Slowing Down Shenzhen: An Inclusive Planning Approach to Regenerate the (...) - INTI - International New Town Institute

Slowing Down Shenzhen: An Inclusive Planning Approach to Regenerate the Homogeneous Industrial Areas of Shenzhen, China
Article by Maaike Zwart

Can you imagine standing in one of the world’s most well-known factories, in the middle of an area called ‘the factory of the world’ without even realizing it? That is what happened to me one year ago when I entered the walls of the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen. All day long, I had been visiting factories in Da Lang Neighborhood, my research area in Shenzhen, conducting interviews with immigrants in Da Lang together with a Chinese student translator. Like every other factory compound in this area, the Foxconn compound includes dormitories and factories, which means that the workers in this compound are also living on the site. Strikingly different, though, were the safety nets hanging in between the buildings to prevent employees from committing suicide. The huge scale of the compound and the unfriendly welcome we received, are also unusual for this area. When we entered the gates, barking dogs drove us back. This is the same factory that got massive media attention in 2010 when eighteen employees attempted suicide—and fourteen of them succeeded. Foxconn, the major manufacturer that has catered to companies like Apple, Dell and HP, suddenly got the nickname ‘the suicide factory’. The working circumstances of the employees were most probably the cause of their action, which fuelled the international debate on how luxury goods are produced in China.

Factory Shenzhen

Foxconn is currently moving out of Shenzhen. And they’re not the only ones. Since 2004, many factories have slowly left Shenzhen for the inlands of China, Bangladesh and India. This has had impressive effects on the city. Shenzhen is known as ‘the factory of the world’ because of the rapid growth of its manufacturing industry. At first, all these factories were attracted by Shenzhen’s special status as China’s first Special Economic Zone (SEZ). From 1979, the city acted as an experiment to attract foreign capital, technology and management skills. For thirty years this system performed admirably, but now times are changing. Currently, Shenzhen is moving away from its traditional manufacturing base towards services and more specialized types of manufacturing, causing social, spatial and political constraints. These dynamics were exactly what attracted me to this city, the Foxconn factory and especially its migrant workers.

Foxconn factory compound

In my master thesis, which I wrote during my urbanism studies at the Delft University of Technology and in collaboration with the International New Town Institute, I focus on the effects of factories leaving Shenzhen and the opportunities this brings to the city. First, it has major implications for the employees of the factories. These employees are mostly migrants who work (and often live) in the factory compound. When the factory leaves, these migrants sometimes have the choice to move with the factory, but most of them go home to their village or stay in Shenzhen. When people decide to stay in Shenzhen, some of them get a new job arranged by their former employer or by themselves, but many of them stay unemployed and homeless. In my master thesis I showed that many of the migrants prefer to stay in Shenzhen when their factory moves. This is because they have more job opportunities in Shenzhen than in their village, because their family is still living and working in Shenzhen or just because they like Shenzhen and would like to build up a life in this city.

Interview with inhabitant of an urban village in Da Lang Neighborhood

Secondly, the loss of factories in Shenzhen has major effects on the spatial quality of the city. When a factory moves away, the buildings stay behind. They either stay vacant or are redeveloped. However, Chinese law restricts potential new functions, limiting the options for redevelopment. In my thesis I show that the factory compounds are a major opportunity for Shenzhen. In neighborhoods with a density more than ten times the density of an average Dutch city like Delft, space is scarce. The neighborhood surrounding the Foxconn factory, for example, is in need of space for public functions like schools, hospitals and recreational activities. The factory compounds can provide this urgently-needed space, as soon as the factory has left Shenzhen.

Impression before and after redevelopment of the Foxconn factory compound

Thirdly, the city is currently re-identifying itself by upgrading its industry. What can be the next phase for this ‘factory of the world’? The strategy that I propose in my master thesis tries to give an answer to the identity crisis and builds on the strengths of the city. Shenzhen is known in China as a young, open city. More and more migrants have the desire to start families and build up a life here. I use this trend in my master thesis and show how vacant factory compounds can be used to change the mono-functional areas of Shenzhen into mixed urban neighborhoods where people can live and flourish.

What made my investigation especially urgent is the current conflicting approach of the social issues by the Shenzhen authorities. In the case of the unemployed migrants, they react in different ways. In 2010, Shenzhen’s vice mayor and police chief suggested that migrants who have been unemployed for three months or more should be forced to leave Shenzhen, thereby lowering crime rates. At the same time, the municipality of Shenzhen states on its website that they helped 49,000 people to find jobs by the end of 2010. Other scholars also stress this effort by the Chinese government and local authorities.

Proposal planning approach

In the case of vacant buildings, the municipality often ignores the problem. Either they let the buildings remain vacant or they have them redeveloped with a focus on the powerful stakeholders. This often results in top-down planned, high-end buildings that do not respond to the local context or to the needs of local people. Additionally, the current top-down master planning approach used by Chinese planners is ineffective in providing a solution for these problems because it “cannot produce cities that are sustainable, equitable and inclusive”. [1]

In my thesis I show the possibilities for an alternative, inclusive planning approach. This planning approach combines a physical strategy with a social strategy, since the current problems in Shenzhen cannot be effectively solved with only physical interventions. Physically, the planning approach combines big structuring projects with smaller projects that bring in the human scale. These projects are developed by diverse, inclusive partnerships to have the local perspective taken into account. These ideas are based on the work of Hamdi, Friedmann, Healey and de Meulder et al. This quote was especially inspiring for me: “Starting small and starting where it counts, we build up the larger plan for social enterprise and good governance based on new forms of mutual engagement, [and] a network of community-based partners in [urban issues]”. [2]

Socially, the strategy focuses on the empowerment of neglected migrants. This approach suggests that when access to basic social and economical functions is given in an equal environment, migrants can start to empower themselves. This empowerment can allow the migrants to think beyond daily survival and to start exercising greater control over both their resources and life choices. I discussed this alternative planning approach with several Chinese scholars, politicians and project developers and while most of them said these strategies will (currently) be very difficult to implement, they are certainly possible in the future.

The development strategy proposed in this master thesis suggests that an investment in a diversity of projects can be more effective than the Shenzhen authorities’ current strategy, which is to invest only in large-scale projects. A combined physical and social approach slows down “Shenzhen speed” to a pace that can take into account local conditions and local needs. A slower speed allows the city to transform gradually into a more diverse, livable and resilient city, where people can build up their lives as they choose.


[1UN-HABITAT, Global Report on Human Settlements 2009: Planning Sustainable Cities, UN-HABITAT/EarthScan, 2009, p. 214.

[2Nabeel Hamdi, Small Change: About the Art of Practice and the Limits of Planning in Cities, Routledge, 2004, p. 105.

Maaike Zwart graduated in 2013. As a student at MSc Urbanism of the Delft University of Technology she took part in “Shenzhen Scenarios 1.0” within the Complex Cities Studio. This studio is co-organized by INTI as part of the New New Towns program. You can read a summary of her master thesis here.

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