Villages in the City: A Guide to South China’s Informal Settlements is the second book in a series on the development of cities in southern China by Dutch architect and urban designer Stefan Al.
Al’s first book, Factory Towns of South China: An Illustrated Guidebook provided a cross-disciplinary approach to understanding the process of rapid urbanization and industrialization, whilst delivering unique insights into the lifestyle of a typical factory worker (you can find our book review here.) The second part in the series focuses on so-called ‘urban villages’ in South China’s contemporary cities, and delves into the impacts and effects they have on urban development in this region. Stefan Al and his contributing editors illustrate that most urban villages are torn down in order for new cities and housing complexes to be built. He clearly explains the rise of the urban villages, elaborating on the demolition plans whilst remaining adamant about the value of these villages for the community.
Despite the provincial connotations, the ‘villages within the city’ became urbanized — the former narrow buildings were turned into high-rises by adding multiple stories in order to provide housing for the migrant workers. However, this resulted in the local press portraying the villages as slums due to the remarkably high population density. Al argues against this depiction, pointing out that they provide important, affordable and well-located homes for the masses, as well as housing neighborhoods characterized by mixed-use, spatial diversity and a high percentage of pedestrians compared to the car-oriented planning paradigm in today’s China.
The organization of the book is topical, covering several definitive topics like urbanization, politics, urban design, architecture, and interior design. The rich illustrations found inside help to characterize specific urban villages that are all located in the Pearl River Delta, differing in size, density, wealth and reputation allowing for a precise classification of each village.
One of the described villages is Dafen in Shenzhen — probably the most famous as it is know for its hefty production of fake oil paintings. The section which covers specific villages first provides a short insight into the development of the village (Dafen is portrayed as a place where the oil painting industry is very important). The following two pages display a map of the inner city in which areas of interest are depicted, and a third section delves into the purpose of the buildings. In the following pages the housing situation is explained (in Dafen Village, flats are generally used for living, working and exhibition purposes). On the last page there’s always an intimate portrait of a village resident. For Dafen this is Wang Wei, a former designer in the advertising industry who moved to Dafen Village, and is now after working in a electronics factory, unsurprisingly painting as well.
The focus on urban villages taps into the worldwide trend of ‘urban informality’. The book whole-heartedly contributes to this discussion granting the unfamiliar reader a decorated insight into this key topic of conversation. Villages in the City is a great book to learn about modern city development in China. It offers a lot of new perspectives regarding the phenomenon of urban villages, their rise and demolition, as well as the special role they play for migrants trying to cut their teeth in the city.
Villages in the City: A Guide to South China’s Informal Settlements
Edited by Stefan Al
With contributions by Paul Chu Hoi Shan, Claudia Juhre, Ivan Valin, Casey Wang
Published by Hong Kong University Press (ISBN: 9789888208234) and University of Hawai’i Press (ISBN: 9780824847562)
216 pages, paperback, full-color, bilingual (English and Chinese)
Publication date: June 2014