Informal Village


We arrived at the edge of the informal city.

A jumbled mass of three- to four-storey buildings stretched uphill into the distance. Protruding from each house are iron cages lined with arrays of laundry, concealing dusty windows behind. A tangled web of black electric cables swung loosely overhead. Stained pipes ran up the graffiti-clad walls, dripping water into the clutters of litter piled up on the unpaved ground. Barefoot children were playing. Women chattered as they washed their dishes by the street. Vendors attempted to catch the stream of pedestrians to make their daily sales. We navigated across the street, and were about to enter the maze of crowded, narrow alleyways that would lead us away from the rest of the city into a world of informal dwellings—perhaps better known to the world as: slums.

About informality

At first glance, informal settlements around the world often appear indistinguishable regardless of geographical location. Typically formed in cities as a result of rapid urbanization and the exclusion of the poor from the formal housing sector, the issues plaguing such settlements are indeed common symptoms of poverty—overcrowded living conditions, lack of basic municipal services such as water, electricity, sanitation, waste collection, storm drainage, street lights, paved sidewalks and roads for emergency access. As condensation points of social and economic problems, informal settlements have only been incorporated into contemporary architectural and urban discourse as a relative novelty in the past 60 years. The growing understanding of urban informality introduces a shift in perception of such settlements–from places of pure degradation, uncertainty and chaos, to places of opportunities, vitality and inspiration for urban design. Despite the myriad physical and social problems presented by informal settlements, the viewpoint that such settlements may not only be unavoidable but also an indispensable and even contributive component of a region’s development is slowly gaining recognition.

The urbanization of the planet has brought about severely unmatched demands for urban housing around the world. The capacities of the urban poor to house themselves have, in most cases, outperformed governmental efforts (if any) to combat such housing crisis. Despite the advances in recognition of the value of informal housing, a universal strategy to embrace its positive contributions whilst rectifying its inherent problems has yet to be formed. The visual similarities between such informal urban fabrics belie the specificity of social and political contexts that catalyze their formations, influence their developments and complicate the formulation of a solution.

A singular, one-size-fits-all solution would be far from possible, and it is only through understanding multiple settlements that the learnings could be appropriated and reapplied to a highly contextualized site.

Our research and analysis begin with a relatively well-studied, “typical” case of informality as discussed in European debates—the case of barrios in Caracas, Venezuela. John F.C. Turner’s introduction of the phenomenon of informal urbanization to Western publications in the 1960s, at a time when Latin American metropolises were starting to explode in internal rural migration, associates informal development with self-help, autonomy and grassroots empowerment. Such means of survival and organization are exemplified by the impoverished communities in Caracas. The failed initial governmental attempts of erasure and rehousing, as well as the eventual co-existence of formal and informal districts with government infrastructural intervention, provide a helpful framework to understand the power struggle between the government and the informal communities in determining the future of the barrios.

As one of the fastest-growing cities in the world, Shenzhen is at a point of acceleration in the process of urbanization and facing an unprecedented crisis of housing an influx of migrant workers. Pockets of informal settlements, called Villages in Cities, were formed as rapid formal economic developments surrounds enclaves of land legally owned by rural communities. Not only is the legal mechanism of its formation highly specific, but the situation of multiple parties currently involved in the Village in City redevelopment debate is also arguably more complex than other informal developments in the world. The struggle to maintain social balance between the government, developers, land-owners and low-income floating population presents a continual modern conundrum and is a highly contentious political and academic arena.

Through studying the relatively “typical” example of informality in Caracas, we attempt to shed light on the more complex, atypical case of informality in Shenzhen, where multiple challenges including low-income housing, developer interest and historical preservation converge at a single unique site—Nantou village.

Chapter 1 presents a general discourse on informality, encapsulated in 18 key words/phrases. The words are categorized under the following themes: the common causes of informality, its problems, its seldom-recognized contributions, the necessity of any changes or redevelopment, challenges in such attempts, and finally, revelations that could be made from studying past attempts at handling informality.

Chapter 2 compares, at city scale, two contrasting habitats of informal settlements: the cities of Caracas and Shenzhen, in terms of their economical and political contexts, population and migration patterns, process of formation of informal settlements, and the resulting housing phenomenon. The boom (and bust, in Caracas’ case) of economy in these two cities have brought about vast growth in informality. Rather than existing as a cancer in the urban development, informality has played an integral role in sustaining and even growing the economies in both cities. If Shenzhen is positioned at the acceleration stage of the urbanization curve, then the situation in post-boom Caracas and its governmental policies may have implications on Shenzhen’s possible future.

Chapter 3 follows up the previous discussion of macroscopic treatment of informality, by zooming in on the specific case of Nantou village, an urban village in Shenzhen. As a case of exception rather than the norm, Nantou village is unique in its historical and cultural values, and to a certain degree receives alternative treatment from the government admist general State sentiment of erasure and complete redevelopment of urban villages. Chapter 3 summarizes the current government plan, highlighting its principles for historical preservation and tourism, to provide adequate understanding for criticism and debate.

Chapter 4 evaluates the scheme in terms of how it prioritizes land use, balancing the creation of habitable environment, preservation of historical sites and development for tourism. Despite detailed analysis and careful consideration in preserving physical historical remnants, what is noticeably absent is the consideration of the human element, and its natural migration patterns, as part of history. Chapter 4 argues that the government’s drastic cut down of population in the site, excessively prescriptive nature of the touristic master plan, and over-emphasis of cosmetic image-crafting is a misstep forcing upon the site an unreasonable function along the historical timeline. Against the backdrop of Shenzhen’s dire lack of low income housing, the site provokes questions about the possibility of its retaining a predominantly residential function that is in symbiosis with the intrinsic historical qualities of the site, while performing as a contributing component to the macroscopic economic and social sphere of Shenzhen.


The general discourse


#Rural Urban Migration

Rapid rural-urban migration is one of the causes attributed to the formation and expansion of slums.* Reasons for such migration include the promise of jobs, better schools for poor’s children, and diverse income opportunities than subsistence farming in rural areas. However, rural migrants lured into the city may not find jobs due to lack of skills, leading to financial shortage and exclusion from the formal housing sector.

*What are slums and why do they exist? UN-Habitat, Kenya, April 2007

#Economic Stagnation

A growing economy that creates jobs at rate faster than population growth, offers people opportunities and incentive to relocate from poor slum to more developed neighborhoods. Economic stagnation, in contrast, creates uncertainties and risks for the poor, encouraging people to stay in the slums.

           The Challenge of Slums: Global Report on Human Settlements (2003) United Nations Human Settlements Programme

The Negative: Problems


Slum areas are characterized by substandard housing structures. Shanty homes are often built with materials unsuitable for housing, such as paper, plastic, earthen floors, mud-and-wattle walls, wood held together by ropes, straw or torn metal pieces as roofs,* rendering them vulnerable to weather conditions. However, urban villages in China are often built professionally by contractors in durable materials such as concrete, but the lack of lighting and ventilation makes for unhealthy and unhygienic environments to live in.

Mandelker, D. R. (1969). Housing Codes, Building Demolition, and Just Compensation. Michigan Law Review

#Infrastructural Exclusion

Informal settlements, especially newly established ones, are characterized by the lack of basic municipal services such as water, electricity, sanitation, waste collection, storm drainage, street lights, paved sidewalks and roads for emergency access, as well as affordable public transport.


As areas concentrated with the urban poor, informal settlements are typically the hotbeds for illegal activities such as drug use, prostitution, theft, etc. In the slum Petare, Caracas, murder rates are so severe that troops are deployed by the government to control crime.

Venezuela’s military enters high crime slums Karl Ritter, Associated Press (May 17, 2013)

#Low Land Efficiency

From the government’s point of view, Informal settlements often occupy valuable land in city areas.  The prime location and surrounding facilities, if present, create great potential for development and profit. It may therefore be considered a waste of land resources for the low-rise informal dwellings to encroach upon extensive areas of urban land.

城中村问题 , 形成 , 存续与改造的经济学分析—周新宏

The Positive: Contributions

#Migrant Housing

The development of every city’s economy depends on a large base of affordable labor, and informal settlements provide housing for such low-income rural-to-urban migrant workers. In the urban villages in China, such floating population is mainly employed in manufacturing, construction, F&B, domestic service, supporting the basic functioning of the city.

 城中村问题 , 形成 , 存续与改造的经济学分析—周新宏

#Income Source

The rental market of informal housing provides source of income for certain groups or individuals in informal communities. The selling of goods and services that support daily lives of inhabitants also provides business opportunities and income source for the community.


#Social Diversity

The influence of modern architectural ideologies has produced a generation of architecture that emphasizes efficiency and clean geometry, which is sometimes criticized for its disjuncture with actual living and human interaction. The organic, porous and interconnected nature of informal settlements nurtures community relationships between diverse groups of inhabitants.


#Buffer Zone

Informal settlements provide a buffer zone for the transition of migrant workers from rural to city lives. Such migrants differ from city dwellers in status, income, educational background, and sometimes ethnicity, and are often excluded from the communities of city dwellers. Informal settlements provide a micro-society for people of similar background to adjust to city life.

城中村问题 , 形成 , 存续与改造的经济学分析—周新宏

Reasons for redevelopment

#City Image

From the government’s point of view, there is pressure to construct the image of a modernized, civilized city for international perception. Informal dwellings are seen as unsightly and erasure or redevelopments are employed to avoid such counter-image of modernity.


Overcrowded, unhealthy informal settlements can be made more habitable by redevelopment or alteration.

#Higher Land Value

Whether the informal settlements are redeveloped into commercial, industrial or residential use with either higher density or higher standards of living (thus calling for higher rent), an improved planning of land use could generate much higher GDP per land area than informal settlements can.


#Redevelopment Capital

Redevelopment projects for informal settlements are often stalled by the lack of capital. Depending on developer interest in the land occupied, it is often expensive and near-impossible for the government to grant enough compensation for the inhabitants affected or pay for the design and construction work to improve the site.

#Ambiguous Land


Slum dwellers are often either transient dwellers or have informal arrangements with the community around them. As a result, as many governments try to go in and establish land rights, difficulties ensue. * In the case of China’s urban villages, land title is clear but the challenge thus become the difficulty in reaching satisfactory compensation for land owners.

*Werlin, Herbert. ‘The Slum Upgrading Myth.’  Urban Studies 36.9 (1999)

#Housing Floating Population

Redeveloped projects tend to be commercial or residential in use, but the houses in the resulting scheme often are priced at a much higher range than the original informal dwellings, thus pushing low-income migrants away. This may result in the recreation of informal dwellings elsewhere in the city, or the drain of valuable workers to outside of the city.


Every city carries a history of its own, yet the modernization of each city and erasure of informal settlements is pushing it towards a generic form. Within the recognition of the value of historical preservation and cultural display, there is debate on the appropriate method for maintaining the authenticity of a city and the presentation of its collective memory.

“A monument itself would have shown louder and harder what the former tragedy had been on this site, instead it has been dismantled and replaced by a series of professional memory fabricators.”

In Search of Authenticity Rem Koolhaas


#State Versus Market

As informal settlements have minimal active governance and thus a dynamic economy, the academic study of informality often finds appeal in the free market model that informality embodies. Some view that  “From a progressive and empowering understanding of how grassroots are able to take their lives into their own hands, [discourse of informality] has become a tool for neoliberal discourses defending the dismissal of the State as a valid articulator of urban development.”*

*The ideologies of informality Third World Quarterly, Fall 2013

The precise balance between control and spontaneous growth has to be struck for each informal development. The power and responsibility of the state to coordinate infrastructural construction, restore social balance and transform inequalities of income and mobility cannot be ignored. What should be aimed for is not the negation of planning but a variegated form of it, in which informal settlements are seen as resources to be reshaped to promote sustainability and growth.

Chapter 1. The transformation

1.What is the difference?

“Cities surround the villages” vs. “Encircling the cities from rural areas”

Obviously, there is a gap between the barrios in Caracas and the urban villages in Shenzhen. The case in Caracas is a more formal “informal urbanization”, while what happened in Shenzhen is not. It is clearly demonstrated that the Nantou village, which is the original place for Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Macau, together with many other villages, have formed for over hundreds of years, while the urban of Shenzhen just has a history of no more than 40 years. It is like a repetition of history, that waves of people came to Shenzhen, and then settled down here, the migration today is just another repetition of history. Hence, those so-called urban villages in Shenzhen are in fact urban neighborhoods that grew out of precious rural settlements through rapid industrial urbanization, which have adapted to the urban, and clinging to it. They are continuations of the villages rather than the results of informal urbanization.

It is a little bit ironic to see that, the establishment of Shenzhen signaled the beginning of a new era in Chinese history and in the post-Maoist era – “Cities surround the villages”, following the “encircling the cities from rural areas” happened in Maoist era.

2.What is a city?

From a forest of chimneys to a forest of towers

There has been a transformation of the Communists’ image of city since Mao, when the socialist cities were characterized by hyperbole: expansion, overstatement, and an “aestheticization” of numbers. In brief, the city’s plan should express the classless nature of the society. Spatially, it was an industrialized city composed by factories or Danweis (units). However, they finally equivocally imposed the equality of rural insufficiency in both rural and urban areas. Just 30 years after Mao said “We’ll see a forest of chimneys from here” (looking over Beijing from the grand entrance to the Forbidden City), DENG Xiaoping, Mao’s successor, changed the “forest of chimneys” into “a forest of towers”. And the principle of “Practice is the only criterion of truth” asserted that Communists should no longer plan equality but pursue the equality of opportunities suggested by the market.

Great Leap Forward

It was essential for the Communists to realize the impossibility to achieve equality through planning or overall control. However, another Great Leap Forward happened in the name of modernization. According to an official research report carried out in 2004, the urban villages were seen as a negative section of the city, with the proofs of how many people living in the urban villages did not have a job, how much tax they contributed to the city (or the government), how many crime cases were committed by those who lived in the urban villages, how much pollution the villages made to the environment, how much illegal houses the villagers built without the government’s authorization and out of their control, and finally, how little contribution those urban village residents made to the modernization of the city. In brief, the government considered there was a low-efficiency use of land in the urban villages, which was an obstacle to the modernization of the city.

This time, the image of city becomes a place where there was no rural (Shenzhen declared its being the first city without rural in the same year of 2004), there was no crime, there was no informal section (like people who are considered as contributionless and houses without official plan), and full of educated people who can always make a great contribution to the city.

There is little difference between the fiction of “modernization” and the Great Leap Forward of industrialization that happened in the 1950s in China.

Nature of City

With the transformation, the Communists’ image of a city goes from one end to the other, from a city as a center of production which was heavily industrialized to serve agriculture by manufacturing products that were unavailable in the countryside, to a city without rural (or villages).

Then what is a city? It is interesting that the situation of the city today is that we no longer know what we mean by ‘the city’. How are we now to define “city”? Is it the barrio in Caracas? The sprawling low-density gated suburban community? The hand-shake buildings and urban villages in Shenzhen? No one of these definitions encompasses the phenomenon of the informal city. The task of definition is quite important and essential: if we are not sure about what a city is, we cannot begin to understand, let alone remedy, its myriad problems, not least of which are those faced by millions of urban poor.

Since 2007, the number of urban population has exceeded that of the rural. However, urbanization’s siblings – homelessness, unemployment, disease and crushing poverty—are growing, too. In the United States, the world’s wealthiest country, 34.6 million citizens live below the official poverty level.

Apparently, city today is more flexible, diverse, and full of possibilities, and these are the natures of it, rather than excluding the poor from cities.

3.Where is the future of the city?

Red Ideology to Post Red Ideology, to Gold Ideology

Obviously, the drive force for the development of Caracas was the oil economy, which boomed in the 1920s to 1930s. It followed the rules of capitalism, which excluded the poor from the city and resulted in the formation of informality, and the resources were then enjoyed by some certain classes. However, when it went to the exhaustion of the supporting resource, communism took control of the city, and the poor then came back into the city.

For the case of Shenzhen, the main resource that supports its development is the labor and the Open Door policy. The residents living in the informal urban villages constitute the biggest part of the labor force since the city was built. In brief, the informal section is the reason of the city’s development. However, it is also the part which the government thinks should be moved out from the city.

It is ironical to see the transformation of the urban ideology, from the red ideology that expressed the classless nature of the society, to the post-red ideology, which also aimed at equality, but through a socialist market economy, and eventually turned to be a Gold Ideology, that some certain classes are in reality excluded from the city.


The crisis lies not only in the ideology that the city is approaching to a capitalist road and going to repeat their mistakes happened decades ago, but also lies in the future of the city.

It is easy to foresee that, in some extent, a society that excluded any part that naturally belongs to it will more probably come to a decline, as those who are excluded from the city are actually making a great but probably unobvious contribution to the city, and in that case, a city can only live on the simplest consumption of the resources. When it comes to the end of the resources, the city will decline, and the excluded section will appear in the city again, just like what happened in the case of Caracas.

Just imagine what will happen if the demographic dividend (cheap and large quantity of labor) of Shenzhen disappears one day (actually, it is happening nowadays). The factory/company owners will not be able to find enough labor to work for them, and the city will have to face the decline of all the economies, unless it can find a new resource to be relied on. However, even if people can find the replacement for supporting the city, they still have to worry about what if the new “oil resource” comes to an end, if there are only resource consumers in the city? Apparently, the “poor” section (or informal section) will always appear in a city, either when developing, or declining.

So, it is neither clever nor possible to attempt to achieve a pure urbanism, excluding some certain parts from the city, as they may naturally belong to the city, let alone they are the resources for development themselves.

Seen from the long history of Shenzhen, migration happened in different times due to different reasons, but all resulting in a boom of the city. ‘Human’ is the ONLY and most important resource that the city may have. Hence, it is much better to find a sustainable development by developing everyone’s capabilities and inspiring their potential to make a contribution to the city, rather than just excluding. In brief, a city should be a generator of mid-class or a transformer of the poor, and the city itself will also benefit from the transformation.

4.Nantou as an experiment

As discussed in the second chapter, the urban villages are in fact a continuation of the previous villages, and it is better to be described as ruralization rather than informal urbanization. When we speak of rural urbanization in Shenzhen, we are to redeploy the Maoist language like “Encircling the cities from rural areas”, but this time it is “Encircling the poor from the rich”.

However, apparently, the Nantou case is quite specific in Shenzhen, when compared with the redevelopment plans of other urban villages. It is strange for the government to plan it as a tourist spot as only a few and only some certain groups of people will realize the historical value of these buildings and pay a visit here. However, under the capitalist logics as what’s going on in the city, the villagers will support the redevelopment of their village, so long as there is a satisfactory compensation, just like what the villagers did in other areas of Shenzhen. And the government is also willing to move those informal or illegal housing, business as well as the low-income groups of people out from the urban center, just what they did to the rest villages. While for those residents, they have neither ownership nor use right of the land, and it is difficult for them to argue for their living rights here without a Hukou. Then who fought for the historical buildings, and changed the government’s mind to keep most of the buildings here, even if there would be a huge potential for commercial development?

This may recall the history about the death of Sun Yat-sen. When Sun died in 1925 in Beijing, many people fought for the control of his body, and there was also a bitter dispute afterwards, for the design and location of the Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum. On one hand, many people wanted to be buried as close as possible to the Mountain where the Mausoleum is located, as they want to share the “Lingqi” of Sun; on the other hand, the body and the Mountain are seen as not only a proof of the legitimacy of the Communist Party and its government (as a successor of Sun Yat-sen), but also a symbol to unify the whole nation, as each year, thousands of Taiwan visitors would come and be reminded of the origins in history.

The case of Nantou village is quite similar, for its long history and its position as the birthplace of Shenzhen, Hong Kong and Macau, which are still not return in the sense of culture. Hence, the hidden logic behind the reservation of the Nantou village is far beyond the heritage conservation itself, but to help to achieve the reunification of the nation. Only in this political way, the capitalist logics can be refused here, and eventually, the residents are not “saved” for themselves but for another group of people.

No matter what is the hidden logic for the redevelopment of Nantou village, it is absolutely a precious chance to take it as an experiment to test whether capitalism is the only way for a city under the globalization today. It is written in the plans that the informal housing will be disposed only when they come up with a ripe idea, and the plan shows there is no big step planned now. At least, this will be much better than simple demolishing, and it is also a chance for the government to care about the development of the real local society, for the villagers to think about their unsustainable development relying on the land economy, for the citizens to examine whether capitalism or consumerism is exactly what we want for the future of our city.

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