Villages in Development

June, 2009

Harvard University Graduate School of Design

Professors Margaret Crawford and Marco Cenzatti

with Nilay Mistry, Dorothy Tang, Gena Wirth, Adam Christian, Max Hirsh, Lily Huang, Minyoung Kim, Nick Smith and Jianhang Gao

This is the first in a series of seminars, workshops, and studios that will identify ways in which villages in the Pearl River Delta can play a more active role in the process of development and urbanization that is rapidly changing the spatial, economic and social landscape. Rather than starting from the expansion of cities and the dynamics of globalization, we pay particular attention to the socio-economic, cultural, and physical characteristics of villages themselves as the starting point for local development. Our focus on local conditions and participation can intersect with central and local governments’ top-down planning efforts to produce a more stable and equitable urbanization beyond the boundaries of the individual villages.

Given the vast differences between China’s regions and even between individual villages, the workshops are limited to the Pearl River Delta area – the Chinese region that has been developing most rapidly over the last twenty-eight years. Furthermore, given the study’s attention to conditions specific to individual villages, each semester we select two to four case studies. For this year, we chose two villages from the Panyu district of Guangzhou: Longmei, which is rapidly becoming a “village in the city” and Xiani, still a largely rural village.

The Question of Villages

Rural villages have been the building blocks of Chinese society for millennia. However, broad changes over the last two decades are drastically transforming their social, economic and physical structure. In rapidly urbanizing areas, such as the Pearl River Delta, sprawling cities are increasingly coming into contact with the once-isolated villages, often surrounding them, appropriating their agricultural fields, modifying their way of life, and restricting their ability to survive. Even when these changes improve the villagers’ economic conditions, often they are accompanied by a loss of a village’s identity, an impoverishment of its cultural and social life, and a degradation of its built and natural environment.

Over the last several years both local and central government have recognized the need to support villages. This shift of attention became evident in March 2006, when the Fourth Session of the 11th National People’s Congress proposed guidelines for the development of a “New Socialist Countryside” and writer Feng Jicai addressed the legislators calling for protection of village culture. At the local level, following the Congress’ guidelines, local planning bureaus have produced countless village plans.

Starting from What is There

Attention from central and local governments, however, may sometimes lead to a distorted view of villages. Villages can easily end up being seen as remnants of the past and in need either of drastic changes to fit with the new, modern China, or preservation, frozen in time for their historical value. Yet villages are already part of the new China. In the Pearl River Delta, like in other developing regions, they provide housing and services for migrants. They are also the location of the manufacturing plants that support the regional economy. Even when agricultural production is still the main activity, its output has changed, in response to growing demand for fresh food and local products from nearby urban centers. Villages are also the sites for many large new residential developments.

The purpose of our workshops is to complement government-initiated village planning by shifting perspective and considering the positive influence that villages can have if they are recognized as active agents in the development of the region. Thus our starting point is the villages themselves and what is already present there – problems, positive assets, and opportunities.  These become openings for physical, social, and economic development. In particular, we are focusing on two areas of planning intervention:

1.    Interventions that can improve the daily life of villagers, residents, and visitors (such as public spaces, leisure, landscape, and other everyday activities).

2.    Interventions supporting and extending economic activities already present in the village as a starting point for developing a local competitive advantage.