Affairs

Urbanism

Looking for a plan— Dongguan

Preface

What happens when urban planning goes wrong? The answer is Dongguan, a metropolis hastily erected on the back of a 1980s economic boom. With poor transport and half-empty shopping centres, life is a struggle. But authorities may finally be taking note.

China, Dongguan, Pearl River Delta, Urban planning

My city fixes:

Monocle sends an urbanist to Dongguan

Michael Kokora, Hong Kong

Acutely aware of its less than clean image, Dongguan has spent the past few years on a rescue mission trying to build itself a new reputation. This came in a predictable format common to nearly every new Chinese city – an over-scaled rectangular plaza with a government building at the head of its long axis, flanked with cultural buildings. The scale of the 350,000 sq m plaza is so daunting that people rarely venture in, except for the occasional staged government photo op. This newly built city centre exists only as a symbol – an enormous poster-sized backdrop superimposed onto one of the largest production landscapes in the world.

Instead of desperate symbols of order, govern- ment planners should embrace what they already have – vibrant factory cities filled with China’s rural youth. In Dongguan, the factories are grouped into zones by type: textiles, toys, food processing, furniture, building components, electronics and so on. Within each zone, each factory is self-contained with communal living, eating and bathing facilities. Rather than isolating these factory towns from one another (one only needs to read the recent headlines about the string of suicides at Foxconn’s Apple factory), they could be directly linked together and connected to surrounding villages.

In fact, Dongguan is planning metro lines that will connect to the Shenzhen and Guangzhou systems. But it needs to link up the factories and allow greater freedom of movement between these areas and neighbouring villages.

Large corporations should be required to donate a specific percentage offunds for community services such as daycare, schools, recreation facilities and even universities for the factories. Young workers sacrifice further education to learning a single task and thereby limiting the future potential of China’s labour force.

Rather than allowing these young people’s skills to expire when the market turns elsewhere, they could be educated while they work and generate an educated and diversified labour force. Additional communal facilities would allow greater social interaction between factory cities while engaging the surrounding urban fabric.

Greater engagement and investment by both factory owners and the government could result in greater environmental efforts and achievements as well. In other words, rather than building expensive superficial projects, government planners might only need a gesture. A simple set of guidelines could create a grassroots effort to expand and develop a completely new form of life-work urbanism. The result may well be a progressive and innovative workforce that could generate a new type of city planning the world has yet to see.

Michael Kokora is an associate at architecture and urbanism practice OMA where he leads the design of the Shenzhen Stock Exchange and Chu Hai College in Hong Kong, both under construction. He is an assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong.

Welcome to Dongguan

  1. It has the world’s largest shopping mall. One problem: there are almost no tenants.
  2. No risk of sunburn. In 2007 the city enjoyed 213 smog-filled days.
  3. Seven million people but no airport. If you like sitting on buses, you’ll love Dongguan.
  4. Who needs money? The average monthly salary is a modest €140.
  5. It’s a bit like Luxembourg. Well, it is the same size.

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