The Shenzhen Effect

The story behind Shenzhen’s three-decade transformation from village to megacity.

Words Juan Du
Illustration Michael Tada


Shenzhen Speed” and “Shenzhen Miracle” are repeatedly used to describe the exceptional rate of growth in China’s fastest-growing megacity. Since 1979 it has sustained an average annual GDP growth of 25%, a fact broadly celebrated by mainstream media locally and internationally. More than any other city, Shenzhen has come to represent China’s rapid modernization and urbanization since its economic reforms in the 1980s — its swift rise to success propelling the city to become a model of urban planning and development within China and the rest of the world.

According to a 2014 report released by the United Nations, Shenzhen also holds the world record for the highest rate of growth in the past 40 years, surpassing all other global megacities by a wide margin. The next highest rates were Dhaka, Lagos and Kinshasa, each expanding between 5–6% annually. Shenzhen is the newest of all of these cities, and its population is rumoured to be grossly underestimated.

“Shenzhen holds the world record for the highest rate of growth in the past 40 years, surpassing all other global megacities by a wide margin.”

A 2015 report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development doubles the UN’s statistics, showing Shenzhen’s population at 23.3 million. The official Shenzhen Statistical Yearbook lists 10.6 million, while most recent academic research on Shenzhen suggests the population stands at around 14 million. From administrative zoning to residency definitions there are many potential factors contributing to these discrepancies; what is not disputed is that Shenzhen grew into a megacity with over 10 million migrants from a rural enclave of just 22,000 people.

The massive population influx in the city’s first two decades was dubbed the “Shenzhen Migration Tide,” with more than 300,000 people arriving each year. The state was faced with the task of constructing massive numbers of affordable housing for the next 20 to 30 years — an unprecedented task for any government in the world. Unsurprisingly, the then newly-founded Shenzhen municipal government simply could not keep up with demand, unable to build fast or cheaply enough to accommodate the masses arriving with meagre provisions. So what did happen? How and where did the migrant population find shelter?

To answer this particular question is to reveal a record that Shenzhen is less proud to hold. The city now has a massive population living in illegally built housing and unregulated neighbourhoods called ‘Villages in the City’. There are an extraordinary number of urban villages that exist in contemporary Chinese cities: approximately 500 in Beijing, 200 in Guangzhou and more than 300 in Shenzhen. What distinguishes Shenzhen from the others is that it has by far the largest population living in its urban villages — it is estimated that they house half of the city’s population.

While many are in great need of infrastructural upgrades, they are nevertheless full of colourful street life, small-scale public spaces and plentiful pedestrian activity — a vibrant urbanity that is rarely found outside of these enclaves. Similar to Latin America’s favelas or India’s slums, they operate in the grey zones of existing judicial frameworks and are representative of a unique type of urban informality in Chinese cities.

The socio-political process of ‘Villages in the City’ is complex. The term ‘village’ refers to the origins of these sites as agrarian settlements. Contrary to Shenzhen’s myth of a single, small fishing village, there were hundreds of productive rice farms and fishing communities in the region. To build the city, the government negotiated with each village and purchased the majority of their agricultural land for the new economic zone. These old enclaves are distributed throughout the city, from the urban core to suburban regions, and are located in the most densely-developed and populated areas.

Even in the earliest days of Shenzhen, villagers housed tenants in their own homes. However with escalating demand they saw opportunities to make extra income in addition to their village-run light industry factories. Each villager financed the demolition of his own two-storey home to build additional floors on the same restricted footprint. These were all against the numerous government regulations, but by 2010 the villagers had collectively built 350,000 towers, providing over 100 million square metres of cheap housing throughout the city. The construction quality, while not ideal, is of substantially higher quality than most slum areas around the world.

Unlike most megacities, built upon urban centres inhabited continuously for hundreds, if not thousands of years, Shenzhen has compressed the urban evolution process into only three decades. There are many unintended consequences of this compression with regard to the urban development of the ‘city’ and continued survival of the ‘village’.

“Unlike most megacities, Shenzhen has compressed the urban evolution process into only three decades.”

The coexistence of agricultural, industrial, commercial and other transitional industries provides a wide economic base for the city and a variety of employment opportunities for the migrant population. The continued clanship of the villages provides a strong community organisation, allowing each village to operate as productive entities throughout the city’s rapid economic transitions: from the initial agricultural, to industrial, and currently the commercial and service industries. The relatively lax law enforcement under the new city governance provides a legal grey area for the bottom-up experimentation with citizen-built affordable housing. Lastly, the unique spatial pattern of the former villages mean that Shenzhen’s most affordable housing is evenly distributed throughout its most urbanized centres, enabling the majority of the population to live near their places of work.

The phenomenon of Shenzhen’s urban villages holds important lessons for the rest of the world’s megacities, particularly with regard to both the inadequacies of formal urban planning and the potential for self-organisation and informal development. Dispelling its perception as a ‘necessary evil’, Shenzhen could serve as a persuasive example of informal urbanization as a great asset to the planned city. Without urban villages, Shenzhen could not have grown so rapidly into a relatively stable and functioning megacity. As we search for answers to solve the urban ills of our megacities, the solutions could be hidden in plain sight.


This is article is from Weapons of Reason’s second issue: Megacities.
Weapons of Reason is a publishing project to understand and articulate the global challenges shaping our world by Human After All design agency.

Created in partnership with…

D&AD