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Vibrant Baishizhou: An urban village endangered #ShenzhenDiaries

All the while Mary Ann and Fu Na were with us in Delhi, we talked about urban villages. The discussions often left me confused and I had realized that we weren’t talking about quite the same animal. Our walk through Baishizhou, the first urban village we saw in Shenzhen, was all about finding the similar and understanding the different.

We take a narrow road into Baishizhou, walking alongside tall iron fencing that contain the various gated housing condominiums of OCT, privately built and owned, expensive, home to the better off, orderly, landscaped and pretty. At a cluster of shops at the village entrance, we find the little mobile phone with the resourceful entrepreneur who can fiddle around with sim cards and Indian mobile phones and get us connected, something the uniformed salesperson in the branded telecom store hadn’t been able to do. The cheerful shopkeeper’s daughter entertains us as he works. The lady next door selling buns cannot mask her curiosity. A number of village folk sit around, play mahjong, gossip. I feel at home, the hustle bustle is comforting.

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Inside Baishizhou, the shop-lined narrow streets are thronging with hundreds of children who are spilling out of the school gate ahead. The blue and checked uniforms appear to move with a sense of purpose towards whatever is scheduled next for them. We get some stares and shy smiles, hear a lot of chatter.  Conversation moves from child sex ratio to schooling practices and parental ambition. The busy streets, all manner of shops including the barber shops with the characteristic twirling striped cylinders, an excess of signages, walls pasted with advertisements for rental space and narrow, cluttered side alleys and narrow market lanes  are strongly reminiscent of similar bustling informal settlements in Delhi. We see the ubiquitous 25-liter water here in Baishizhou, the same as Mary Ann and Fu Na saw in Chakkarpur village, Gurgaon. Cables run along external walls and across the street. It’s a familiar kind of chaos.

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As we get accustomed to the eye level and crane our necks upwards though, we begin to  see how an urban village in Shenzhen is different from what we’re used to back home. The famous ‘handshake’ buildings are much taller here, 7-10 floors high as compared to the 3-4 floors in Delhi. They have tiled facades. Whoever built them had certainly used a plumb line!

Like in Delhi, villagers had redeveloped their plots to build high-rise apartments that they rented out to migrants. From the height and quality of the buildings, however, it seemed that they had access to more capital and better construction expertise. Once, we came across a single family home, a couple floors high and with space for a front yard and this offered us a glimpse of what Baishizhou might have been a few decades ago.

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At the edge of the village, we stare at a row of factory buildings slated for demolition. This is the first bit of Baishizhou to go in an inevitable cycle of demolition and redevelopment that has been ongoing in Shenzhen. Many more conversations about the inequitable impacts of redevelopment in Shenzhen are to follow, through which the relevance of the Baishizhou we see was brought home to us. The famous ‘chai’, the Chinese symbol for destruction, is stenciled across the structures, stark and grim.

As the shadows lengthen and we head back to the hotel, we watch an endless stream of people walking back to Baishizhou at the end of what would most likely have been a long working day. The prospect of hanging around till the streets became a frenzied den of leisure activity, largely focused around food (apparently people from Guangzhou atake care of their taste buds!) is welcome, but we haven’t had much sleep and rest is on our minds. And so we walk away.

Luckily for us, we do get a chance to revisit Baishizhou by night, the last evening before we head back to India. And though we miss the crowds, we do get a different sense of this village that probably never really sleeps.

 

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Some concerns with private “mixed use” #redevelopments #Affordability #London #Dockyards

Having visited both Berlin and London this year, I can’t help but think about how the metropolitan centers of the world are constantly reinventing themselves and how redevelopment has become a vital ingredient in keeping these “global cities” alive and kicking!

My friend and guide to London this year, Jhilmil Kishore is a conservation architect and, knowing my interest in housing and cities, she took care to point out to me the transformations in the city. As we strolled the streets, we talked about gentrification and affordability, about the failure of public housing and the increased dependence on the private sector as a provider of services. Not far from her own neighborhood, she showed me the high-end adaptive re-use projects and redevelopments at Southwark and also took me to the fantastically glittering privately-owned and managed business district of Canary Wharf.

Adaptive re-use along the Thames at Southwark near theLondon Bridge

Adaptive re-use along the Thames at Southwark near the London Bridge

More of it...all high-end apartments, offices etc in buldings that were once warehouses to store cargo that got off the ships!

More of it…all high-end apartments, offices etc in buldings that were once warehouses to store cargo that got off the ships!

Canary Wharf, a pretty financial district at the waterside

Canary Wharf, a pretty financial district at the waterside

Lots of suits! (this was a warmish day!)

Lots of suits! (this was a warmish day!)

Transit, offices, malls..the works! All high end!

Transit, offices, malls..the works! All high end!

Since the 2012 Olympics, this part of London has been busy getting a makeover. Experts have noted that public investments have now made surrounding areas attractive for private real estate developers. For instance, the Canary Wharf Group is embarking on a new project also in the dockland areas along the River Thames. They are about to redevelop Woodwharf, currently a 16.8 acre site for light industrial use, into a mixed use area reportedly with “3.1 million sq ft of office space, 1.25 million sq ft of residential development, 200,000 sq ft of retail space, and a 200,000 sq ft hotel” as mentioned in a news report. The residential areas will come up first, to complement the financial district at Canary Wharf. And a new transit line will connect the area to central London.

It’s definitely a positive that the project pushes mixed use as the way to go, but I’m wondering what the thinking is on catering to a range of price bands on residential and rental properties. A mixed use city block really reaches its potential when entrepreneurs, start-ups and mid-size companies can hope to do just as well as big corporates. And when a mix of different kinds of people can live in close proximity to each other. Of course in a city like London, we hope transit can solve some of those issues but I wonder if we rely too heavily on that one thing!

I do accept that developments like the proposed one can benefit other parts of the city, even if not geographically connected but related through a set of networks. Of enormous concern in this case is the impact on the existing communities in these areas. Earlier privately redeveloped areas haven’t really benefited local neighborhoods much, creating very few jobs for locals and usually displacing them as the rents and property prices become unaffordable post redevelopment. This thought provoking piece in the Global Urbanist highlights this aspect and suggests that more social investments are also needed if new developments like these are not to be seen as resentful and hugely traumatic by residents. How accountable is a private developer to do the right thing and create more inclusive neighbourhoods? This is a problem area, unless the city government lays down some ground rules. Once again, I don’t know how it works in London and maybe my UK-based friends can enlighten me.

As an urban planner, I’m always amused to see how planning tools and trends become marketing mantras for the real estate sector. Walkable, transit-oriented, mixed-use, smart, sustainable…all the right catch words for now but it doesn’t always mean the developments are actually being planned that way! In the end, no matter what the current trends are, developments need to see beyond financial returns if they are to have long-term benefits for the city.

Romanticizing the informal, loving the kitsch at Sarojini Nagar, Delhi- Feb 22, 2012

Sarojini Nagar or SN market is one of those places that evokes tremendous nostalgia in people who have lived in Delhi and especially those who went to college in this city. It’s where the middle class people in central and south Delhi gravitate for the best deals and widest variety in clothes, footwear and accessories. It’s where I now shop for veggies and fruits, usually once a fortnight or so.

I moved to Gurgaon end of 2003 and forgot the pleasures of Sarojini Nagar for a few years, especially after I was robbed of my wallet on a particularly busy Sunday in 2004 trying to find woollies for Udai, who was then an infant. I started frequenting SN market again about 15 months ago, when I needed to visit the neighboring Chanakyapuri area regularly for client meetings.

What I love most about SN is the last two lanes of the market, where all the hotch potch, chaotic shopping happens. You get the best deals, see the most interesting people and its fine to be entertained and walk through without spending a single rupee! The color, the confusion and the energy here beats the malls hollow.

In my experience, there are two distinct categories of urban experience and each has its own fan following. There is the planned development, grid sort of city that creates an ordered experience. And then there is the topsy turvy random chaos. I truly enjoy the latter. Informality turns me on and I can write ad infinitum about the benefits it brings. Its inherent mixed-use, mixed-income nature brings residents (and shoppers) choices, reduces cost of living, promoted a more interactive lifestyle. Planned areas in the Indian city are usually a disaster, where informality (and all the good stuff that goes with it) gets wiped out but short-sighted planning means that residents are denied the benefits of planned infrastructure as well!

Yes, I am romanticizing the informal, kitschy Indian development pattern and yes, it has its drawbacks (stubbornly, I will not discuss those here). Standing there in Sarojini Nagar last week and trying to shakily wield the camera of my new iphone, I was struck by how good the informality feels. What a pity it would be to lose this all, as we inevitably will if we go down the planned development path in the same manner as we have been the past several decades? Take a look!

Wires hanging, fruits, plastic utensils, knick knacks, it's a festive atmosphere every day at Sarojini Nagar

Color, color, color!

A swank new multi-level parking eases congestion, but the organized retail here is yet to take off! We'll see...

The backside view of the ad hoc temporary structures that command high rents and sell the good stuff! Part of the ambience 🙂

 

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