Rethinking Chinese urban borderlands, redeveloping cities and managing population density

In recognition of World Cities Day 2020, Dr Deljana Iossifova, Senior Lecturer in Urban Studies, School of Environment, Education and Development, discusses how urban residential compounds helped contain coronavirus and provided amenities for resettled communities.

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The last 40 years have been a period of massive socio-spatial transformations engulfing every city in China. 

The last forty years have been marked by the unprecedented growth of cities, both in terms of size and population, alongside a number of other phenomena that continue to draw the attention of urban scholars internationally: urban-to-rural migration, urban villages, urban renewal, urban infrastructure development and expansion and the emergent borderland urbanism.

The unprecedented scale of migration to the country’s cities was motivated by rural-to-urban migrants searching for better lives. Their presence in the city has led to growing demands for housing and the provision of a full range of public services, including sanitation and healthcare. As former villages were swallowed by the sprawling city, they were transformed into dormitories for the millions of rural-to-urban migrants who work in the city.

Inner-city residents who were resettled to new-built compounds on the edges of the city can now enjoy the availability of hospitals and ubiquitous metro links in their immediate vicinity.

Dr Deljana Iossifova / Senior Lecturer in Urban Studies, School of Environment, Education and Development

Simultaneously, municipalities were putting in place measures to upgrade or replace older inner-city neighbourhoods suffering from the results of scarce maintenance and massive over-crowding during past decades. The typically Chinese building typology of the high-rise residential compound continues to take the place of swaths of former lane housing, whose residents are resettled to brand-new homes at the edges of the city. High-rise residential compounds can house some 1,000 households and characteristically come with underground parking, plenty of communal greenspace as well as fences and walls with guards at the gates 24/7. They are managed by dedicated maintenance companies, but also part of a neighbourhood committee – the smallest unit of governance in China’s urban administrative system. 

Smart tech and sophisticated urban transformation: successfully containing the coronavirus

These high-rise residential compounds give residents access to a full range of infrastructures and services, regardless of their geographic location. The rapid and expansive development of infrastructure to cover all populated areas is one of the key features of China’s recent urban transformation. Inner-city residents who were resettled to new-built compounds on the edges of the city can now enjoy the availability of hospitals and ubiquitous metro links in their immediate vicinity. They can delight in the convenience of fully functional bathrooms with flush toilets in their homes, leaving behind the memories of the night pots and communal waste collection stations of the past.

China’s remarkable success in containing the spread of coronavirus in the country’s densely populated cities is due, at least in parts, to the spatial layout, physical features and micro-level governance of urban residential compounds described above. Their enclosed nature makes it possible to place entire compounds under quarantine as soon as infections are identified. Staff employed by management companies and committee officials work together to monitor quarantine arrangements and ensure official guidance is closely followed.

In addition, China quickly developed an app to track the COVID-19 infection status, contacts and movements of residents and made its installation mandatory for those wishing to pass through the gates of guarded residential compounds or gain access to supermarkets, cinemas or public transport. China made astute use of its citizens’ shared love of smart technology.

Resilient cities in the face of adversity

However, despite its rapid speed, urban redevelopment in China happens in increments. Cities are characterised by a kind of borderland urbanism, the co-existence of old and new urban neighbourhoods and thus the co-presence of multiple infrastructural systems (eg municipal sewage networks versus waste collection services). Such multiplicity makes cities more resilient to the possibility of disruptions – a particularly important feature in times of economic and environmental crises – in that it maintains alternatives for the management of urban processes. 

In short, although populous, China’s cities are managed to the smallest spatial level. This, in combination with the availability of multiple infrastructural alternatives, allows urban governance to respond in agile and differentiated ways to many kinds of possible disruption today and in the future.