Placing the Urban Village: A Spatial Perspective on the Development Process of Urban Villages in Contemporary China


The rapid urbanization of China since the mid-1980s has led to the development of a new spatial category, the urban village (chengzhongcun). The dominant neoliberal urban development regime approaches urban villages as a social, spatial, economic and political problem, and as targets for aggressive redevelopment and eradication policies. In this article, I propose a spatial perspective that makes use of several theoretical ‘anchors’ to analyze the influence of urban village spatiality on its development process and to explore alternatives to the dominant redevelopment model. I begin by examining the spatial conceptualization of the urban village as a non-place, arguing that this spatial reading undergirds the redevelopment-by-demolition model and tends to obscure alternative conceptualizations. I then move on to propose three alternative readings of urban village space, examining it as an everyday space, a liminal space and a neighborhood. Combining these three readings with the ‘non-place’ conceptualization provides a nuanced understanding of urban villages’ unique spatial attributes and social roles, by evoking spatial and social processes that take place in most urban villages across China. Taken together, these spatial readings challenge the social and spatial rigidity of dominant representations of urban villages and supply a much-needed spatially based conceptual framework that can be used to develop new urban planning models.