Urban villages and urban integration

This article written1by Liu Yuting (South China University of Technology), He Shenjing (Sun-Yatsen University), Wu Fulong Cardiff University) and Chris Webster (Cardiff University), analyses the phenomenon of urban villages in China and their physical and social integration into cities.

In China, the concept of urban villages should not be understood as in Western countries, where it refers to an urban planning project promoting pedestrian facilities and mixed use zoning. In China, urban villages (城中村: villages surrounded by city) are the unplanned results of an intensive urban sprawl. Chinese cities have been spreading into their rural surrounding for the last twenty years.  Many farmlands have been requisitioned by city governments; however in most cases, villagers have kept their housing lots. However, in the absence of farm lands, villagers have become landlords: they have constructed buildings on their housing lots and are renting to large numbers of migrants. These urban villages are often depicted by the media and by researchers as problem areas, suffering from poverty, social disorder and low quality housing.

The authors have deliberately chosen to look at the positive aspects of urban villages; the aim of their article is to study the dynamics of urban villages, based on several field trips conducted in 2006 and 2007 in eleven urban villages located in six major Chinese cities of different sizes and income levels (Guangzhou, Kunming, Nanjing, Wuhan, Xian and Harbin).

The authors first look at the residents in urban villages and the way they adapt to this rural-urban environment.

  • Because of urban sprawl, local villagers’ working activities have changed. Without farmland, they can no longer work in the fields. Furthermore, they lack the necessary working skills to find jobs in the city. By renting apartments or rooms to migrants on their housing lots, local villagers can expect a comfortable source of income, and thus gain a higher social status.
  • Another point is that local villagers have been empowered by their participation in collective organisations. Farm land that belongs to the village itself has not been requisitioned by city governments, but has been transformed into low-cost housing units for the migrants. Every local villager has become a shareholder of this organisation, and receives money from the tenants. The local villagers’ committee is also in charge of social welfare in urban villages and acts as a governing body.
  • Urban villages offer cheap accommodation to rural migrants. In their studies, the authors note that rental prices in urban villages are half of those in urban districts. Urban villages also offer a wide range of informal employment to the newly arrived migrants. According to the authors, urban villages facilitate migrants’ integration into cities.

Low quality housing in Shaoxing, Goulard SébastienSecondly, the authors argue that urban villages are not only physical places, located between cities and rural areas, but also represent a social transition between traditions and modernity. The authors note a vacuum of formal authority within the urban village. City governments do not wish to be responsible for management and social welfare in the urban villages, as this would demand large investments.   In the absence of city regulations, urban villages have kept their traditional forms of governance.  Because they are located in urban villages, rural settlements remain collective and the community still plays an important role. The article describes the villagers’ community as a patriarchal society with strong family connections.

The authors plead for more tolerance for urban villages. However, they also point out that the longer city governments wait to begin, the more costly urban redevelopment will be. They also call for the authorities to empower local grassroots organizations to deal with social issues, and advocate the introduction of market rules in the housing sector of urban villages.

This article depicts another facet of urban villages. However, we may raise objections concerning the sustainability of urban villages. The absence of formal regulations may create unsolvable issues in the long run. Moreover, promoting villagers’ committees may not be a sufficient remedy for the integration of urban villages, because villagers committees only represent local residents’ interests, while rural migrants living in those urban villages have little chance to defend their own interests.  A sustainable solution would involve large scale investments by city governments in public housing and a reform of the hukou system.

  1. Liu, Yuting, He, Shenjing, Wu, Fulong & Webster, Chris. 2010 “Urban villages under China’s rapid urbanization: unregulated assets and transitional neighbourhoods”. Habitat International, 34 (2), pp. 135-144, retrieved from 10.1016/j.habitatint.2009.08.003, []

Sebastien Goulard

Ph.D. in political science (EHESS, Paris); M.A. in social sciences (EHESS, Paris); M.A. in international relations (IRIS, Paris), B.A. (Hons) in international political studies (ESE - Nottingham Trent University)

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