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Dongguan, a teeming metropolis of seven million people in southern China’s frenetic Pearl River Delta factory region, is the largest city in the world without an airport. Unless, of course, you count the long-distance bus station that calls itself “Dongguan Airport”, with an international and domestic departure sign (above the same door), a flight check-in desk and a giant advertisement for holidays in the Maldives. The only problem: the actual planes are an hour’s ride away in the cities of Shenzhen and Guangzhou.

Dongguan’s fake airport is indicative of the patchwork and bewildering development that has taken place in this city over the past 30 years. Few areas of China have experienced such meteoric growth during this time. Here, the Pearl River Delta has been transformed from a farming region into one of the world’s leading manufacturing centres since politician Deng Xiaoping set up the area’s first special economic zones in 1980. But while the influx of factories brought prosperity to the region – and set off one of the largest migrations in history – it also resulted in the rise of instant cities with a serious lack of urban planning.

In Dongguan’s case, the new city became a “free for all”, with little thought given to devising a central urban plan. Adam Mayer, a China-based architectural designer and blogger on Chinese urban development, says: “People were just ­putting up factories and housing as quickly as they could.”

As a result, Dongguan grew up as a collection of 28 self-contained factory towns (as well as a central business district) stretching across 2,500 sq km, an area the size of Luxembourg. Given the way it developed, the challenges for the city are now manifold: a terrible public transport system, a rapid increase in the number of cars, an economy heavily reliant on manufacturing and no sense of community – or even place. One gets a feeling of this riding the airport bus into the city surrounded by businessmen on their mobiles trying to compete with syrupy Chinese love songs on the radio.

It’s impossible to know where the city of Guangzhou ends and where Dongguan begins – the scenery is one endless tableau of squat, blue-roofed factories, muddy rivers choked with barges and gritty, half-completed apartment developments with gaping black holes where windows should be. Trucks of every sort dominate the road: tractor-trailers laden with metal rods; gas and oil tankers; and car carriers stacked with silver SUVs.

Residents have a hard time feeling connected with the city as a whole, due to the fact Dongguan has no rail system linking all of the outlying towns, only a series of highways and a complex public and private bus system. “In some ways, it’s similar to Los Angeles,” says Geoffrey Crothall, who visits Dongguan several times a year as communications director for the China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based migrant worker advocacy group. “You have to know how to get around to get anywhere.”

As crossing the city can sometimes take hours, many people don’t make ­frequent trips beyond their towns, unless for work. Zoe Zhou, a 25-year-old professional who works downtown, says she spends more than two hours commuting by bus every day. And if she misses the last bus at 19.40, she has to take a taxi. “It is really inconvenient for me,” she says. “The condition of the buses is also not so good – they’re smelly and dirty.”

Compounding the lack of cohesion is the demographic makeup of the city and the gap between rich and poor – problematic all over China, but particularly pronounced here. Dongguan is largely a Mandarin-speaking city in the heart of a Cantonese-speaking province because migrant labourers from other parts of the country make up 75 per cent of the population (over five million). And their world is starkly different from that of the wealthier residents in the city centre.

The town of Chashan, for instance, is lined with crumbling, featureless buildings with cracked cement, rust stains and broken tiles on the walls. Most stores sell industrial or construction materials; there are few food or clothing shops and little in the way of services. Those who have jobs often have to work six days a week, up to 12 hours a day.

Crime is also a concern. Outside an employment centre on a dusty road in the town of Shilong, Lan Liming, a 21-year-old migrant worker wearing a crystal-studded headband and heart necklace, says her mobile phone and bank cards were stolen from her room at the last factory she worked at. Xu Shijin, a 24-year-old from Hunan province, was cheated out of €100 – a huge sum for a young migrant – by a man posing as an employment agent. “I don’t like the life here. There are so many bad guys,” he says.

In downtown Dongguan, the government has made a great effort to create the appearance of a modern city, but some of the developments have an almost Potemkin feel about them. Millions were spent on a gleaming new theatre, library and science museum, but the broad concrete plazas surrounding them were so empty of people on a stifling weekday afternoon the day Monocle visited, it resembled a scene from North Korea.

Then there’s the New South China Mall, which was billed as the world’s largest shopping centre when it opened in 2005, but is now one of its most deserted. An over the top mash-up of Las Vegas, Venice and Paris – with a replica of the Arc de Triomphe, a 2km-long canal with gondolas for hire and a twisting, indoor -outdoor roller coaster – the mall has an astonishing 659,000 sq m of retail space, enough for 1,500 stores, but has failed to attract almost any vendors.

The paint is now peeling on the walls, the floor is littered with cigarette butts and the escalators stand still. “These big marquee projects are for the government guys to show off,” Mayer says. Beijing seems to be in agreement. In March, vice president Xi Jinping wrote in a magazine that such “luxurious and superficial ‘image projects’ waste people’s money and manpower”.

There are signs, though, that Dongguan is shifting course. One of the city’s biggest attributes is its young, highly driven work force, many of whom are deciding to put down roots in Dongguan instead of returning to their home provinces after their factory stints are over. Construction has begun on a 200km metro system that will eventually connect 21 of the towns and downtown districts on four lines, with the first to open by 2015. Another project will connect two large city parks via bridges and add improvements like bike and walking paths by next year.

KP Wang, a Taiwanese factory manager, says he’s seen changes in the city’s planning strategies. High-polluting industries have been forced out, illegal buildings have been torn down and new developments have followed well-considered blueprints. “It is a massive job to correct the problems caused by the last 30 years,” he says. “Even Americans know the difficulty and inconvenience in remodelling a house while living in it.”

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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