LEWI Research

Economic geography of unplanned commercial establishments: An investigation of Shenzhen’s urban villages  


The built environment of modern cities is largely shaped by urban planning rather than spontaneous development. While whether planned urban space adequately accommodates human needs remains heatedly debated, the increasing complexity of urban development continues to challenge the competence of planners and policy makers. In Chinese cities, given the rigid control of land use and development, planning generally goes undisputed. However, the distribution of urban activities is increasingly redirected by market forces, leading to unplanned development. Most commonly seen are various commercial establishments that have emerged spontaneously within and around the planned fabric of the urban environment, such as a convenience store popping up at the corner façade, a hair salon opened in the roadside garage and a studio concealed in an apartment building. Despite the downsides of these establishments, they not only meet market demand that is unheeded in city plans, but they also facilitate entrepreneurial endeavours for individuals who cannot afford regular premises. In general, unplanned commercial establishments are distributed sporadically. However, such establishments prevail in urban villages, which are migrant settlements that have been transformed from rural villages engulfed by urban expansion. In a state of quasi-urban jurisdiction where rural collective land ownership remains, the construction and utilization of buildings are beyond the control of planning or building codes. The high level of autonomy allows for excess commercial establishments to emerge in residential buildings and non-residential buildings. This research explores the spatiality of unplanned commercial establishments in Shenzhen’s urban villages. The configuration and distribution of unbridled commercial development are examined with respect to the intrinsic structure of the buildings and neighbourhoods that accommodate such activities as well as the land, labour, consumption, and capital markets within and beyond the neighbourhoods.




Research Grants Council (RGC), General Research Fund (GRF) HKBU12605715, 2016-2018, HK$488,500