Page B2.2 . 13 June 2007                     
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    Determining Shenzhen


    Using economic determinism to embrace progress, the SEZ policy has become a key element in what has globally been recognized as China's "opening up" to capitalist economics.

    Prompted to reform the national economic system, the awarding of SEZ status has helped transform several coastal areas into places of booming demographics, trade, and industry. These zones have become centers of entrepreneurship and the focus of investment both from within and outside China, which has stimulated land development and urban construction at a rate never before seen in China or, possibly, anywhere in the world.

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    One such SEZ is Shenzhen in Guangdong Province. At the time the SEZ policy was established, Shenzhen was a collection of villages at the Hong Kong/ China border, with no more than 30,000 people, mostly farmers and fishermen.

    Full-Speed Urbanization

    But Shenzhen is now vastly different an industrial and business city of global importance and growth statistics for the last three decades are almost incomprehensible. A huge supply of Chinese labor, aided by Hong Kong's capital, management dexterity, and information resources led to a 1,250-fold industrial productivity increase between 1979 and 1995.

    The population had grown to about 10.7 million people by 2005, a rate of 1,500 percent in just over 25 years, and the metropolitan area has grown from 1.2 square miles (3 square kilometers) in 1979 to 780 square miles (2020 square kilometers) today.

    The city's architectural growth is similarly stunning. In 1979, Shenzhen's total floor area was 1.4 million square feet (130,000 square meters), a size now dwarfed by single developments. For instance, in January 2007, a government-affiliated company, Shenzhen Investment, proposed a plan for a 7 million-square-foot (655,000-square-meter) housing, shopping, and industrial complex in the Longguan District.

    This growth is also vertical, and the new scale and proportion of the city is lauded by city officials as symbolizing the advancement of Chinese society and the benefits of modernization. In 1979, Shenzhen's highest building had just five floor levels. Today the city is home to one of the world's tallest edifices, the 69-floor, 1,260-foot- (384-meter-) high Shun Hing Square Tower reputed to be the world's fastest-built highrise.

    With such enormous industrial and building opportunities, Shenzhen's construction industry has developed two notable characteristics. The first is that it can build at whirlwind speeds, a response to the demands of speculative developers who lease state-owned land for finite periods of time. A project to build a 30-story building can move from inception to opening in less than 18 months.

    Second, like other aspects of Shenzhen life organized around consumption, the construction industry has become "commodified." Some of the 300 skyscrapers erected in Shenzhen in the 1980s were designed in just a single week. Blueprints for buildings are sold like any other article of trade in a city built on commodities.

    Quality of Life

    While Shenzhen has propelled itself to megacity status within three decades, it has also come to be rated the best city to inhabit in China (in a survey of 287 settlements). One reason for this standing is a per capita income of about eight times the national average.

    The high rating is also thanks to numerous parks and urban spaces throughout the city. Quality of life in Shenzhen is thus marked by the availability of money and its grassy open spaces for recreation. Ratings seem less affected by the city's negative attributes. In 2004, Shenzhen had 131 smoggy days and almost nine times more robberies than Shanghai.

    Gated communities with landscaped gardens and properties costing US$120 per square foot (RMB10,000 per square meter) have tapped into this financial-spatial mindset. They provide comfortable highrise residential units and leisure facilities at a price well beyond the means of much of Shenzhen society, in which the minimum wage is just US$105 (RMB810) per month.

    A social schism divides where people live and work and how they behave. Those in the gated communities tend to be highly educated, work downtown in the city's skyscrapers, and drive cars. They live and work in an image and environment of modernity.

    In contrast, many of those living on the margin are transient in 2001, 70 percent of Shenzhen's population were temporary residents and many are poorly educated migrants from the countryside. They work in cheerless suburban factories and live in rundown housing. Their only affordable form of transport is the bicycle, which is discouraged in the urban core because it represents a symbol of the past unbecoming of a modern city. For this segment of the population, highrises are symbols of alienation.

    The Contested City

    While it would be wrong to single out and censure Shenzhen for being an archetypal polarized society, it does highlight a new definition of urban classes: one based on access to city verticality and resources.

    For those living on the minimum wage or who are unemployed, Shenzhen, like many other industrial cities in the world, represents a place of prosperity mixed with anxiety. The challenge therefore is for governments and societies to fix the range of socioeconomic problems embedded within the accelerating urbanization system without slowing down society's advancement, which might provoke economic depression and further social problems.

    Yet the difficulties ubiquitous in industrial cities are not just the shapes on the ground imprinted over what was once the countryside, but also the abstract shapes in the mind of the citizens brought about by modernity.

    The challenge is daunting, and there is no straightforward solution. Local contexts must be understood, and time and money must be invested. In a place like Shenzhen with a large migrant population, the task is even more complicated. The problems of Shenzhen crime, poverty, air pollution, stress, and the destruction of greenfields for building construction are not new and have been seen in industrial settlements throughout the world regardless of the local culture, geography, or political history.

    Shenzhen, like historical examples before it, reveals that in the initial phases of economic and industrial change, any transformation has negative as well as positive effects. While industrialization may eventually bring a certain degree of health, wealth, and social equity, it creates many challenges.

    Discuss this article in the Architecture Forum...

    Dr. Ian Morley is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of History at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and is author of numerous papers on urbanism and civic design.



    ArchWeek Image

    Urban (re)development in Shenzhen, China, with Sheung Shui, Hong Kong visible in the distance.
    Photo: Ian Morley

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    Shennan Zhong Lu, a broad avenue lined by modern highrises, challenges any notion that China is not a progressive nation.
    Photo: Ian Morley

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    Stylistic variety of office buildings in Shenzhen.
    Photo: Ian Morley

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    Shenzhen City Hall, the third one since 1980, built after the city outgrew the first two.
    Photo: Ian Morley

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    The central section of the city hall.
    Photo: Ian Morley

    ArchWeek Image

    Part of Shenzhen City Hall's sweeping roof resembles traditional Chinese architecture and a bird in flight, symbolizing the city's upward growth.
    Photo: Ian Morley

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    Unregistered immigrants selling food on the street to get by.
    Photo: Ian Morley

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    Buji, a suburb of Shenzhen was built on a traditional village. As tall buildings were erected on old plots, the roadways become dark and dank.
    Photo: Ian Morley


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