tend to receive compensation, the tenants are simply forced to leave, often moving to more remote urban villages and having to cope with longer commuting times but also the fear of being evicted again. Demolition-based urban regeneration, therefore, fails to improve the livelihood of rural migrants but is also unable to prevent the emergence of more informal settlements. However, in recent years with the slowing down of the Chinese economy, the demand for commodity housing and offices has also declined. Coupled with demands for higher compensation from urban village owners, there is now less incentive for many local authorities to demolish urban villages. The removal of informal settlements has furthermore a detrimental impact on the provision of affordable housing in cities, which largely stems from urban villages.

A critical requirement for the resilience of the Chinese urban economy is to find a more sustainable approach improving the physical qualities of informal settlements whilst maintaining their crucial function of providing housing to rural migrants and serving as a long-term income source for landless farmers. Some alternative redevelopment practices are already emerging in some parts of China. For instance, in the province of Guangdong the government has introduced the “Three Old Renewal” policy which encourages rural owners of urban villages to directly work with private developers to co-develop village renewal plans. This is an innovation since previously urban village owners were only allowed to sell their collectively owned land to the local government, who would then resell the land at a much higher price to private developers. By allowing villagers and private developers to work together, the new approach enables villagers to receive more benefits from the redevelopment and opens up the possibility for more local involvement in the regeneration process. Furthermore, the direct involvement of the market relieves the burden on local governments to finance costly and increasingly unprofitable demolition schemes.  Another innovative approach comes from the province of Jiangsu where the government has moved away from the demolition of villages. Instead, the provincial government is leading the incremental upgrade of these villages. The scheme focuses on improving the physical quality of villages and the enhancement of basic infrastructure such as waste collection and the provision of safe roads. Although currently the scheme targets rural villages, it could also be applied to urban villages, especially by combining it with Guangdong’s regeneration approach.

A research project, funded by the British Academy, will select three upgraded villages in Wuhan, Guangzhou and Nanjing as demonstration projects and explore their current land uses and functions, neighbourhood interaction, governance characteristics, and infrastructure and service provision. The overall objective is to demonstrate the feasibility of building a more inclusive and participatory city that can contribute to the resilience of urban economies in China and also provide wider suggestions for the redevelopment of informal settlements in the Global South.

Fulong Wu is Bartlett Professor of Planning at University College London (UCL). Zheng Wang is Research Associate at the Bartlett School of Planning, UCL. Fulong’s research on ‘Chinese Informal Settlements: Rethinking Urban Futures in the Global South’ has been funded by the British Academy’s Tackling the UK’s International Challenges Programme.

The views expressed by our authors on the British Academy blog are not necessarily endorsed by Academy, but are commended as contributing to public debate.

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