Urban villages or village in the city (城中村) are villages that located on both the outskirts and the downtown segments of major Chinese cities, such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen (北上广深). They are often surrounded by rising skyscrapers, transportation infrastructures, and other modern urban buildings.
Modern life in China’s urban village is very different from that of the traditional agricultural way of life due to the lack of farmland. In urban village, different landowners build multi-story apartments to rent or sell them to the city’s floating population, who are not able to afford an apartment in the better parts of the city. Urban villages are not regulated by any form of centralized urban planning. Urban villages are a unique phenomenon that formed part of China’s urbanization efforts. Most of them are heavily populated, intensely developed, and generally lack good infrastructure. Some might argue that urban villages have also become the breeding grounds for social problems such as crime, drug addiction, alcoholism, and prostitution. However, some places can also be very lively and able to provide affordable accommodation for newcomers to the city. Some villages’ building density is greater than 70%. They are composed of crowded multi-story buildings ranging from 3 to 5 (or more) floors, and narrow alleys, which are difficult for vehicles to pass through. Inside the villages, it can be quite damp and dark, and the lighting may need to be kept on even during the daytime hours.
China’s household registration system has also played an important role for the development of urban villages. The villages used to be located on the outskirts of the city, but with the expansion of the city, farmlands formerly cultivated by the villages were compulsorily purchased and turned into urban land by the government whereas the villages themselves were reserved due to the high social and economic costs, to compensate the villagers for their lost dwellings, the government had to arrange jobs and larger apartments in the city for these unskilled villagers. Such inefficient planning was usually abandoned during the early period of China’s reforms.
Soon after their purchase, the villages tend to be surrounded by rising skyscrapers. though situated in the midst of the urban area, they are still “rural” and villagers still share a rural household identity in terms of municipal administration. Consequently, the villages become de facto independent kingdoms, outside of urban planning, infrastructure construction, and other forms of administrative regulations and public policy.
Because of the prosperity of the neighboring area, the value of the villages’s land also increased dramatically. Village landowners became rich landlords and built much larger buildings in the village, and try to rent or sell those apartments to potential individuals, making any urban renewal planning impossible due to the hugh amount of compensation that would need to be paid out. While the villages are often a hub for a transient population, governments are wary of any plans to rapidly remove them, fearing possible negative social effects and instability in the society.