Shenzhen from Above

Thirty years ago, Shenzhen was a collection of farming towns and fishing villages home to not much more than 300,000 people. It is now a sprawling metropolis of several million, with around 3.5 million in the city centre and another five or six million in the suburbs and industrial towns that stretch for miles beyond.

The story of Shenzhen’s growth has been told many times, in many places, but it is still hard to understand exactly how quickly the city has grown until you see it from above. 1,200 feet above ground, in the observation deck of Shun Hing Square, the city’s tallest building, the ad hoc nature of Shenzhen’s development becomes obvious.

It might only be thirty years old, but Shenzhen has been built and rebuilt so many times, it has the urban layers of a city four times its age. Country fields developed into worker-unit housing blocks in the 1980s were redeveloped into low-rise private housing in the 1990s and then into high-rises in the 2000s. None of these generations fully subsume the other — there are always traces left of the past — and the city is littered with discarded planning initiatives, like attempts to build tree-line boulevards that were abandoned after just a few blocks.

The most interesting feature of the cityscape, to me at least, are the rural villages that have become high-density clusters of tenements, miniature versions of the Lower East Side, circa 1890. They are usually described as barely-liveable cesspools where migrant workers cram themselves ten apiece into tiny, wretched apartments — “poignant testimonies to the hardships that young workers, recently transplanted from the countryside, face in the new China,” wrote Nicholai Ouroussoff in a 2008 article on new Asian urbanism. But the reality is a lot more nuanced. Some villages really are squalid, while others have been scrubbed clean and rebuilt; others still are undergoing a process of low-level gentrification, like the village next to Shenzhen University, which has taken on a bit of the atmosphere of a student neighbourhood in Taipei or Seoul.

Of course, from the top of Shun Hing Square, these villages appear inscrutable, like mushroom colonies that have sprouted suddenly and aggressively from the forest floor. Up there, it is easier to admire the grand sweep of Shenzhen’s urban development: the way the city abruptly stops at the Shenzhen River, giving way to rural marshlands in Hong Kong; the clear incision of Shennan Avenue, which cuts through the city from one end to the other; and the legions of highrises being built, quite literally, as far as the eye can see.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Thursday February 24 2011at 12:02 am , filed under Architecture, Asia Pacific, Heritage and Preservation, History, Public Space, Society and Culture and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

3 Responses to “Shenzhen from Above”

  • You’ve been living in America, you know Europe and now you are in Asia since quite a while… how is it to live in such huge asian cities, day to day ? Is it comparable as living in NYC ?

    How are the “normal” streets ? It seems to be mainly hight towers, but i guess they are still average density district..

  • I’ve been lucky enough to travel to many of Asia’s major cities since I’ve been here and I can tell you they’re all pretty different. I suppose the one commonality, beyond the high density, is the greater role of informal streetlife like street vendors.

    Of course that’s also true for New York. It’s not a bad comparison: in terms of scale and intensity, many Asian cities are like New York with newer, uglier buildings and more modern infrastructure.

    Hong Kong is different altogether because its scale its density and vertical scale is unlike anywhere else. Even huge cities like Seoul, Shanghai and Bangkok — each with about 15 million people and very high population densities — are relatively spacious compared to Hong Kong.

  • Well sometime i am afraid that the quality of architecture in chinese cities, for example, is not very hight…

    I mean, i saw great buildings in pictures, but as well too many hight density residential towers, that we could compare, in french, as “cage à poules”… like if they were building a city without any soul just made to pack as much people as possible, without any standard of living…

    Of course, i know for sure that my judgement if influenced by my own situation, witch is not comparable at all..

    What do you think about those residential towers ? Is that city made for cars – like parisian suburbs – or on a human scale ?

    Don’t know if i express myself clearly enough