Cahier #3 The Hackable City International: Lessons from Athens, São Paulo and Shenzhen

Cahier #3 explores a series of concrete hackable citymaking practices in Athens, São Paulo and Shenzhen.  Despite being situated on different continents and having distinct traditions and political systems, we found a number of dynamics around civic initiatives in these cities that further informed our Hackable city model.

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Over the last few years, the Amsterdam neighborhood, Buiksloterham, has grown into an internationally recognized icon, exemplifying new modes of citymaking. Numerous international media outlets, including The New York Times reported on the former brown eld location that now positions itself as a living lab for the circular economy. Delegations from cities around the world have visited Buiksloterham to study the collaborative approaches toward urban development that have emerged there.

In our own research program, we explored these models of urban development as examples of ‘hackable citymaking’: collaborative urban development practices, in which new technologies are employed to open up urban institutions and infrastructures to systemic change, in the public interest. Our goal was to explore opportunities, as well as the challenges presented by the rise of new media technologies for open, democratic, collaborative citymaking processes. How can citizens, design professionals, local government institutions, and others employ digital media platforms for collaborative processes like urban planning, management, and social organization – to contribute to a livable and resilient city, with a strong social fabric?

This approach can also be placed in a broader, international context. All over the world, we recognize examples in which citizens, social entrepreneurs and professionals have started to organize themselves in local communities to achieve collective goals, and realize public values.

New media often plays a role in the organization of these collectives. The rise of these types of practices leads to the redefinition of existing roles and relationships between citizens, professionals and government. Professionals often play a key role as initiators, facilitators or curators of these collectives. In some cases, city officials and local governments have started to accommodate or even stimulate these collective practices, whereas in other examples, they have merely tolerated (or even hampered) them – questioning their democratic legitimacy.

Considering the attention Buiksloterham was receiving internationally, and the overlap with similar approaches emerging in other cities across the globe, it seemed appropriate to organize an exchange program; to compare experiences, and explore the international relevance of the hackable city-model. To what extent are international examples of collaborative citymaking practices similar to those we identified in Buiksloterham, and what can we learn from them? And on a more theoretical level, how can these examples further inform our own model?

To answer these questions, we organized three study trips to São Paulo (Brazil), Athens (Greece), and Shenzhen (China). In turn, representatives from these cities visited Buiksloterham, and the conclusions of our trips were presented during a debate staged at the International Architecture Biennale, Rotterdam, in the summer of 2016. This Cahier #3 The Hackable City International: lessons from Athens, São Paulo and Shenzhen reports our findings. The findings from our initial research in Buiksloterham are reported in the companion Cahier #2 Design Probes for the Hackable City in Amsterdam Buiksloterham. The hackable city-model underlying our research is described in detail in Cahier #1 The Hackable City: a model for collaborative citymaking.

Each of the three cities we visited has its own dynamic character, and relevance to our research. Sao Pãolo exemplifies emerging citizen-and professional-driven citymaking practices. After decades of privatizing public space, a new generation of professionals has sprung up, bringing with them a renewed interest in the appropriation of public space. Several civic organizations are actively occupying public squares, or campaigning for more formal agreements to transform traf c thoroughfares into (temporary) public spaces for pedestrians and cyclists. In the Haddad-administration, they found a listening ear. One of the aldermen, an architect himself, investigated new city making paradigms, in which urban sites are developed in close cooperation with local populations.

Athens, in turn, is a European city that can be viewed as a laboratory for the future – for better or for worse. The financial crisis, and subsequent austerity measures, led to the government withdrawing from many public provisions. Civic collectives have taken over some of these functions. Meanwhile, architects have become especially interested in organizing collaborative citymaking practices. This approach is considered a paradigmatic break from the traditional, individualistic development of the city; a series of isolated lots containing mid-sized apartment buildings. As in São Paulo, there is noticeable interest from the government in facilitating civic and professional initiatives, especially via its Synathina platform. Yet at the same time, there are limited resources to subsidize or institutionalize these efforts.

In Shenzhen, rather than looking at individual projects and the hacker’s ethic and practices, our goal was to explore the affordances of the city to be hacked. To what extent do the city’s institutions and regulations, in combination with its specific geography, invite and/or enable citizens and entrepreneurs to shape urban life? In particular we were interested in complex processes of urbanism that emerged from interactions between actors, like merchants, developers, companies, building owners, migrants, and former farmers with land rights, in the Shenzhen area. We focused on two specific ‘milieus of innovation’ that arose under the historic conditions of Shenzhen’s development. The first is the emergence of the electronic district, Huaqiangbei. The second is the urban village, Baishizhou. The development of both locations can be understood as acts of ‘hacking’ – individual actors appropriated these parts of the city, partly stimulated by policy, partly enabled by the lack of policy enforcement. As a result, two typologies emerged that appear at first chaotic, but have evolved into complex social and economic systems that are directly linked to Shenzhen’s capacity to innovate.

In all three cities, we organized a program, with the help of local partners, consisting of a symposium, site visits to local projects and a workshop, during which our hackable city-model served as a point of departure. In each city, we looked at the various ways individual citizens organized themselves into communities around collective issues. How, and by whom, were these collective issues de ned – and how were citizens engaged? How were these collectives managed, and according to which principles and ‘dramaturgies’? The latter term refers to the local settings, and the orchestration of events by which collec- tive action is organized in time and place. Which parties took on what roles in these processes? What was the business model, or underlying social entrepreneurship within the organization?

Finally, we examined the relationship between collectives and local governments. Did citymaking collectives make an effort to measure and communicate the public values they create to local governments, arguing their legitimacy or their qualification, to procure additional public support or institutionalization? To what extent was the city open to ‘civic hacks’? Did governments inhibit, tolerate or encourage acts of collaborative citymaking? To what extent did these acts inform policy, and were the outcomes formalized or institutionalized? To summarize, how did these collaborative actions try to ‘hack’ existing local urban practices striving for (social) change – and to what extent was the city itself ‘hackable’ from an institutional point of view? In this cahier, the results of our enquiries will be discussed, start- ing with our journey to São Paulo, Brazil.


Introduction: Hacking the Public Space in São Paulo

When curator Guilherme Wisnik was thinking of a theme for the 2013 Architecture Biennale in São Paulo, he decided to make a bold move. His exhibition was not going to take place at the traditional location, the Ciccillo Matarazzo – a beautiful cathedral of high modernism in the city’s lush Parque do Ibirapuera. Instead Wisnik wanted to use the whole of São Paulo as his exhibition grounds. Rather than displaying architectural highlights, sculpted by some of the best professionals in the eld, his exhibition was going to showcase the act of ‘citymaking’, with a keen eye for the practices of Sao Paolo’s residents, and their many formal, and informal organizations. The official slogan for the biennale resonated this shift in focus: ‘City: Ways of Making, Ways of Using’.

The biennale marked a development that had been underway in Brazil for a few years. Increasingly, citizens had been taking to the streets to claim their ‘rights to the city’. These actions burst onto the worldwide stage when massive public protests sprung up all over Brazil around the exuberant spending on new stadiums for the upcoming World Cup in 2014. But that was only part of the story. At the same time, in Brazil designers and other professionals had also started to take a renewed interest in incorporating citizens into their design processes. Examples could be seen in the rise in participatory projects in the favelas, and in the advent of initiatives set up by citizens and professionals alike, in the heart of São Paulo.

It was these initiatives that the biennale wanted to feature. For instance, visitors to the São Paulo Biennale were guided to the Minhocao, an elevated highway not far from downtown. Local citizens and designers had started a successful campaign to translate this car packed thoroughfare to a temporary park every Sunday – a São Paulo Highline if you will. And that was just one of the examples at the 2013 biennale in which citizens and professionals had worked together by ‘hacking the city’.

Privatization and São Paulo as a ‘Dual City’

What many of these projects had in common was a renewed interest in activating public space, until then, an unusual practice in Brazil. São Paulo – and with it many of Brazil’s cities – had often been described as neglected places, where investment in public infrastructure had never amounted to much. Labels like ‘privatization’ and ‘forti cation’ were often invoked to describe the city’s urbanism, describing the emergence of gated communities, and exclusive shopping malls for the (upper) middle classes, and the rich. Developers played a central role in creating these private spaces.

As many have pointed out, over the years São Paulo had indeed become a stratified city, defined by separate spatial circuits and networks for its various social classes, even though these separate worlds are geographically right next to each other. Images of towering luxury apartments with swimming pool featured balconies in Morumbi sharing the frame with the corrugated roofed (and water deprived) favela’s of Paraisópolis had become a worldwide emblem – and, by now, even a cliche – of 6 the ‘dual city’ that São Paulo had become.

The government takes action

Yet, over the last years, and especially since the beginning of the administration of mayor Haddad in 2013, this approach of laissez-fair urbanism and privatization, has given way to attempts to revive the city and its public spaces. From the government side, a new masterplan was adapted that foresees improving the connection between public transport and housing, aiming for more density and mixed-use developments around transit nodes. The city has also started to develop public spaces, and now aims to revitalize the derelict downtown area. To enact this, it even has moved its own offices to a defunct bank building, and appointed Jan Gehl to revitalize the Vale do Anhangabaú, one of the city’s central squares.

This approach reinforces and diversifies earlier attempts to revitalize parts of the city, by designing prestigious cultural sites like the Pinacoteca do Estado in the 1990s, the Museum of the Portuguese Language (2006), and the Praça das Artes (2013). What makes the current policy different is that it’s no longer centered around ‘starchitects’ and their iconic interventions. This time around, the revitalization plans include (low income) housing and other amenities, like a network of biking lanes.

The Statute of the City. More rights for citizens

Also different this time around, is that the government opened up planning process for citizens, according to the relatively recently (2001) nationally minted Statute of the City. Under this law, cities are obliged to design masterplans in close collaboration with their citizens. In addition, this statute offers a range of other instruments for city governments to empower citizens, thus giving them a greater

say in the process of citymaking, for instance through ‘participatory budgeting’. Whereas critics have pointed out that many of the instruments in the statute have not yet been implemented, or are put to use by traditional stakeholders like private developers, in São Paulo citizens have been involved in various projects. This includes the new Plano Diretor that lays out the framework for the further development of the city, in the years to come.

Important in the light of our research project, the Haddad administration in São Paulo has also embarked on a journey to improve the ‘hackability’ of the city, granting citizens more rights, as well as tools to participate in the process of citymaking (even though some of its attempts are still in the realm of the symbolic). Apart from the procedures for public consultation in the new masterplan, it has (amongst others) set up a program that invites citizens to redevelop parking spaces into small public spaces (‘parklets’), has experimented with online deliberation, and set up a lab (LabProdam) that experiments with opening up, and activating citizens to use urban data.

Citizens and professionals take the stage

Yet, it’s not just the city government that has started to combine ‘new ways of making and using’,
to stick with the 2013 biennale’s motto. At the same time, citizens themselves, sometimes led by professionals, have started to hack the city. Social movements have taken over the public spaces of the Largo da Batata. Building on the protest movements of the 2013s, Minha Sampa has built a digital platform to mobilize citizens around various causes, contributing amongst others to the weekly closing off of São Paulo’s most prestigious boulevard, the Paulista, from motorized traf c. Design collectives like Accupuntura Urbana have adopted local communities to revive their public spaces. And the top-down planning of 200kms of bicycle paths has been matched by various bottom-up organizations of bike activists, campaigning to improve São Paulo’s bikeability.

To quote biennale-curator Wisnik, a few years after the 2013 exhibit that first foregrounded these developments, ‘a large proportion of urban Brazilians seem to be waking from centuries of historical lethargy in which public matters were treated as private, personal favours.’ He follows his observation with the hope that this indeed will also increase the quality of the further development of São Paulo. ‘The expectation today is that the vibrancy of Brazil’s new urban activism – intimately linked with occupying public spaces – will positively in influence the way our cities are built.” It is some of these bottom-up as well as top-down initiatives that have made São Paulo a more hackable city that we will turn to in the rest of this chapter.



Athens. Introduction: A City Built on Code.

From the lookout point on the top of Mount Lycabettus, the patterns underlying modern Athens’ urbanization immediately stand out. Apart from the historic triangle, and the area around the Acropolis hill, most of Athens reveals itself as a slightly curvy grid made up of long streets and boulevards. The lots between their intersections are consistently subdivided into more or less equally sized parcels, built up with an undulating mass of mid-rise (6-7 story) apartment buildings. Together, they form a rhythmic arrangement of similar, yet always slightly different structures; each with its own typology of balconies, entrances, window styles, roof gardens, and courtyards.

This composition without a composer is the result of Athens’ antiparochi-system, legislated in the rst half of the previous century, although it became full-blown when the population size of Athens more than doubled in the decades after the Second World War (particularly from the 60’s till the 90’s). In this system, urban or semi-rural landowners could hand over their detached houses and surrounding lands to a private developer, without paying any taxes or levies. These developers would demolish the old building, and erect an apartment building on the lot. In exchange for their land, former owners would receive one or more apartments inside the newly built polykatoikies, as the multi-apartment structures that arose on their land came to be known.


 Legal code, not a masterplanbuilds the city

In Vittorio Aureli, Maria Giudici and Platon Issaias’ analysis, this approach led to the emergence of a city that didn’t follow a masterplan, but rather, was based on legal code. Masterplans had been developed in the past, and a Regulatory Plan of Athens has been legislated since 1985 and is currently being updated by the Ministry of Environment, Energy and Climate Change, to meet the challenges and conditions of the 21st century. Yet, it was the set of laws in this antiparochi system that determined the conditions for ownership and construction practices. Ultimately, it de ned the rhythm and form of urban Athens – because it contained rule sets with regard to minimum and maximum parameters, including height, open space, and the incidence of light – to which all apartment buildings had to comply. This system led to the construction of 35,000 Polykatoikies between 1950 and 1980.1 For the government, this system had its advantages. The increasing demand for housing was answered, without the need for a state welfare program. As a result, a large part of the population became private homeowners.

In this sense, Athens can be understood as an example of a hackable city. The government set up a framework that allows individuals to fill it in, according to their own needs. Yet, from the viewing deck on top of Lycabettus, it’s not dif cult to spot some of the shortcomings of this hackable system: on only few occasions are the various tones of sand-colored building bricks broken up by stretches of green. While the antiparochi system promoted individual entrepreneurship, it lacked an overarching public values component that would also ensure the construction of public spaces. In essence, it produced what Aureli and his co-authors have called an ‘urban ethos of extreme individualism.’

Similarly, when the overcrowded center of Athens was built-up further, investment in public infrastructures still did not catch on. As a result, from the 1970’s onwards, central Athens started to lose population share. By 2011, the central areas hosted 17.4 percent of Athens’ metropolitan region, down from 31 in 1971. Suburban living became the aspirational ideal for much of the middle class, with offices and retail following suit. Newly constructed shopping malls started to dot the suburban landscape, leading to further privatization of the city. The critics of the system have not been kind. ‘If modern Athens represents a radical form of “user-generated urbanism”, where the postwar generation shaped the city to its own desires’, Kalagas and Kourkoula summarize, ‘the result is a haphazard mode of overdevelopment that neglects notions of collective good.

Athens as a laboratory for collaborative urbanism?

Could it be that current day Athens is seeking to create nuance within this judgement? One could be tempted to think so, based on the many initiatives in the last half decade that label Athens as a laboratory, or test-site, where citizens, architects and designers are looking for new collaborative ways to shape their city. Examples abound: from attempts to revitalize empty office buildings as public spaces, to citizen collectives that organize food provision, shelter or medical aid. For its contribution to the Architecture Biennale in Venice (2016), the Greek Architects Association showcased numerous hopeful practices of collectivity and collaboration they saw emerging in Greece, adapting the anti-austerity protest hashtag #ThisIsACoup to #ThisIsACoop as their motto. Around the same time, The Onassis Cultural Center hosted an exhibition on ‘Adhocracy’, featuring many local projects that intended to ‘provoke serious discussion about the role of architecture and design as a possible catalyst for structural change in contemporary society.’ New York’s New Museum and NEON, situated one of their IdeasCity Residency Programs in Athens, and Urban Think Tank and
the ETH Zurich descended on the much-plagued Omonoia-district in Central Athens to coordinate the Reactivate Athens project. In ten months, experts and residents produced 101 ideas for exible interventions that addressed problems varying from a shortage of social housing to the reactivation of public spaces, in the style of urban acupuncture. Documenta artistic director Adam Szymczyk called Athens, in its struggle to reinvent itself, one of the most interesting cities in Europe at this moment. ‘Learning from Athens’ even became the official motto of Europe’s most prestigious art event. Could the contemporary crisis, and the struggle for economic and social survival usher in new approaches to citymaking that might even lead to a new model for urbanism at large?

Civic initiatives claiming an autonomous space

Not everyone appreciates all this interest. Pamphlets circulated online called for a resistance to ‘the exotic view of Athens as a southern experiment in creative sustainability during times of crisis.’ Yet, understandable as that criticism is, the underlying patterns in these exhibitions, labs and research projects deserve a more in-depth look.

Many of them can be placed in the context of a re-emergence of civic initiatives. The first wave of these blossomed in Athens at the turn of the century, in the lead up to the 2004 Olympics. Civic groups started to address issues related to livability in the city, protesting the further privatization of public spaces for new developments carried out under the flag of the Olympics. These groups were often led by well-informed citizens, and their actions were often successful. As some critics have pointed out, the main focus of these initiatives was the conservation of quality of life, in the light of over-development, but most of them did not actively seek taking on new initiatives.

Another wave of civic initiatives emerged in the aftermath of the financial crisis, in the form of solidarity networks. Alternative food networks that enable local farmers to sell their produce directly to citizens sprung up, as have social pharmacies, time banks, urban gardens, collective kitchens, and other forms of local collaboration between citizens.11 These initiatives provide residents with services that used to be taken care of by the state, or otherwise aim to bring out mutual support, in times of hardship. What is striking, is that many of these civic initiatives claim their own autonomous space, putting themselves in opposition to the state; or even try to carve out their own territories outside of the regular legal frameworks, claiming their ‘right to the city’.

Meanwhile, in the artistic scene, numerous project spaces, workshops and participatory art projects emerged, leading to a ‘workshop culture’ – in which artists embrace a ‘Do-It-With-Others’ approach. These artists make use of temporary spaces, and organize participatory events in which they can learn from each other, and also invite the public to take part in social and artistic, often performative activities. These vary from workshops on creative coding, to workshops on CNC and Laser Cutting, and often include the use of digital technologies from the perspective of citizen empowerment.

The question whether or not all these initiatives comprise an urban lab for alternative practices of citymaking is a much-debated issue. While some are optimistic, others hold that these are ‘ephemeral actions’, provisional patches that temporarily alleviate the pain induced by the crisis; and that they will not be sustainable, or truly provide an alternative mode of social organization.

Government opening up to civic initiatives

Until recently national and local governments have, at best, shown only a ceremonial interest in bottom-up initiatives; for instance when this was required by EU-funding schemes. Greek bureaucracy has traditionally been organized hierarchically, with a staunch tradition of legal formalism, leaving government officials little room for a more liberal interpretation of rules, let alone experiments. Local governments also have minimal maneuvering space to set their own agendas, and with austerity mea- sures kicking in, not only do they face a decimated budget, but also increased scrutiny from above. A dialogue between civil society and the formal political sphere has never really matured.

However, during our visit to Athens it became clear that a new interstitial space emerged for citymaking. The Municipality of Athens has taken interest in a number of initiatives to reach out to civil society. It launched the Synathina platform, where civic organizations and local governments can cooperate. It joined the international Resilient Cities-program and began experimenting with open consultation procedures. For instance, after the market hall in Kipseli closed, the government bent to the local clamor to reinstate the site as a cultural center. The municipality launched an open call, in which cultural organizations and creative groups could send in proposals for managing the space.

At the same time, another wave of citymaking practices emerged. These are not just oppositional in nature, but try to appropriate existing structures from a public values perspective – or come up with new modes of collective storytelling and agenda setting, that serve as interfaces between civil society and local governments. In the rest of this chapter, we will turn to a number of experiments from the second and third wave of civic initiatives. Could they lead to a new framework that opens up the process of citymaking, like once the antiparochi system did, yet at the same time, incorporate the production of collective and public values?

Introduction: ‘Shenzhen is the ultimate hack’

David Li, founder of China’s first Hackerspace, is several minutes into a detailed monologue on the checkered history of Huaqiangbei (the former warehouse district turned electronics hub that recently has been ‘discovered’ as the newest tech-Mecca and darling of Silicon Valley disrupters), when he interrupts himself to exclaim: ‘you know, Shenzhen itself is the ultimate hack — a capitalist experiment in a communist country!’

At the heart of Li’s declaration lays the impetus for exploring Shenzhen through the lens of The Hackable City. Unlike the other subject cities in this time, the emergence of adaptive spaces might not have been about localized exceptions, but a systemic inevitability. If true, therein lies also the possibility for reproduction: not by figuring out how to hack a system, but by building a system to be hacked. In Shenzhen, on the surface there is an apparent clash of paradigms between the CIAM-based principles of government planning offices and design institutes, versus the de-facto vibrant economic geography of innovation that emerged at sites like Huaqiangbei; where independent actors re-appropriated the city’s spaces, and its legal architecture, en masse. Yet, Shenzhen’s history is more a story about the latent ‘hackability’ of the city, and its underlying governmental structures (legal system and infrastructure) – rather than an account of individual hacking practices. Could the framework of this hackable city help us to understand the emergence of these complex assemblages of urban planning, spatial appropriation, social networks, and economic relations?

In order to process the two Hackable City case studies exploring Shenzhen, it is necessary to first unpack Li’s assertion. The factors that led to Shenzhen’s rise, and the legal underpinnings therewith, are inextricable from the unexpected collateral consequences that now draw our attention.

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Legend has it that shortly before taking the reins of power in China at the end of the 1970s, Deng Xiaoping discovered a most unusual aberration in the sub-tropic realm of South China’s Pearl River Delta, a farming collective thoroughly out-producing government planning estimates. Upon further in- vestigation, it was revealed that this village had informally adopted a cooperative structure. The spoils of the harvest, above and beyond what was mandated by the central government, was split among the farmers as shared ‘profit.’ Critically, rather than declare the secret co-op a bug to be eliminated, Deng embraced this first hack of the socialist system. In 1980, three decades after Mao Zedong’s
red revolution consolidated authority in Beijing and isolated China from the global scene, the third Plenum of the 11th Party Congress approved a proposal by Mao’s successor to formalize the Cantonese apostasy, but restricted it to a sparsely populated corner of the province. In this way, urban historian Thomas Campanella relays, ‘Deng Xiaoping opened China’s door to the world, but not the front door, with red carpet and concierge; it was really the nation’s back door that he left unlatched’. He continues: ‘Much the way a promising but potentially deadly new source of energy might be first tested safely distant from the laboratory and its staff,’ so was the Special Economic Zone demarcated by Deng’s pen. The newly commissioned city of Shenzhen was safely quarantined from the rest of China proper.

The Runaway City

Shenzhen’s incendiary urbanization, thus catalyzed, might well have occurred in secret; so far as it progressed before the rest of the world realized what was happening in the swamps of Canton. In a nation that dates its history in millennia, there exists little framework to evaluate how a mega-metropolis appeared out of nothing in the span of a few decades, much less formally plan the route of its exploding particles. In a ash of light and fury, the fields and farms on the Pearl River Delta were transformed into a sprawling, economic powerhouse, pumping over a trillion yuan a year into the global economy.

In the midst of this great transformation, the farmers and shermen of yesterday’s generation have been, quite literally, surrounded by a populace of many millions. Laborers, traders, designers, entrepreneurs – dreamers all, were drawn from the farthest reaches of China, to chase the future in Shenzhen.2 As urbanists, we are compelled to ask how all of this happened. The simplest answer, may well be, that it was allowed to. Again, Campanella:

The aim of urban planning at Shenzhen was as simple as it was visionary: to create a ‘perfect environment for investment.’ … Planning Shenzhen was more a game of catch-up than course setting. The planning process simply could not keep pace with the maelstrom of development; state-of-the-art plans, reflecting the input of the most skilled planning professionals in the country, were obsolete within months… making the act of planning in Shenzhen analogous to sweeping leaves in a hurricane.

As compelling as the image of the professional planner in a cyclone seems, perhaps more appro- priate is the shock of the dog who caught the car bumper. Unbeknownst to the new ride along, the vehicle’s route was pre-determined by decisions made long before – and the unintended consequences they begat.

Gray Cats
Since the revolution, land in China had been administered by central planning in Beijing. Individuals in urban areas were allocated apartments, state-owned corporations were allocated land for factories, collective farms were allocated land to farm and plots for village houses. China’s constitution explicitly forbade the commercialization of land – it could not be bought, sold, or leased.

Thus, Shenzhen’s pioneers found themselves in a quandary, having a charter to build a new city, no funds with which to do so, and a system that prohibited them from raising capital through the sale of the one valuable thing they had in spades – developable land. The only viable path forward was hacking the property law itself, by inventing a semantic workaround. In 1979, city leaders began charging ‘land-use fees’ to prospective Hong Kong developers. For eight years, Beijing turned a blind eye as the southern city exploited legal ambiguities to self- nance its development.

In December 1987, the Shenzhen government upped the ante, inviting ‘a member of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, a deputy head of the State Bureau of Land Administration, seventeen mayors from the country, twenty-eight Hong Kong entrepreneurs and economists, and more than sixty journalists’6 to attend the first public property auction in post-Mao China, selling the rights to develop a parcel of land for residential development. Four more audacious transactions followed, demonstrating unequivocally, the value of land – and forcing the national government’s hand towards codification of the (legally dubious) improvisation. Within the cordoned off Special Economic Zone, these initial moves represented an experimental new approach to land tenure, that bridged the paradox between maintaining government ownership, while also allowing market incentives to drive development. Newly legal private companies could purchase 45 usage rights (essentially a long-term land lease of forty, fifty, or seventy years, depending on zoning), develop the land, and pro t from it. These usage rights could be bought and sold creating a synthetic marketplace for real estate, while the land never left the government’s ownership.

The following year, the constitution was amended to permit the commercialization of land use rights, and the experimental land tenure system was adopted nationwide. In a single stroke, the Communist government initiated, essentially from thin air, perhaps the greatest moment of private wealth generation in history. In practice, if not fully by law, city-dwellers effectively ‘owned’ their apartments, and could therefore sell them and buy new ones. Companies now ‘owned’ their facilities, and sometimes the vast amounts of urban land beneath them. Likewise, the government, which controlled most rural and agricultural land outside of the cities, created demand for this formerly free resource. By selling development rights, it could raise capital for infrastructure investments, expanding cities and creating more viable sites for development.

Danwei to Developer

In the early years of reform, the urban Danwei (workers’ collectives organized around joint production and housing facilities, modelled after the Soviet work block) managed by state-owned organizations evolved into quasi-private company complexes. Protected and encouraged by the government, these corporations originally continued manufacturing activities inside urban centers. In the Special Economic Zone of Shenzhen, which started without an existing fabric, the first wave of development in the 1980’s (and thus the original core) consisted almost entirely of industrial facilities.

As property values rose in major cities like Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou, government planners sought to move their cities up the value chain. Factories were expelled from the former Danwei sites to the periphery, where newly built highways and rail-lines connected them to a growing economic network. The former textile companies, and part manufacturers, found themselves with valuable urban land, on which they were no longer allowed to continue their core businesses. In the spirit of the times, many rebranded themselves as development companies. OCT华侨城, one of China’s most prolific developers today, began life as the KONKA group, the first electronics company established after economic liberalization. Large swaths of Shenzhen were once peppered with its factories, on land it received almost for free from the government, in order to spark industrial development. Now, those properties boast huge residential complexes, luxury shopping centers, hotels, and even amusement parks. Or, as in the case of Huaqiangbei, a massive electronics wholesale market.

Farmer to Landlord

However, the farmers in the hinterlands were left out of this initial spurt of wealth creation due to the long-lasting rami cations of Mao’s 1958 legal division of ‘rural’ vs. ‘urban’ lands. According to these principles, these collectives-cum-cooperatives ‘owned’ their homes (and a limited portion of the immediate farmlands surrounding the villages), but theirs was a joint-ownership – much like a modern co-op, where all members must decide together on any financial transactions. In practice, this meant that unlike their urban brethren, rural citizens were not legally able to sell their homes, effectively locking them out of the burgeoning real estate market. At the same time, the value of undeveloped land drew the cities ever closer, as local governments snapped up the surrounding farmland, and put it to auction. Throughout Guangdong province, and especially in Shenzhen, agricultural lands were swallowed up, and villages engulfed, depriving the now-former farmers of their livelihoods.

Unable to farm, and unable to sell, these villagers began to build. As the cities around them grew, and with them the demand for affordable apartments to house hundreds of thousands of migrant workers, the village homes grew too. First to two stories, then four, six, and ten – as tall as they could climb, without the need for elevators, and without drawing the ire of the government. By 2014, with Shenzhen’s population racing past the ten million mark, its two hundred plus urban villages had absorbed many times that total. Baishizhou alone is estimated to house over 150,000 residents on less than quarter of a square mile.

Shenzhen as a hackable city

Our study program developed with Tat Lam, of Shanzhai City, sought to highlight these cracks,
scheduling a series of visits, workshops, and symposia to the areas, and the people, leveraging such openings. Rather than cataloguing individual projects and their hacker’s praxis (as with São Paulo and Athens), in Shenzhen the intent was to understand how these gray zones created affordances for the city at large to be hacked. In particular, our interest lay in the emergence of the ‘milieus of innovation,’ geographic constellations that due to their spatial and social organization contribute to a city’s capacity to innovate. Our workshop in Shenzhen was a brief attempt to reverse engineer two sites that arose under Shenzhen’s historic development. The rest, is the emergent electronic district, Huaqiangbei. The second, is the urban village Baishizhou. Both places can be understood as acts of ‘hacking,’ individual actors appropriated these parts of the city, partly stimulated by policy, partly enabled by the lack of policy enforcement. As a result, two typologies emerged that seem chaotic at fist, but have evolved into complex social and economic systems, that are linked to Shenzhen’s capacity to innovate. Both are also under threat. With rising property values and no more new land to develop, both government and private interests have taken actions towards redeveloping these zones into a post-industrial urban typology of single-functioned structures, like high-end shopping malls and apartment buildings.

Accidental Frameworks

To what extent are the opportunities exemplified by Baishizhou, and Huaqiangbei, a natural result of gaps (or contradictions) in planning, institutions, or regulations? Conversely, are the patterns we see due to a more complex organic urbanism bubbling up from interactions between individual actors – migrants-cum-merchants, farmers-cum-landlords, and industrialists-cum-developers – that would have emerged regardless? This is a trick question of sorts, as the two are intertwined. The contradictions inherent in Deng’s grand experiment, particularly those relating to land use and privatization, created the independent agents, which in turn, were compelled to push through the gaps in planning.

In both our case study areas, flexible spatial organizations wrought entirely of different concerns and aims, have created opportunities for innovation. In the urban village Baishizhou (among others), unregulated extrusions of obsolete village house plots fostered a 3-dimensional informal economy. In Huaqiangbei, a hundred defunct industrial buildings with wide-open floor plans, left behind in the city center when manufacturing was expelled to the periphery, were re-appropriated as an entrepreneurial electronic nexus.

As multiple layers of government, from President Xi on down to local administrators, embraced, and promoted a transformation in economic emphasis – from ‘made-in-China’ to ‘designed-in-China’ – another new paradigm was added to the existing stack. This one was based on open source technologies, and digital platforms and rapid-prototyping tools, in an attempt to leverage Shenzhen’s historical manufacturing might against the innovation models emerging across the Paci c. Silicon Valley, of course, had already taken proper notice. In 2011 (following a model prototyped by the Shanghai-based CHINA-AXLR8R in 2009), a San Francisco-linked initiative called HAXLR8R established the first hardware-focused tech-incubator in Shenzhen. They decided to locate it in the heart of Huaqiangbei. It was the obvious choice.

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