“Urban villages” are the result of the rapid urbanization of cities, which in their expansions, engulfed all surrounding fishing and agricultural villages. In the Guangdong Province, both the provincial capital Guangzhou and economic hub Shenzhen (also a Special Economic Zone or SEZ), have a great number of these “villages in the city.” With regards to Guangzhou, there are about 138 “urban villages.”

Typical urban village in Shenzhen

In compensation to the occupation and construction on all surrounding agricultural land, the government allowed the farmers and fisherman living in the different villages to develop multi-story buildings. With the government turning a blind eye to the uncontrolled urbanization, buildings were developed following the original footprints of houses, thus growing only inches from each other. In their majority, urban villages are overcrowded, composed of densely packed buildings, with extremely high FARs, ranging from one story to 6 or 8 story constructions. The circulation consists of narrow winding alleys, that due to their width and sharp turns, remain primarily for pedestrians and bikes; even so, they are sometimes difficult to negotiate with the large amount of people and commerce spilling onto them.

Above: Facade of Xiancun Urban Village in Guangzhou- instead of housing, we now see 6 to 8 story high buildings.

Most of these urban villages began to grow vertically in the 1990s as some original villagers took advantage of the high migration and increased demand for housing in the city, and literally extruded the footprint of their house. Today, these villagers and house owners have turned into wealthy absentee landlords. As far as residents go, they are either migrants, dispossessed farmers or belong to other low-income groups. If migrants, village inhabitants are regarded as “temporary residents” or “unregistered outsiders,” still linked to a hukou (household registration system) that is rural.

[Under the hukou system, the “origin” (where a person comes from) overrides the “current location.” Because of this, the hukou has become a status classification that can only be altered through administrative discretion and does not change  with migration. The type of hukou can limit or exclude the population from having the access to schooling systems, low-cost housing, and other social services. ].

Similarly, the “villages,” hold their original administrative status and thus remain outside the formal urban government system in which they are embedded.

The urban villages I visited are overcrowded, incredibly dense, with little light or ventilation, and for the most part rely on ad hoc infrastructure. Nevertheless, they also have some positive qualities, reflecting a much stronger human scale than the mega-developments currently taking place in the city. The winding alleys in the village are extremely active, lively, and remain the pubic space par excellence… The larger alleyways are in their majority commercial on the ground floor, finding everything from fruit and food markets, to restaurants, to Internet and phone providers, to beauty salons, etc. Buildings are raised 2 to 3 steps from the alleyway and have the commercial space open to the alleys, and a separate entrance/stairs to the apartments above. In a great number of cases, these residential entrances were actually not facing the main commercial alleys, but were located in narrower side alleys.


Zoom-in Shi Pai Village

Following are images of a couple of Shi Pai (with a population close to 100 000) and Xiancun urban villages located in Guangzhou.

"Modern" Guangzhou

Approaching Xiancun Urban Village

Entering commercial alley

Empty alley in Xiancun; the village is almost entirely deserted now that the government is planning to redevelop the area into high rise towers...

Coomercial alley


Different commerce

Narrower alley and entrance to residential apartments above _ the stairs begin to be visible through the door opening

Serving as a border to seperate the village is usually a wall or large avenue

Within the village there are still some original house that were not developed

Sewage infrastructure and security cameras (surprisingly) can be seen throughout the village

Following is a video to reflect the atmosphere when entering Shi Pai… you’ll notice there is a lot of noise, a lot of lights, and a lot of motion.  To be honest, walking in the crowded alleys almost feels like you are in the middle of stampede- there are so many people, bikes and carts passing by that you feel like will get run over if you stop.


7 thoughts on “Urban Villages

  1. Pingback: Back to Urban Villages :: Kwoloon Walled City «

  2. The village you visited called Xiancun is now walled off and only accessible to local residents, with paramilitary and police guards at all entrances. When you visited, it may have seemed deserted, but at that time, still about 60% of householders were fighting the government demolition. I agree with many of your opinions about those villages, however. I visited Xiancun until the wall went up – some posts from Xiancun and other Guangzhou urban villages can be found on my blog.

    The picture you have labelled as a typical urban village in Shenzhen is in fact Xiancun in Guangzhou.

    • Thanks for the info Adam. If I am not mistaken the “typical urban village” shown in the aerial photograph is in fact in Shenzhen- however, you are right that the rest of the text talks about Xiancun which is located in Guangzhou (as all the captions and text state). Reading form comments it seems that you have been studying or at least living near Xiancun- It would be interesting to get some more recent photographs and potentially more of your perspective. Would you be interested in contributing through a guest post? Looking forward to hearing back from you- you can contact us at info@favelissues.com
      Best regards and thanks again for the comment!

    • Hi Bartek,
      Thank you very much for your interest in FAVELissues and for sharing your photographs with us! Do you know of the timeline for the new development? When I visited, they were just starting to have information sessions on what was to come- but it was quite unclear how the displacement/relocation was being addressed, and whether or not residents from the village were even being considered as potential ‘clients’ for the new development- did you happen to get a better notion of the the process adopted while you were there?

  3. Late comment and perhaps you will not even see it, but I’ve just moved to Guangzhou, next to Liede village which was redeveloped, as they say, in 2010. In Xian Cun you can still see red flags on top of a few houses where people still hold out, even if the area is more or less desolate and demolished now. I’m currently reading up on urban villages and getting a sense of hurry… Obviously the authorities would like to upscale these areas but what a huge cultural loss – even if one should avoid romanticizing poverty and hardship.

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