Chongming Recultivation

Xiaoran Zhang 
Master of Urban Design

Advised by:
Jonathan Kline
Stefan Gruber

Studio Coordinated By Jonathan Kline and Stefan Gruber

Themes: Narrative | Culture | Ecology

The thesis Chongming Recultivation selects Chongming Island, Shanghai as a model to explore the possibility of reshaping cooperative based village communities through bottom-up commoning practices. By reviewing the evolution of village community’s socio-physical changes at different stages of development in China and exploring emerging involvement opportunities into village community reformation, the proposal focuses on how commoning-based urban design can intervene into diverse forms of localized economy in village communities. By stressing the importance of actors' interaction within the transition system, the thesis focuses on exploring structural typology and bottom-up participation in changing villages' physical and social environment. Through developing various scenarios,  it builds up models for a knowledge and skill sharing system in and localized and self-organized economy for Chinese villages.


A System Emerging with Farming Culture

The culture of farming in rural China is rooted in the history of traditional cultivation system. Just like the way Chinese character “geng”(cultivation) is composed, cultivation requires the land and tool, and is closely connected to people that utilize them to produce, which forms a strong sense of self-organized community.

Based on traditional form of Chinese cultivation system, it explores a future model of self-organized, cooperative-based urban-rural community system that can support a healthier growth with greener economy, shareable resources and human-nature harmony.

The Enlarged Urban-rural Development Gap

The Chinese urban-rural imbalance is being enlarged since the People’s Republic of China was founded. Before 1978, the vast rural region was the development center of China. As the industrialization and opening policy moved forward, the economy development was largely transitioned to cities. This accelerated the huge migration from urban to rural - young people are moving to cities due to the increase of work opportunities.

As the migration continued, villages are becoming aging and hollowing, which causes unsustainability of the rural communities. There was no enough labor to manage and cultivate the farmland, which caused the deterioration of the farmland and village ecosystem. Therefore, villagers can no longer depend on domestic agriculture to make a living, and are segregated due to the remote location from city center.

Existing Imbalances

As Chinese urban-rural pattern is under change, the gaps are enlarged, therefore formed existing social. economic and environmental imbalances in rural area. There are three major imbalances that is leading to the unsustainability of villages today:

1. Migration Enlarges Imbalance. More and more villagers are leaving the villages, seeking job opportunities in cities, but can never enjoy the rights and resources as same as urban dwellers.

2. Industrialization Invades Nature. Due to the development of massive industrialized agriculture production, domestic farms can hardly make enough income to support themselves are segregated from production chain. Villagers are no longer collective economy contributors. Instead, they sell the farmland and work for factories as workers.

3. Over-Consumption Exploits Resources. As existing market is exploiting the natural resources, the farmland is deteriorating. Furthermore, the health concerns and deteriorating rural environment are becoming obvious.

Urban Milieu: Chongming, Shanghai
Chongming Island is located in the Yangtze River Delta Area in China, playing an important role as a food producer and provider with 2 hours driving distance from Shanghai, the metropolitan in China.

The island has a complete ecosystem and is expanding as time goes. Due to the independent location and well-developed irrigation system, the island has mostly preserved its original landscape pattern.

Within the metropolitan area, there are three municipal areas existing - cities including Shanghai and some county-level cities such as Haimen and Qidong, planned towns and administrative villages that are located on the island. Under such municipal administrative system, the Chongming Island is playing a role as a connector between cities, which creates an opportunity for its development.

Village Context

Based on the survey and illustration Design Harvest did in Xianqiao Village, Chongming, A picture is drawn to depict the communal and self-dependent lifestyle in the villages.

As we can see from the illustration Most of current villagers are elderly and workers. They are living self-sufficiently while only receive meager income. Through domestic ways of production and interaction, the villagers are living in a form of communal living an production village social and economy system.

The social network on Chongming Island today still looks similar to the traditional rural communities in China, which
is closely related to the well-field system formed in ancient China.

Commoning Framework as a Way of Empowerment

In the well-field system, one entire land is separated into 9 subdivided units. The central unit is public land, where villagers have to work together on the farmland and hand all harvest to feudal monarch. The rest 8 units are private land(villagers only have the rights of use), where villagers can live and harvest whatever they grow.

Even though the well-field policy was a tool for feudal monarch governance in earlier dynasties such as Shang and Zhou Dynasty, later in Song Dynasty, the famous thinker, Zhang Zai, proposed that such a system can empower villagers through transitioning land ownership to households and enabling free land transaction.

As the concept of well-system changed, it actually forms a system that empowers people rather than controlling. The public unit can be re-translated as a form of commons, where communal ways of lifestyle exist, and farmers can have more power over what they produce, maintain and share as a new form of collective.
A Typical Landscape to Intervene

The landscape of Chongming Island is a mixture of various nature and human-made pattern. There is a typical consistent pattern of villages at the central area of the island, most of which are well preserved as a traditional fabric of villages and farmlands.

In order to explore in depth into the intervention structures, a typical village community pattern is selected to be intervened. The pattern is located on the northwest of the island and belongs to Sanxing Town, where a completed village social and farming system exist, which can be intervened as a cooperative model.
Recultivation Cooperative Framework

In the process of constructing Recultivation Cooperative Framework, there are three steps planned:

1. Root. It means rebuilding the localized social network among the villagers to form mutual support and group as village community co-owners and co-hosts for community management and decision-making.

2. Connect. Through connecting planning and design professionals, the urban dwellers and migrate workers, the community can construct relationships with urban communities through different forms of economy such as CSA, potential employments and development projects.

3. Proliferate. The new villagers that are actively participating in the rural community innovation can encourage more events and engagement happening in the villages, which support the longer-term growth and sustainability of the villages.

Based on the rebalanced triangle model, three types of programs are proposed in Reclutivation Cooperative Framework, in order to encourage the diverse forms of engagment into Chongming village communities, including Farmers Market & CSA(Community Supported Agriculture), Tour & Co-housing and Industries & Workshops.

Intervention Typology

The three intervention structural typologies can engage into a commoning system in Chongming villages. By experimenting the rebalance system on a typical pattern in Sanxing Town, it both forms a recultivation system and multiple place-making scenarios.

The three structural typologies function as below:

1. Community open spaces that support diverse events and engagement in residential area.
2. Cultivation system that support mixed types of farming and plays as a model of regenerative sustainability.
3. Farming cooperation that encourage skill sharing and the spread of cultivation culture.

Models and Scenarios
Intervention Methodology

The intervention methodology is based on the analysis of existing condition of sites and the exploration of opportunity zones that can be containers of the intervention structures.

Scenario Map