An electrical equipment shop in an urban village in Kunming, Yunnan. Urban villages are informal settlements that have proliferated in many Chinese cities (for other articles on urban villages click here: http://urbachina.hypotheses.org/5981). Although usually described by officials as dirty and insalubrious, urban villages are not slums, or at least not the ones the writer of this article has visited. However, it’s difficult to define these informal settlements as homogeneous living communities for their location and construction vary considerably. In many cases, original villagers construct five to six stories buildings (it seems it is the maximum height recommended to avoid having to install an elevator) with a few facilities. Sometimes, the urban village preserves its original layout, thus keeping some resemblance to a rural settlement in the midst of urban structures.
Urban villages are often lively neighbourhoods, with a buoyant service trade for residents and outsiders lured by the affordable prices. They can play an important role in helping migrants integrate into urban life. Some Chinese scholars (see for example Wu Fulong) advocate protecting these villages and supporting the informal market. It is interesting to note that the original villagers (farmers transformed into landlords) turn the double property system to their advantage and make good profits renting out rooms and retail space. (This is not the case of this shop, which is still run by the original resident.) The paradox here is that had farmers the right to sell their homesteads (which they do not), they could exploit the inherent value of land and profit from it. As a consequence, the urban village would probably be dismantled, making way for new residential or commercial developments, and its residents, migrant workers for the most part, would be forced to look for affordable housing in places far away from the city centre.
Therefore, until governments make urban social housing policies for migrant workers more flexible, it seems desirable to preserve urban villages and acknowledge their role in providing affordable housing in a somewhat integrative community. The government could introduce regulations regarding safety and hygiene issues to guarantee an acceptable standard of living, as well as levying business taxes on rental activities that could then be returned to the village in the form of basic services.