The Comedy of the Commons

Incremental Renewal of Urban Villages in Shenzhen

Wenzheng Wu

“Surrounding the city with villages” was an explicitly political, economic, and social strategy of the Great Leap Forward in China during the 1970s. The Mandarin verb “to surround” can also be translated as “to lay siege to”, highlighting the rural basis of the Chinese Revolution. Meanwhile, the establishment of Shenzhen has signaled the beginning of a new era in Chinese history: Shenzhen’s urbanization is self-consciously referred to by urban planners and architects as, “surrounding the villages with the city.” Indeed the speed of urbanization in Shenzhen has been so fast that villagers who once surrounded the city have had no time to move out.

Thanks to the collective land ownership, the villagers have the ability to act in a “common” way which is collectively choosing “informal bottom-up urbanization” in reaction to the top-down land collecting process by the state. This attempts to practice commoning might have the chance to work, but the selfishness of people makes it a typical “tragedy of commons”, where everyone is building density by adding more floors, ultimately deteriorating the overall living conditions.

My thesis puts forward a strategy aiming at bringing villagers together to act collectively in the rehabilitation and redevelopment of the neighborhood in order to improve the living conditions while retaining the morphological, cultural, and social characteristics of the urban village’s milieu. Rather than predetermining a fixed master plan, my proposal will propose a set of rules that guarantee specific spatial attributes, while leaving other parts open for negotiation. Thus, I aim to balance preserving the informal character of urban villages, while articulating individual interest in such a way as to constitute common interests and induce a gentle urban renewal


Let the uneven distribution of social resources in Urban Villages in Shenzhen, be addressed to benefit both villagers and tenants, through an incremental soft urban renovation process led by a commoning cooperation which involves the power of both state, market and civic sector.