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The History of a 'City Without History'

A view the city's skyline in Shenzhen, January, 31 2007. (Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images)
by wpoon
4 May 2010

HONG KONG, May 4, 2010 - All literature, be it official, international or
popular dialogues, share a common rhetoric  about Shenzhen—it is a city
without history that went from a sleeping fishing village overnight to a modern
metropolis, according to Juan Du,
Assistant Professor in the Department of Architecture at the University of Hong
Kong. Du finds Shenzhen a fascinating subject as people seem to be able to
summarize the city in a few sentences, skipping an entire history of industrial
revolution of how modern cities come to be. In her research however, Du
uncovers an alternative history for the miracle city's coming of age.

Shenzhen, historically called
"Bao'on", a territory of treasured peace was known for its tranquil
beauty. In 1979, Deng Xiaoping established Special Economic Zones (SEZs) in the
Pearl River Delta region, with Shenzhen being one of the zones, set up under
common policies, receiving the same economic treatments with its peers.
Shenzhen soon stood out among the SEZs not solely due to the growth in its
population or economy, but also due to the amount of constructed landscape that
totally changed the geography of the region.

"The scope, speed and scale
of transformation both from a social point of view, and from a geographical
point of view, is quite unprecedented in human history" said Du. With
an original population of 30,000, Shenzhen's official population was 12 million
in 2005, making the demographic 99% migrants.  There is no easy way to capture the amount of traffic
into and out of the city; the population is never static, or consistently calculated
in official documents. Du believes that the 22 million active SIM cards
registered in Shenzhen now may well be the most accurate description of the
volume of people and activities observed in the city today.

Adding to it is the growth in
GDP from 1.96 million RMB in 1979, to 500 billion RMB in 2005, it is not hard
to predict the complete disconnect from the way the city is represented and the
reality, and how city planning is destined to fail in catching up. In 1989,
Shenzhen already had an ambitious plan to grow from 30,000 to 1 million in 10
years. By 2000, the official population was 10 million. Every item of
infrastructure built needs to support at least a ten-fold volume it is intended
for, the overwhelming demand for housing gave rise to "villages in the
city" built by farmers using small plots of land given to them as
compensation for foregoing their farmland. These villages are highly organized
like farmland, pixilated as seen from aerial photos; farmers reap their
harvests through renting these small apartment blocks to the many migrant
workers.  These villages are highly connected communities, with the most
flexible and multi-functional use of space that no urban planner could have
devised. A basketball court by day will turn into a night market packed with
food stalls by night; abandoned multi-storey parking garages get turned into
elementary schools for unregistered children of migrant workers. Instead of
just feeling nostalgic about this creative use of space, it inspired Du to
question the current pursuit for largeness in cities, "we have to have the
biggest cultural district, the biggest museum, the biggest opera house, the
biggest cultural center. I keep thinking, is there a different way to really
approach how we should look at the city? And how we can imagine what is a more sustainable
and reasonable way of looking at the relationship between how we live and how
we design?" asked Du.  

Considering how 50 percent of the
Shenzhen population lives in these urban villages, built on only 10% of
Shenzhen's total area, the density and the natural co-existence of history and
cultures in these urban villages in Shenzhen are mind boggling. It is
indisputable that these villages contributed tremendously to Shenzhen's rapid
development, by providing basic subsistence for the vast migrant population, which
is the major force driving the city's growth. In 2005 a city ordinance was
issued to tear down all urban villages, televised demolition of the buildings
was treated as a victory of urban renewal. Before long, however, the city
government came to realization that these villages were a vital component to
sustaining the city's development, and the city's renewal plan took a u-turn
into rehabilitating these vibrant communities instead,. 

Summarizing her findings on
Shenzhen, Du concluded with her discovery of the accidental informal mode of
sustainable urbanization the Shenzhen experiment has proved "we can interact
with the city today as it is, and improve it as it is. Rather than treating it
as an idealized version of a utopic city, And because so much of the past 50
years of urban planning and urban design have been trying to pursue this utopic
vision of a modern city, and the cost is quite high, socially, economically,
and environmentally" Shenzhen,, she believes is a perfect example of how we can
develop, restore and at the same time respect a city, by not letting history
stop growth, but to let growth blossom and evolve because of history.

Reported by Winsome Tam, Asia Society
Hong Kong Center