Super-micro City

This is the thesis for my master of architecture study. It examines how informal public spaces are formed, unrecognized, destroyed during the urban renewals in China. Moreover, the thesis argues that small-scale urban redevelopment schemes can drive the economic growth of cities. A modification for Shenzhen Gangxia’s urban redevelopment is also proposed in the thesis.

The definition of public space

Public space has always been a hot topic among architecture students. It is, however, being misunderstood or underestimated sometimes. We have to firstly understand what public space is before we discuss and design it. Here, in order to have a meaningful discussion, a brief introduction will be offered as the common ground for the thesis.

It is in the book of Human Condition by Arendt that public space is traced back to the polis in ancient Greece. In that book, according to Arendt, the life of ancient Greeks was divided between two realms: that of the public, in which political activity was performed and democracy could be realized, and that of the private, site of property and family life where the father ruled like an absolute monarch. For the private realm, all the activities concerning the subsistence of human lives are operated here, including production, reproduction, economy, etc. While the public sphere, in contrast, starts where necessity ends and this is why the citizens of city-states would try to alleviate themselves from it as much as possible (often using slaves) in order to enter it. Once there, these citizens would debate on issues above and beyond everyday sustenance and bereft of personal or private interests. Topics would include the public affairs which concerned everyone such as education, war and law. Violence is totally excluded from this sphere where glory comes from one’s successful persuasion of others with one’s own reason and rhetorical power.

Therefore, it is Arendt’s concept of the public space as a forum for political discussion and action, and particularly, it is a place for the exchange of political ideas and actions, is exactly what is eliminated by Totalitarian regimes. From the perspective of architecture, it is the Agora in Athens that offered the space for the public realm: it was not only a market, but also a place where free debates would happen and public notices would be announced.

Another scholar Habermas also discussed about Public Realm in 1960s. He defines the public sphere as a “society engaged in critical public debate”. In his definition, public space is a place where:

a. Public opinions are formed;

b. All citizens have access to;

c. Conference is in unrestricted fashion about matters of general interest, which implies freedom from economic and political control;

d. And people can debate over the general rules governing relations.

In his view, spaces in the history, such as Britain’s coffee houses, France’s salons and Germany’s Tischgesellschaften “may have differed in the size and compositions of their publics, the style of their proceedings, the climate of their debates, and their topical orientations”, but “they all organized discussion among people that tended to be ongoing; hence they had a number of institutional criteria in common”. The criteria that he pointed to are “disregard of status, domain of common concern, and inclusivity”.

Therefore, even though these scholars mainly discussed about public realm from the perspective of philosophy rather than architecture, it is still important to understand this layer of meaning of public space. Scholars from urban and architecture, such as Nadai, M.Carmona, A.Loukaitou-Sideris, T.Banerje as well as Jane Jacobs, have already developed these theories into the field of urban public space. It is widely accepted that, urban public space is a neutral space where social interaction, information exchange, political participation can happen, and public decisions can be made through these interactions, exchanges or debates. Urban public space is therefore not only an open space, but also a democratic space.

Urban village as public space

Due to the limited space, some general background information about urban villages in Shenzhen will not be offered here. It will specifically discuss how an urban village in Shenzhen can be seen as an extraordinary urban public space.

Three short stories will be illustrated here:

Story 1:

In 1998, the local government started to consider the redevelopment of a village, which is located in the center of city. Different institutions are invited to join the design and planning competition of the redevelopment.

The process of redevelopment was far more complex than the governors had imagined. At least six parties were involved in the process: the local villagers, the villagers who had properties in the village but did not live here any longer, the village joint company, the developer, the district government, the city government. Different party fought for its own interest.

After 10 years of negotiation, with 10 different versions of designing and planning, the village was eventually pulled down in 2008. However, this kind of redevelopment will usually just take one or two years to finish in other cities in China.

Story 2:

A family built a 10-story building on their own land, and constantly extended it for a long time: such as the roof garden, the extended room between it and its neighbor, a small temporary restaurant in front of it, as well as some lofts inside it. They extended the building for the sake of money, however, this have unintentionally, created a lot of “open spaces” where social interactions can happen.

Then, the other villagers who owned their buildings started to follow his idea of extension, even though it is not granted by the authority.

Story 3:

Wang, a shop owner, occupied a small shared open space in front of his shop, as the Dragon Boat Festival is coming. He set up several stands there in order to sell more food. On the other day, Zhang, the neighbor shop owner found this and moved part of Wang’s stands, put his own stands there instead, as he also wanted to make more money from the space.

They quarreled with each other for a long time, and finally came to a compromise that they would use the space together for the festival promotion. After the festival, they did not talk with each other for months but became friends again with time going on.

From the three stories above, people can easily find the differences between the urban village and the other parts of Shenzhen, in the sense of public space: equality, autonomy as well as democracy. The village as a whole was not suppressed to fight for their interests, the owners were able to argue for the right of creating spaces, and the shop owners resolved their contradictions with democracy.

When compared to the other parts of Shenzhen, the urban village is usually seen as a space of chaos, illegality, as well as low quality of living, which makes the government and public consider demolish and redevelop it.

However, according to Michel Foucault, Heterotopia are places and spaces that function in non-hegemonic conditions. These are spaces of otherness. It is also a physical representation or approximation of a utopia, or a parallel space (such as a prison) that contains undesirable bodies to make a real utopian space possible. Then, is urban village a Heterotopia? As it exists physically in the city, it represents the otherness, and it realizes something that only exists in the utopia of the city, such as democracy. In this sense, urban village is an extraordinary example of urban public space in Shenzhen.

Gangxia Village

Gangxia village is located in the center of Shenzhen, within the Central Business District area as planned by the government. It was famous for its high density as well as complexity in the process of redevelopment.

It is the only urban village in the area of Shenzhen CBD, and is separated into two parts by Caitian Road: Gangxia Louyuan to the east, and Gangxia Heyuan to the west. In Gangxia Heyuan, there is a land area of 151600 square meters with a population of nearly 70,000, which is included in the area of CBD and was the target of the Gangxia redevelopment project.

Redevelopment was initially proposed in 1998 by the municipal government and launched by the Futian Urban Renewal Bureau around 2002. After preparations and negotiations for more than a decade, in April 2009 the final redevelopment agreements were signed and demolition began.

During the redevelopment process, six parties were involved in: the local villagers, the villagers who had properties there but no longer lived there (the overseas villagers), the village joint company, the district government, the city government, the developer. Each of these parties had its own interest in the redevelopment project, which made it difficult to negotiate: the city government needed an “international image” of city, the district government demanded a higher tax revenue from the project, the overseas villagers asked for a higher compensation, the local villagers wanted a higher compensation and a rapid redevelopment progress, while the developer, undoubtedly required a higher profit.

However, the 70,000 residents who lived there were excluded from the whole negotiation and redevelopment process.

International competition and consultation were held, to offer designs and plans for the redevelopment. The first one was initiated in the year of 1998, when a German company proposed a master plan for the whole CBD area. Following that, Song Zhaoqing, CAUPD, KPF as well as other institutes or companies joined the consultation and raised up different versions of plan. With time going on, the proposed F.A.R climbed from 3.5 to around 7, in order to create more sellable area to cover the compensation for the villagers.

Therefore, taking the complexity of the redevelopment into consideration, it’s obvious that it is not easy for anyone to propose a new design/plan as a replacement. Modification on the current proposal becomes the only option to alleviate the problems.


This thesis start with the experiment of using scale as the methodology to examine the impacts on public space brought by urban development. And it ends up with a new speculation of future city based on the scale analysis and design.

Few people have realized the meaning of scale that, it not only relates to our perception of the urban environment, or the urban image, but also relates to inequality/equality from social perspectives, and relates to different economic model from the perspective of economy. People have to realize that, we do not need those huge planned, centralized “public spaces” which are easy to control/manage by the owners, where people do not have equal accessibility either physically or socially, and where small business cannot operate, not to mention the right for political participation or democracy.

When the city becomes bigger, however, the enlargement of scale of architecture and urban has eliminated, rather than instigated the regime of complexity, as Koolhaas has expected in his Bigness. Then, shall we learn from the urban village, as a Heterotopia in the city, to see how we can better the conditions of social equality and find a new way for future city development?

Therefore, the analysis have illustrated that, urban scale is closely related to social equality, new economic model (as well as economic equality), and the democracy of public space. The speculation of future city based on the scale analysis is that, when we create and use space in a smaller scale, there will be a more intimate, more equal, and more democratic society with a new type of economy, where individuals rather than governments become the main suppliers of public spaces, individuals/small groups rather than citizens as a whole become the main participants in public spaces, and individuals rather than big companies become the main participants of the market economy.

From the perspective of architecture, this will undoubtedly show the huge potential of architecture and urban, on how it can interact with the society and economy, how the physical scale can impact the social relationship and economic development.

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