Shenzhen’s planning system has been extraordinarily successful in promoting economic growth, focusing on generating land development and seeking regional and global investment. It has resulted in the construction of many large urban projects across the city – the ‘hi tech centers’, ‘creative clusters’ and ‘new iconic CBDs’. Many of them are designed by Western architecture offices, ranging from the Qinghai water city and OMA’s new Stock Exchange to the development of multiple new Central Business Districts. Urban planning has been an effective tool in rapidly expanding the city, generating investment and increasing taxation revenue. This model encourages development that will produce high economic returns.
To ensure profitability the developments must attract high-income residents and users. However, the current planning approach has struggled to improve the local scale urban environments and many workers and migrants are left feeling that they are not seeing their share of the economic growth. This short read explores these challenges and proposes a new intermediate planning instrument, situated between the municipal level and local scale conditions—one that can lead to a more inclusive redevelopment process for everyone.
- A snapshot of the new developments planned and underway in Shenzhen in 2012. (Source: Prepared with material from ArchDaily and Google Earth)
One recent, large, urban project is the Sunggang-Qingshuihe district, a 540ha former logistics hub located on the northern edge of Luohu’s center. The site contains abandoned warehouses, residential blocks, different sized commercial businesses and a number of urban villages. Compared to the European context, it is amazing that this comparatively young urban area, developed only 30 years ago, is already functionally obsolete. In 2010, the District and Municipal Governments initiated an international competition for redevelopment. While the competition winning master plan from KCAP proposed better local connections and phased development, any plan must then be translated into the Shenzhen statutory planning system. This technocratic planning system, which is closely connected to the economic ambitions of the government, has been criticized for its focus on a single scenario, a lack of flexibility, preference for cars, public space that has not been able to take into consideration diverse users, and neglect of the human scale.
- The local market in the urban village. (Source: A. Reynolds)
In the current Chinese development model, developers have a great deal of power over projects. There is difficulty in balancing the developer’s demands with the spatial demands of existing local residents, workers and site users. This issue is demonstrated in the Qingshuihe district, especially in terms of public space, connectivity, urban form and function. In Qingshuihe there are a number of urban villages, located between the railway and warehouses. In contrast to many other parts of Shenzhen, which are characterized by large blocks and wide car-dominated boulevards, the urban villages in Qingshuihe have a very active street life filled with small scale commercial activity, busy pedestrian flows and local public spaces adjacent to the streets. However, the existing planning process encourages large-scale blocks for developers, and the creation of roads connected to the city networks, which lack a hierarchy of connections or a well-connected street grid to allow for different scales of movement.
- The diverse uses of small urban spaces in the urban village – social, small market stalls, and community notice boards. (Source: A. Reynolds)
The existing types of public space in the site and their use are closely connected to the dense urban form, and the lives and working hours of the residents. There is a need for easily accessible and high quality public space, as well as space related to daily movement flows and surrounding densities. However, under the current development process, public space comes under the authority of different actors, and is often disconnected and planned at a scale that does not relate to the surrounding densities or users. There is also a focus on the plaza and the park while other scales of space, such as the local street or the small ‘pocket parks’ are not considered in the redevelopment. Another issue is the ever-impending risk of the privatization of space through gated compounds and super blocks – which are often preferred by developers. It is important, particularly for socio-economically weaker groups, that new public space allows for residents, users, and commercial operators to create local identity and the opportunity for different scales of activity at different times.
Worldwide, there are many examples of large urban projects, such as the London Docklands, designed to attract global investment and be of ‘world class’ quality. These projects are well connected to the national and regional networks, but have little connection to the local surrounding areas or residents, resulting in a placeless global identity. In many new Chinese developments, for example the iconic development of the new Guangzhou CBD, it is impossible in places to cross the streets with the empty roads divided by concrete barriers, creating a formidable obstacle to the pedestrian, worker or local trader who wants to move about the area without passing through shopping mall tunnels and bridges.
- The scale of the roads in the Guangzhou CBD and the existing users of the space. (Source: A. Reynolds)
When considering the existing urban form, the retention of some older buildings allows for a diversity of rents and uses. However, the current developers’ approach consists of a limited number of typologies and results in the total demolition of existing buildings. It removes the local identity – reducing the opportunity for a functional and affordable mix of dwellings. The plan for an ‘international consumer center’, ‘creative gateway’, and ‘fashion and design’ in Qingshuihe does not readily connect with the existing context and limits the possibility for an organic evolution of identity. In terms of commercial activities, developers favor large scale and prestigious retail tenants at the expense of the local scale and informal economy.
If this current international competition and urban planning approach is failing to meet the needs of the existing local actors, how can urban planning better balance the political desires for economic growth while including marginalized groups in the planning process?
A new approach is proposed, based on The European Multi-level Governance Perspectives.  The approach aims to connect the economic objectives of the National and Municipal governments with local scale spatial demands and provides a tool for governments to negotiate with developers.
The planning instrument would encompass a multi-scale and multi-actor analysis to understand the complexity of the site and the influencing factors and the relationships between scales and actors. From this multi-scalar analysis a series of design principles and specific planning guidelines can be developed. These act as a platform for negotiation between the municipal government and developers – with tools such as Transfer Development Rights and Public Open Private Space to assist the negotiation process. The negotiations would be based upon binding implementation accords in the form of regulation or multi-party contracts outlining the obligations for all actors involved.
Of course, a European planning approach cannot just be transplanted, but must be modified to the local context and consideration of specific local conditions would be required for the success of this approach. These include the creation of a development oversight authority, an independent body at the Municipal level, to oversee the negotiation and implementation process, which would require a move to a more transparent process in planning and development to ensure trust from all actors, a change of focus from the final image to incorporating existing layered stories of the urban space, a desire for long term quality over immediate gains, and the acceptance of uncertainty—allowing for a broader range of development outcomes. Shenzhen is renowned for its innovative and rapidly changing urban planning and there are currently a number of master plan and redevelopment competitions underway. If some of these ideas could be incorporated into future competition briefs then parts of this approach could be tested and refined, opening up the opportunity for a more inclusive redevelopment process.
 Tasan-kok, T., & Vranken, J. (2011), Handbook for multi-level urban Governance in Europe, The Hague: European Urban Knowledge Network (EUKN).