Rethinking the Urban Block
: Educational Infrastructure in Shenzhen

Yating Song:

Migrant workers buying movies, e-books, and musics from street stalls photographed by Zhiyou Zhang

 

The thesis studies the urban condition formed by labour-intensive industries and mobile capital ux in China’s Pearl River Delta (PRD) cities. It takes particular interest in Shenzhen’s urban transformation in relation to its industrial transformation, labour upgrading, social mobility and vocational education in the past ten years. On the one hand, social mobility accelerates the commodification of urban space. The city continues to get reworked under the abuse of relentless mobile capital as a new class of consumers arises from the self-upgraded workers. The new rich centre towards places with better welfare provision. Public welfare such as city parks and better schools get commodified and privatised. On the other hand, the majority of the migrant workers aggregated in the city centre, struggling for opportunity. Spaces for the migrants — e.g., overcrowded urban villages to provide affordable housing and old Danwei housing block centres becoming cheap working-living complexes — self- generated in the leftover urban space side-by-side with highly invested commercial developments. This thesis argues from the angle of social mobility that the dualised landscapes belong to the same system and are formed while marketization privileged some — mainly the more skilled and educated — and marginalised the other. Urban conflict lies in the state’s irresponsibility in providing basic welfare, especially education, to the floating population and the struggle of the migrants to buy their access to basic services that are in return critical to their labour reproduction. Yet these working and living spaces are where, via education interventions, the earnings, social status and lifestyle of the migrant workers can be changed within generations, and new forms of business operations can be formed. Under this con- text, the thesis studies the potential of using educational architecture project to recreate the urban block as a way to use these leftover urban spaces to drive a city’s transformation and enters a general critique of city-making logic that excessively relies on speculative capital.

Real Estate Developers Presented Imagery of the Huaqiang North Electronics Trading Zone as “the front window of the PRD’s electronic industry” (left). Daily Working Route of People Behind this Prosperitym right below the mase high-rise building (right)

Due to better education Hong Kong provides, each year, 30,000 pregnant women from Mainland China give birth in Hong Kong in order for the kids to achieve Hong Kong citizenship. Each day, 16,000 Trans-boundary schoolchildren pass the Hong Kong – Shenzhen custom to go to school in Hong Kong near border.

Typical Single Apartment-Newly built for Office Workers in Central Shenzhen-Rent: $480 / month

Starting from China’s Opening-Up in 1979, located on Hong Kong and Mainland China’s border, Shenzhen has been China’s gateway towards the capitalist world. The Shenzhen Special Economic Zone (SEZ) was China’s test bed in introducing Hong Kong’s foreign capital, advanced administrative model, technology and production model into China’s market economy. The effect of the SEZ formed an industrial chain within the region called the Pearl River Delta (PRD) Model, with Hong Kong as the main driver and Shenzhen as the gateway spreading production industry to other PRD cities.

In 2001, Rem Koolhaas and the Harvard Design School published Great Leap Forward, a collection of essays recording and attempting to extract from the boom in Shenzhen and the PRD. Although remains critical of the undersupply of infrastructure, repetitive constructions, and poor living condition of the floating population, Koolhaas generally finds the dynamism and unpredictability of real estate development in the socialist market economy “a source of freedom”. [1] To Koolhaas, the chaos created by the infusion of state and foreign capital signifies modernization at an unprecedented speed and scale. Seemingly absurd juxtapositions of activities happen in enclaves in every scale: cities of exacerbated difference, zones and blocks. With real estate designed less for occupation than for investment, Koolhaas suggested the demise of the role of planning and design, claiming that under the pressure of the market, the only strategy left is capitulation. [2]

Yet, 10 years since this book’s publication, Shenzhen has established a solid base for knowledge economy, forming production- based bonds with Dongguan, Huizhou and Shanwei. Power relations have changed within the Pearl River Delta, with Shenzhen turning from an industrial driver to a leader in the tertiary sector instead of Hong Kong. 2011 also saw the tearing down of the border separating the rural part and the SEZ, marking the loss of Shenzhen’s special identity and the start of its normalised urbanization. While Shenzhen and the other PRD cities continue to get reworked under the abuse of relentless mobile capital and short- term interests, another force shaping the city emerged. While the book remains silent on the labour-intensive industry upon which the new economy depends, it also fails to foresee the rise of a new class of consumers from the migrant workers, who have now taken on a major role in shaping the city landscape. Moreover, social mobility of the mass labour has become a drastically strong force in creating an urban landscape that is highly dualised:

On the one hand, social mobility accelerates the commodification of urban space and the creation of new centres. The migrant workers laid-off during the market reform in 1990s either found their new position in private enterprises via a series of self-sponsored skill upgrading courses (night schools, vocational training institutes, etc.), or started off their own micro businesses. By 2008, 98.5% of Shenzhen’s enterprises are small and micro enterprises (SME’s), with a total contribution to 65.2% of Shenzhen’s GDP. A new class of consumer arises accompanying the self-upgrading of the mass labour.

New city centres are formed firstly, where the location prevails in potential capital growth and large commercial mega-plots are developed. Secondly, with welfare commodified due to the state’s irresponsibility in providing it to the floating labour, the new rich centre towards places with better welfare provision. Public welfare such as city parks, better schools, etc. was surrounded and privatised by housing developments sold at an extremely high price. Meanwhile, with education being the main factor in one’s social mobility, new developments centring on high-quality education provision are becoming more and more popular.

One extreme example is the new towns development in the New Territories of Hong Kong, near the border towards Shenzhen. Due to the better education that Hong Kong provides, each year, 30,000 pregnant women from Mainland China give birth in Hong Kong in order for the kids to achieve Hong Kong citizenship. Each day, 16,000 trans-boundary schoolchildren pass the Hong Kong – Shenzhen custom to go to school in Hong Kong near the border. Developers thus purchase large amounts of agricultural land to develop new communities with schools, housing and hospitals for mainland families with trans-boundary schoolchildren. This consequentially leads to various large protests among Hong Kong citizens and tension between the two cities.

On the other hand, the majority of the migrant workers aggregated around the commercial centres struggling for opportunity. Most of them work in labour-intensive electronic businesses or the service sector. In order to be close to work and work longer hours, the workers crowd up in high-density housing in mini- mum living standards with minimum provision of social services. Drawn from Marginalization in Urban China by Fulong Wu and Chris Webster , these spaces provide ‘affordable’ spaces for the marginalised migrant workers who are indispensable to the urban manufacturing and service economy. [3] Marginalization in the Chinese city context is less associated with income poverty and more to the migrants’ segregation to the city through the deprivation of welfare and rights to the city in the absence of citizenship. Contrary to ‘high-poverty neighbourhoods’ in the west, that these mi- grant neighbourhoods are substantially linked to the mainstream urban society through labour markets and poverty is less the issue, since the migrant workers’ minimum wage is usually higher than the city’s unemployment insurance allowance.

Hong Kong and Shenzhen developement in the last 20 years compared.

 

What segregates them is the massive struggle of the migrants to generate the financial ability to buy their access to basic services that are critical to their labour reproduction. This forms the contrasting landscape that, side-by-side with the highly the invested developments in the commercial centres, ‘urban patches’ self- generate in the leftover space in between them. These spaces are leftover in a sense that private speculative capitals have difculties getting in. They can be categorised into three types:

  1. Urban villages
  2. Old Danwei blocks centres
  3. 
Back streets with poorly constructed facilities (restaurants, pharmacies).

For Shenzhen, the dualised landscapes — either the new centres or the over-crowded leftover spaces are formed by the same market logic and belong to the same system. Marketization privileged some — mainly the more skilled and educated — and marginalised the other. Yet in both cases, urban conflict lies in the state’s irresponsibility to provide welfare to the floating population, and education has become the entry ticket for basic rights in the city, including to enjoy social welfare. It is under this context that I proposed to rethink the relationship between these dualised urban landscapes with the intervention of an educational project. The Shenzhen micro businesses are where, via education interventions, the earnings, social status and lifestyle of the workers can be drastically changed within generations. New scales and new forms business operations become possible. Urbanity created by a new relationship between different stakeholders can be imagined.

1979 – 2010, a city de ned by two borders (left)
1980s – 2000s Hong Kong as Industry Chain Driver of the PRD (right)

Extensive Developments in the Pearl River Delta Cities

Shenzhen’s Marketisation and Industrial Upgrading in Relation to Labour

 

Interpreting Henri Lefebvre’s notion of heterotopia (as urban practice) and isotopy (as the accomplished and rationalise spatial order of capitalism and the state), David Harvey in Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution states that spaces for the lower class are potential for revolutionary changes. In the project, to propose an educational architectural project here, rather than to deal with spaces for the unprivileged, is to deal with the in-between, the marginalised potential of transforming into the new central, both in terms of the space and the people. The in- between in the thesis is argued to be the potential space of revolutionary urban change, in terms of a new definition of the public and private can be searched and the relationship between them can be rethought.

With education to increase the social mobility of mass labour aggregated in the leftover urban space, there might be the potential to not only transform the urban marginal into new centres but also to generate a new form of development that rethinks the relationships between Shenzhen’s knowledge industry, the mass labour, enterprises, public welfare, and private real estate investments. It is under this context that the logic behind city making described in the Great Leap Forward is revisited and an alternative model of the speculative development is searched for.

Residential Activities in the Huaqiang North Industrial Block in 2010
Educational and Cultural Activities in the Huaqiang North Industrial Block in 2010

 

Disciplinary Question

Why and how can vocational education or education in general, social welfare and infrastructure be conceived together to produce urban spaces that drives the transformation of the city?

Urban Question

How can educational infrastructure become a strategy to conceptualise urban space, bringing together various stakeholders and different scales of developments?

Design Question

How can educational space become the driver in upgrading the labour in network society and transform the interiorised urban blocks to produce a different quality of the urban?

To identify and study the multi-scalar research question, the re- search methodology comprises two interrelated aspects: urban study and typological study. The urban study is set out to identify and understand Shenzhen’s planning logic, urban form, and specific dualised landscape in socio-economic terms. A site is chosen according to the research questions. Via mapping study of the larger region and case study of block-scale and architectural-scale, the relationship between its economic rationality, governance structure and social context is examined.

Typological analysis is used while extracting the research question to a narrower architectural question by identifying the form of vocational educational architecture as mediator between the state, enterprises and labour individuals. This conclusion is used to raise a research hypothesis, after which a design project based on typological transformation is proposed. The design is used in this study not as a solution or conclusion of the identified problems but as discussion material to provide further insights into the research.

The research is organised in three sections. The first section brie y introduces the background of Shenzhen, focusing on its industry, the condition of its labouring population, and the associated urban conditions. This chapter explains the interest of the research and intention behind the selection of the researching questions. It also deliberates on the key terms used. In the second section, a research hypothesis is raised based on the conclusion from the previous chapter and typological case studies. A site is chosen for closer study and a design is proposed based on the problems de- ned. The proposal is instrumentalised by a series of case studies of existing space in the site and related architectural projects. In the third section, we will elaborate on conclusions drawn from the design and enter a detailed revisit of the city making logic in the Pearl River Delta, how it has changed and what the alternatives are.

Organisation diagrams of 5 case studies of vocational education institutes in the UK, drawn out from different socio-economy contexts.

Strategic project development
Phase 2: towards tertiary (left)
Phase 3: tertiary and quaternary (right)

Masterplan Phase 1

Programmatic components of the project

View of one a node

Third floor plan 

Plan detail

Atrium, Node, Plots, High Rises

 


Notes:
[1] Ellen Dunham-Jones, ‘The Irrational Exuberance of Rem Koolhaas’, in Peggy Deamer (Ed.), Architecture and Capitalism: 1845 to the Present (London: Routledge, 2013), p. 166.
[2] Judy Chung Chuihua, Jeffrey Inaba, Rem Koolhaas and Sze Tsung Leong eds., Great Leap Forward (Cologne: Taschen, 2002), p. 145.
[3] Fulong Wu and Chris Webster, Marginalization in Urban China (Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010), p. 7.
[4] David Harvey, ‘Henri Lefebvre’s Vision’, in Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution (London: Verso, 2012), p. xvii.
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