Messy informality and the evolution of the urban village in China in times of pandemic

Published 9 juni, 2020

Guanchao Liu & Gini Lee

Focusing on the urban village, Guanchao Liu and Gini Lee from the University of Melbourne, seek to look at public space through the lens of one of the critical aspects of pandemic management – food security. By following the changes wrought on people’s access to and customs for food production, supply and consumption they look at the ability for existing public and interstitial private/public spaces to facilitate safe access to food in the spirit of enduring community life.

Informal urban life, policy and pandemic

UN-Habitat has recently published its COVID-19 Policy and Programme Framework in response to the abrupt and profound changes wrought on communities, particularly vulnerable and crowded communities, in the wake of the pandemic. UN-Habitat is focusing on urban density and mobility and in particular the connectivity of urban and rural populations in terms of migration across countries, between the city as source of economic security and rural places that for many are where home and family reside. In summary the report notes the major risks to the health of dense urban populations include overcrowding and adequate housing, food insecurity, access to health and sanitation and safe access to jobs and livelihoods. Relationships between the formal and informal economy upon which the urban poor rely are interdependent upon the spatial configurations of urban environments as many have little or no option to work at home. UN-Habitat recommends that a front-line approach to mitigating the dire situation in many dense urban places requires ‘bottom-up community-led mobilisation’ alongside appropriate local government support. Further, they advocate mapping locally towards a granular spatial approach to understanding the complexity of neighbourhood dynamics, processes and customs. One example cited is the need to understand the forms of urban mobility and access to everyday services, such as the potential need to re-organise informal markets. 

What is currently happening in the type of fragile urban community referred to by UN-Habitat can be seen in the shifting occupation of the urban village in China in developing cities, once the site for informality without equal, we can now witness the mobile and low income community being overtaken by market forces and gentrification. Yet the resilience of such places will reside in government policy and local community advocacy of the social and economic life of communities. The characteristics of urban public spaces and the currently proven COVID-19 epidemic prevention measures are largely contradictory. The shape of specific forms of public space are often difficult to prevent the spread of contagion, which is in turn determined by the characteristics of the virus to spread through the air and by touch. The predominant size, materials and configurations of the streets, parks, restaurant dining spaces and food market environments in urban villages practically ensures that transmission is actually exacerbated by proximity.

Our focus on the urban village seeks to look at public space through the lens of one of the critical aspects of pandemic management – food security.  By following the changes wrought on people’s access to and customs for food production, supply and consumption we look at the ability for existing public and interstitial private/public spaces to facilitate safe access to food in the spirit of enduring community life.

The urban village and the informal economy and public space occupation

Due to rapid urban development in cities such as Shenzhen, urban villages usually are located in areas close to the CBD, major transport stations or high-density residential areas with relatively low residential and commercial rent. Therefore the ground and first floor of building and street space in the urban village are occupied as active spaces perfect for the informal economy. The layout of these spaces is disorderly, while public facilities are severely deprived and vertical space differentiation is significant. This informal economic model was not sanctioned by the government and many street vendors did not have legal licenses, sanitation, or food permits. As a result of what is formally regarded as visible chaos and messy urbanity, from the beginning of the 21st century China has sought to govern these informal spaces. The ‘Interim Provisions of Shenzhen Urban Villages (Old Villages) Renovation’ issued in 2004 clearly proposed regulations and methods for the remediation of urban village businesses, forcing many street markets and stalls to withdraw from Shenzhen, with new regulations continually introduced since then (Tian, Z., 2008. Current Business Style Status and Construction Research About Village In The City Of Taiyuan. Master. Taiyuan University of Technology)

The continuous increase in village shop rents, the processing of more expensive licenses, high commercial water and electricity prices, and the impact from the Internet market and gig economy on customary work has placed pressure on the viability of traditional informal economies. With the advent of COVID-19 and city closures these pressures have been exacerbated putting people’s livelihoods and the sustainability of urban village systems at extreme risk.

Focusing on the pre-COVID -19 retail food system urban villages were lively places where urban markets and food vendors combined with multiple restaurants serving a variety of local and national cuisines vying for space in streets, laneways, public parks and the interstitial space between public and private houses and shops. Access to food took many forms with close sharing and physical communication between village inhabitants. The food economy serviced poor and wealthy alike with the availability of flexible public space critical to the endeavor of feeding millions. Despite the increasingly regulated and developing city noted above, pockets of informality were still publicly accessible and highly visible and patronized day and night.

The coming of COVID-19 caused a rupture in the urban village economy that profoundly altered the way people practiced their food rituals and everyday needs. The individual businesses were hugely impacted with many stores closed or open for rent. The social life of the village closed down, the streets and interstitial spaces abandoned with many inhabitants either trapped in their rural homes or needing to abandon the city. A new, or rather an emerging, economy rose out of the need for food that was still being produced in the restaurants or stored in formal and informal markets to be delivered to hungry people at home. A new dynamic arose as a necessary facilitator in the flow of food from production to mouth. Deliverymen on scooters became the visible actors in networks of food production, accessed through online apps and promoting the spaces in the street and between outside and inside for food delivery systems resulting in implications for planning and social life. How were the streets and entrances to residential places reorganized to allow for hordes of delivery guys and their vehicles to navigate the journeys from restaurant/market to high rise home?

In the epidemic, these deliverymen are real heroes as they deliver food, vegetables, meat, and medicines to residents who cannot go out because the of government’s isolation regulations

An example, my friend lived in a village inside Shenzhen, Shazui Village. During the worst crisis in February, the food and service businesses in the village were almost all closed. So residents now have to order food or necessities from the internet. The courier or delivery man transports these materials to the unified entrance of the village to people who now gather at a unified location to collect their purchases. Because Shenzhen began to recover gradually in March, so did the village businesses. But people have now become more dependent on the Internet and local delivery. At first, only young people were good at using the Internet to buy food or commodities, then the epidemic caused many middle-aged and elderly people to use this way to shop. By the end of May, orders can be delivered to close by downstairs entrances further promoting the continuance of the informal food economy.

In the epidemic, these deliverymen are real heroes as they deliver food, vegetables, meat, and medicines to residents who cannot go out because the of government’s isolation regulations. Village committees actually blocked many of the street entrances and exits to traffic at the worst time. But with the end of this situation gradually, the signs of businesses reopening inside are evident in the glowing interior signs advertising network of takeaways open to people inside and outside the villages.  The deliverymen connect villages and the city as the key to these informal operations.

Learning to live with COVID-19 

Chengdu City in Sichuan Province proposed to restore the street vendors in early March 2020 and became one of the first cities to liberalize the stall economy. At present, Chengdu has set up 2234 temporary areas, and there are 17,891 stalls operating and providing more than 100,000 jobs. This was possible due to a change in national policy in response to the realization that the informal economy was critical to low income and urban poor people’s health and wellbeing. After the closing of the third session of the 13th National People’s Congress on May 28, Premier Li Keqiang’s appreciation of the stall economy directly led to nationwide tolerance of this informal economy for the first time in nearly three decades. One of Guanchao’s Sichuan classmates just told him that ‘He felt that all the people in Sichuan came out to set up stalls in an instant!’ The flexible economy, which include stalls, is back and people can restart their lives.

Now, when the city is recovering, flexible and informal public spaces provide residents with economic resources, because residents can set up stalls or do manual labor in a variety of small and large spaces at low cost. Recovering cities needs to start with the recovery of low-income people. In these urban village’s public spaces, we can find that residents have more opportunities to determine the function of the space. This has caused chaos to a certain extent, but it has also created the possibility of recovery.

Guanchao Lui & Gini Lee
June 2020

About the authors and the feature

Guanchao Liu obtained his Master of Landscape architecture from the University of Melbourne (2019). His graduating design thesis focuses on rebuilding the dynamic coastal environment and migratory bird habitats through using CFD software to verify the feasibility of proposing new coastal environments by created new terrain. Hi other research focus explores the form of public space in  Chinese urban villages and its significance for future urban and social development.

Gini Lee PhD is a landscape architect, interior designer and pastoralist and is Professor of Landscape Architecture at the University of Melbourne, and Adjunct Professor in Interior Design at RMIT University. She was the Elisabeth Murdoch Chair of Landscape Architecture at UoM from 2011 to 2017. Her academic research and teaching focuses on cultural and critical landscape architecture and spatial interior design theory and studio practice, to engage with the curation and postproduction of complex landscapes.


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Image source

1: Some of the first-class commercial streets in Shenzhen’s urban villages also provide uncompliant yet flexible and cheap space for informal street markets.

2: Yangmeigang Village Farmers Market, Longgang district, Shenzhen, 2018, a government built new indoor urban village market to re-organise street vendors into booth rental.

3: This is a very common snack vendor in China. Dozens or even hundreds of vendors open nightly to form a temporary snack street, hundreds of meters or even kilometers long.

6: In the time of the COVID-19 shutdown an entrance to the urban village with the deliverymen`s bicycles in the foreground in 7th February Shenzhen.The commercial street of the village was completely closed.

7: In April, the main entrance of the village was still under semi-enclosed management, and deliverymen began to provide food from the village to the surrounding city residents.


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