This post is about one of China’s most unique urban spaces, the so-called “village in the city” (城中村), and some personal observations that I made during a project in Kunming in 2010.
Simply described, villages-in-the-city are what happen when a rural village on the outskirts of a a city gets swallowed whole as the urbanized area expands outward. This description may raise a couple of red flags for casual China watchers: aren’t city governments more in the habit of snatching farmers’ land away so they can sell it to developers? Why do they permit these villages remain in place even as they are absorbed into the expanding urban fabric?
The answer is that sometimes, rather than follow through with forced removals, city governments will strike a deal with farmers. The city is allowed to take over the village’s farmland, which makes up the lion’s share of the village’s territory and will be most valuable in terms of urban development and land sales revenue. In return, the village retains control over its core residential area (the “village” part) and the land it sits on. In the years after the deal is struck, the fields are sold to developers, cleared, and populated with high-rise apartments, shopping malls, and other accouterments of China’s new suburbs. Meanwhile the landless but still intact village and its inhabitants must forge a new way of life amidst their new urbanized surroundings.
While researching urban transportation systems in Kunming in summer 2010, I discovered a number of villages-in-the-city, often on the outskirts where new roads and subway lines were prompting an orgy of development. There was one called Boluo Village that I checked in on a number of times, and used as the focus of a study later in graduate school.
Kunming’s congested city center is constrained on most sides by mountains or water, meaning that as its population grows, the urban area has sprouted deep into whatever flat land it can find. Much of the growth has been to the north east of the center, an area that was mostly rural as recently as the 1980s and even early 1990s. It has now been almost entirely filled in with urban infrastructure and housing developments. The area highlighted in green contains Boluo Village, one of the area’s largest villages-in-the-city – and also one of the earliest, judging by its proximity to the center.
The time-series below shows the Boluo Village area over a decade of urban development. The village is in the elongated dense area in the center of each frame.
- 1999: Google Earth’s Kunming imagery only goes back to 1999 – by this time the east side of the Boluo Village has already begun to be built up, but the fields to the west are still intact, with some rice paddies and terraces still visible.
- 2006: The fields to the southwest have been cleared and replaced with a housing development called “East River Beautiful View Garden.” The yellow patches to the northwest of Boluo Village show that the rice terraces have been cleared away with a wave of construction imminent.
- 2009: A gated complex of high-rise apartments called “Yunnan Impression” has been built on the village’s west side. The area to the east has been further built up as well. Almost none of the Boluo Village’s fields remain, but the core area remains intact.
While the name “village-in-the-city” may conjure up a vision of traditional tile-roofed hamlets dwarfed on all sides by gleaming high-rises, these ‘villages’ rarely bear much resemblance to rural China. The residents and village officials often raze the old farmhouses and replace them with unadorned mid-rise concrete blocks, whose rooms they rent out to the waves of rural migrants coming from farther afield to seek their fortunes in the city. It’s a symbiotic arrangement: migrants from deep in the countryside need simple, cheap accommodation in the strange new city, and the villagers-in-the-city (still strangers themselves) are more than happy to provide it. A community of sorts grows in the village, as the villagers-turned-landlords and migrant workers both make a go of adjusting to new, half-urban lifestyles.
City planners tend to keep their hands off the villages-in-the-city, which are left to develop as they please. As a result, they are often developed in helter skelter fashion based on their original tightly-packed farmhouse layouts, which results in extraordinarily dense groupings of concrete blocks threaded through with hundreds of bare alleys. The image below is not from Boluo Village but is still fairly representative. They sometimes call these structures “handshake buildings” because neighbors are able to lean out windows and touch hands.
The pair of images below give an idea of the degree to which villages-in-the-city are out of whack with reform-era Chinese urban planning. The masses and voids image on the right is based on the satellite image on the left. Boluo Village is clearly distinguished by its hundreds of buildings crowded together along a pair of cardinal axes. Meanwhile the newer housing developments built by proper developers are arranged in neat rows with lots of open space between buildings. Not visible here are the walls around most of these developments, to keep the riff raff out.
Strictly speaking, villages-in-the-city aren’t slums. Many urban residents and officials treat them as such, though, given their uncoordinated planning, poor building quality, and the low economic status of most residents. Castigated as chaotic eyesores and sources of poverty and crime, villages-in-the-city are often living on borrowed time, with all involved knowing that the land will be cleared and resold once constant urbanization pushes its value beyond a certain threshold.
Near the end of my summer in Kunming, I saw signs and banners for “Village-in-the-city redevelopment” going up all over town. The photo below shows such slogan adorning a wall that has been put up around a demolished village-in-the-city, along with a rendering of the prosperity to be built in its place.
And here’s what that re-developed village looked like:
Boluo Village was still an intact and thriving – if rundown – community at the time of my departure in August 2010. A few weeks ago I happened to zoom in to the area on Google Earth to find that in the intervening years it too has been swept away. This fate is likely to befall most of China’s urban villages over time, out-of-whack as they are with leaders’ rigid modernist visions of proper city planning.