Event Reports

Spatial Informality and Urban Governance in China’s Megacities

Source: Photolabs@ORF

Unplanned informal housing settlements have emerged in large numbers in cities of many developing countries. Their prevalence may be understood from the fact that formal housing markets in the Third World rarely supply more than 20 per cent of the new housing stock. Here, a unique habitat has been created by the inhabitants for their survival, and in many ways the settlements have become an integral part of the city. However, social and economic inequalities of various kinds persist at such places.

Giving a talk on ‘Villages in the City: Spatial Informality and Urban Governance in China’s Megacities’ at the Observer Research Foundation on 21 December 2015, Dr. Yue Zhang, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and a Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., made the point that it is important to develop better designs and policy solutions for improving the lives of persons (indigenous villagers and migrant workers) living in informal settlements.

During the talk, the speaker mentioned that it was important to understand the concept and typologies of informal housing settlements. To this end, lessons learned from a review of literature were presented. Citing the work of scholars, it was explained that many anthropologists and sociologists (Perlman 1976, 2010; Gilbert and Ward 1985; Fischer 2008) view informal housing as the spatial manifestation of poverty and urban marginality. Davis 2006, Harvey 2008, and Smith 2002 see informal housing as a consequence of global economic restructuring and neoliberal policy. Turner 1976, De Soto 1989, 2000, Mukhija 2003 regard informal housing as a strategy of “self-help”. Many other scholars (Roy 2003, 2004; Roy and Alsayyad 2004; Weinstein 2014) consider informal housing as the central site of struggles over the “right to the city”.

Presenting the case of China, Dr. Zhang mentioned that the economic reform process has led to rapid urbanisation, and about 200 million people have moved from rural to urban areas since late 1970s. It is expected that by 2030, 1 billion people will be living in cities, she said. For the growth and expansion of cities, farmlands were compulsorily purchased, after paying compensation to villagers by local government, and turned into urban land for redevelopment. Built-up (residential) areas of villages were, however, reserved due to the high social and economic costs of expropriation. This practice resulted in the emergence of urban villages especially in cities of the Pearl River Delta in southern China. In Guangzhou city, 25-30 per cent of the people living in the city live in urban villages. The percentage increases to 50 in the case of Shenzhen city. Ironically, such villages are not subject to any formal urban planning policy, said Dr. Zhang.

Further, the speaker described innovative ways adopted by the indigenous urban villagers to earn a living. In this respect, it was stated that since villagers were deprived of their land, they began to rent out their rooms to migrant workers for generating income. It has so happened that at many places, migrant tenants outnumber indigenous villagers, however, due to existence of the hukou (household registration) system, migrant workers do not enjoy benefits available to citizens having an urban household status.

House rent is one part of the income, said Dr. Zhang. There are other ways adopted by indigenous urban villagers to make a living. For example, village committees, represented by urban villagers, lease land to the business community and also builds village-owned enterprises. Furthermore, some land within the urban village is kept as ‘economic development land’ on which various income generating activities are established, such as a street market. The Dafen village in Shenzhen is yet another example of the largest mass producer of replicas of oil paintings in the world. Dr. Zhang mentioned that such activities allow indigenous villagers to augment their income.

In recent years, the government has initiated many policies to redevelop urban villages, explained Dr. Zhang. One urban village (namely Liede) in Guangzhou was completely redeveloped in the form of dense, high rise apartments between 2007 and 2010. For this purpose, considering scarcity of land in cities, the local government recycles village land for new development. For central government, the concern is to increase social control for security purposes. However, Dr. Zhang observes that these processes are highly contentious, and thus, local governments act as mediator between villagers and developers in the negotiation over compensation. Furthermore, under such measures, the migrant tenants do not get any compensation and have to relocate themselves to other urban villages.

In conclusion, Dr. Zhang submitted that urban villages are actually a spatial manifestation of informality that drives metropolitan expansion, and it is important for the State to protect the interests of the inhabitants occupying such spaces in the city by playing a regulatory role.

The talk was followed by a discussion on the topic. There was considerable interest among the participants in understanding the case of urban informality in China since Indian cities too display existence of urban villages as well as the related problems.

Commodore P. K. Gupta shared his thoughts about how China has changed over time for the better, and mentioned that the type of slums that exist in India are not visible in China. During his previous visits, he observed that workers housing is very orderly.

Dr. Rajendra Prasad, a technology patent consultant, held a similar view and stated that in India, slums come up just anywhere and the conditions are poor, but in China informal settlements look planned. One problem observed with respect to India is that of vote bank politics, he said. In this regard, he specified that many local leaders are not interested in solving the problems of informal areas because this would affect their vote banks.

Mr. Sekhawat Husain (Social Development Specialist, formerly with Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation) enquired about the reasons responsible for the occurrence of informality and service inequalities in the cities of China.

Ms. Anjali Pancholy (Associate Town and Country Planner, TCPO) mentioned that unlike in China, urban expansion is not easy in India because of the difficulties involved in land acquisition.

Dr. Geeta Kochhar (Assistant Professor at the Centre for Chinese and South East Asian Studies, JNU) mentioned that in India it becomes very difficult to relocate the entire urban village because of the presence of a strong civil society that fights for the rights of residents in informal areas.

(This report is prepared by Dr. Rumi Aijaz, Senior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi)