Shenzhen: The “Instant City”

We will be starting a new monthly profile of cities around the world that have experienced unprecedented growth. Hopefully this will give insight into some of the massive challenges that planners and governments face in accommodating this growth and what some of these plans (or lack thereof) have produced.


This month we will take a look at Shenzhen, China. Known as the “instant city”, Shenzhen is a major urban area of almost 10 million people in China’s Guangdong Province, situated immediately north of Hong Kong. Owing to China’s economic liberalization, the area became China’s first – and arguably most successful – Special Economic Zone. Since the establishment of the Special Economic Zone in the late 1970’s, Shenzhen has seen unprecedented growth from a village of 30,000 to a city of over 325 times that.

Shenzhen in 1970

Shenzhen Today

The small fishing village of Shenzhen was singled out in the 1979 to be one of the first Special Economic Zones (SEZ) under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, the “father of modern China”.  Since Shenzhen is so close to the then rapidly growing Hong Kong, the SEZ was meant to be an experimental ground for development. The idea was that Shenzhen would be able to provide cheaper labor and land that could accommodate the private sector looking to expand their Hong Kong operations. This concept proved extremely successful. Through strong government planning and infrastructural development Shenzhen saw an average annual population growth around 30% for the next 3 decades. This was unequalled almost anywhere in the world. In 2007, it had a GDP of almost $100 billion dollars, ranking it fourth among all Chinese cities, and Shenzhen’s GDP per capita surpassed $10,000, the first Chinese city to do so. Shenzhen is also known as one of the cleanest large Chinese cities with over 50% of streets lined with trees and large parks and green spaces available to its residents.

However for a city that experienced the type of rapid growth, it was very fortunate to have had forward thinking city officials and planners to help manage its success. Shenzhen officials remarkably were able to implement a total of three master plans within the span of 25 years; each adding to the fuel and direction of growth.

Shenzhen's Urban Growth Boundary

The first master plan of 1986 put in six “cluster cities” that concentrated growth and infrastructure along three highways. In the ten years to follow this, unprecedented growth and lack of zoning controls lead to major urban sprawl in Shenzhen. By 1996, the urban sprawl  that had started only 17 years previously covered over 645 sq. kilometers of land, the same size as 11 islands of Manhattan. Shenzhen was slowly running out of land and most of the structures being built were low-density manufacturing and housing units. City planners were also concerned about livability and taking a page from more developed nations, created a new 1000 sq. kilometer growth boundary; the first of its kind in China. “Periphery growth clusters” were also implemented around the existing six “cluster cities” to encourage growth and greater density while even more infrastructure, highways and a massive subway system began construction.

Shenzhen's First Master Plan of 1986

Shenzhen's Second Master Plan of 1996

By the mid 2000’s when a third master plan was being drawn up; planners faced another dilemma entirely. The amount of space that could actually be used for development was dwindling, and quickly. Only about 100 sq. kilometers of legally developable land was left, and officials feared that without more space that the economic engine of Shenzhen would come to a halt. Officials were faced with a hard choice. Instead of diminishing the green growth boundary, Chinese officials designated more than 200 square kilometers of occupied land as “urban regeneration areas”. The idea was to clear dilapidated low-density buildings and properties to build newer, higher density facilities. The government opted to buy back occupied land from private stakeholders and would then build new facilities themselves or give large plots back to developers. This plan was reinforced by stricter building codes that encouraged higher density industries and residential buildings. This tactic proved to be successful; Shenzhen has added almost 3 million people since the last master plan was put in place.

Shenzhen's Third Master Plan of 2005

This unprecedented growth however did not come without its consequences. Besides the ever present problems of pollution and traffic that come with large cities; Shenzhen had a massive housing problem. Chinese “urban villages” or slums popped up illegally almost overnight on the designated growth boundaries and open spaces. Workers’ conditions and quality of life for the millions of migrants were often quite appalling with little in the way of government intervention. The problems that these workers faced is beyond the scope of this post but the immense dilemma of how to deal with millions of migrants moving into a city within such a short time categorizes many of the toughest problems that these mega-cities face. Even thought there are many problems that Shenzhen still faces, it will forever be in the history books as a city that experienced an unprecedented rapid and sustained growth rate for over three decades.


Shenzhen's Lychee Park

China’s Ghost Cities: A Documentary

An estimated 65 Million apartments sit empty in Chinese cities while millions of China’s urban residents live in overcrowded, rented apartments.  The scale of  China’s housing overstock is like nothing ever seen before.

Many stories and reports have emerged in the past few weeks about China’s scary housing bubble after Moody’s downgraded China’s property sector from ‘stable’ to ‘negative.’  Although it is difficult to understand the scale of how empty parts of urban China really are without traveling there, I found this Australian documentary by Dateline to be particularly illuminating.  It provides an accurate idea of the scale of this massive development overstock by walking through a few ghost cities, malls and highrises. Boing Boing describes it below:

It’s symptomatic of the growing divide between China’s rich and poor, which has left many Chinese without adequate housing. Unlike the US bubble, the Chinese property bubble isn’t founded on cheap credit, which makes the analyst hosting the show believe that it won’t burst in the same way as American one.

For more about China’s housing bubble read this discussion between leading researchers and economist from the New York Times: China’s Scary Housing Bubble. The future of urban development in China is both exciting and scary as there is potential for truly innovative cities to develop, however the housing bubble also will have global ramifications if the government of China can not find a way to slow unnecessary growth soon.

- Melissa