Townships: An Unmistakable Identity for China’s New Urbanscape

Kunming Tier 2 City 2012_2

Townships: An Unmistakable Identity for China’s New Urbanscape
by Lee Teng Kwee

A probable scenario/itinerary for a 2-Day-long business trip in China:

1.       Late nights for at least the past fortnight preparing project materials for the trip

2.       Commence flight to a destination 6 hours away on Economy Class with blood-shot eyes

3.       Arrive exhausted in the early morning for hotel check-in

4.       Set off immediately after for morning meeting/presentation

5.       Lunch with the client or local partners – some drinking may be involved

6.       Continue with afternoon meeting/presentation

7.       Dinner with client or local partners – more drinking may be involved

8.       Late night work back at the hotel to incorporate discussed contents into presentation

9.       Early morning check-out of hotel all prim and proper

10.     Drag luggage to meeting venue for another round of presentation/discussion

11.     Lunch with client or local partners; some drinking may also be involved

12.     Set off straight for the airport (Careful not to have too many drinks for smooth boarding)

13.     Last minute Airport Shopping to get snacks for the Office (Such treats are at own cost)

14.     Return to Singapore late evening (after enjoying some air turbulence due to headwinds)

15.     Start work bright and early as usual the next working day

My foray with townships started off in the winter of 2005, during which our academic studio at the varsity met up in Shanghai for a site visit.  Pudong was brimming with new skyscrapers – Jin Mao Tower had recently been completed and was the tallest landmark in the city, which had a population of 16 million.  Out of this figure, 3 million constituted the floating population. This intensified the need for housing, pushing land values and rents way beyond the comfort zone of the average working adult.  Coupled with the call for increased standards of living, which is synonymous with an increased dwelling area per person, the gentrification1 of older neighbourhoods and the subsequent displacement of families and their living spaces was inevitable.  If the average Shanghainese only had an average of 1sqm per person in the past living in a LiLong2, that would have to change so that each person could have an average area of 30sqm.  “Better City, Better Life”, as some locals call it – this would become the official theme of the Shanghai Expo 2010.   It follows that if one was going to pay a value of $X for 1sqm, that cost would now be $30X for 30sqm. This phenomenon is now common in all urbanized Tier-1; Tier-2; and even Tier-3 cities of China3.

Shanghai, China (Tier 1 City) Luwan District: Before (2000) and After (2012):


Gentrification is perhaps one of the main reasons for the growth of townships, which took over agricultural land and forested land, or areas commonly referred to as Tabula Rasa4.  Each township would be an inward-looking gated community where little interaction exists beyond the security of its fencing.  Security was a practical necessity, contrary to academic teachings that suggest that ‘gated-ness’ was something bad in the urban environment.  Here is a summary video of the studio’s academic pursuits, which was aptly titled “Rethinking Shanghai’s urban housing”.

Kunming, China (Tier 2 City) 2012:



‘Pigeonhole’ references come to mind from the images above, but it should be stated that the developments shown here were not pioneered in China.  The most successful social housing scheme in the world – the HDB scheme in Singapore – precedes this.  In Europe, there were Le Corbusier’s grand urban ideas for Plan Voisin, La Ville Radieuse and la Ville Contemporaire.  In North America, there is the suburbian landscape.

Ang Mo Kio New Town, Singapore, 2012, developed since 1973 (below left) and Sun City Suburbia, Arizona, USA 2012, but launched in 1960 (below right):


Le Corbusier’s New Urban Ideas in the 1920s for Paris (unbuilt):

The above images resonate with the word “Repetition”. Other terms come to mind: Rubber-Stamping; Manipulation; Economies of Scale; Buildability Scores and what-not. In comparison, contemporary housing developments in Europe are quite different. As one of our clients observed, “If one were to emulate European style housing, then all the blocks of housing must be different.” That said, it should be highlighted that individual land ownership in Europe is the norm, and developer-led projects are usually never larger than a few hectares – if they are any bigger they tend to be interpreted as government projects or social housing schemes. This carries a negative social stigma that is often associated with higher crime rates and low-income families who can only afford to rent.  Repetitive-type Olympic Villages that were converted into housing estates after the games in Europe do not fare any better.  This may have something to do with the Renaissance period being an important part of European history, during which Man regarded himself as the Centre of the Universe.  Context is therefore all important.

Vitruvian Man by Leonardo Da Vinci, 1487 (below left), Malaga 2012, repetitions at a smaller scale (below right):


Are the townships of China not a consequence and manifestation of the precedent knowledge culled from other parts of the world, with an import of foreign living standards and foreign architects?  I could embark on the whole topic of socialism, capitalism, liberalism or communism, but that is beyond the scope of this article.  Coupled with ownership, clubhouse facilities and desirable design, these new Chinese townships repel any undesirable notions so associated with mass housing.

Sometimes, I get queries or comments like, Which architect did that? Why is it so Repetitive; so Monotonous; so Horrible…? While time and cost limitations would be an easy answer, architects are clearly not the only ones in the housing or township equation.  There are the town planners and urban designers who dictate maximum building heights and plot ratios amongst other things; the developers who dictate cost and time; real estate agents who advise which housing types are more saleable, and home buyers themselves.  I shall not get started on the contractors.   Generations of architects have ended up creating what is shown and what is standing there, for good reasons. It will take a few exceptional patrons to break this trend.

2008: The tallest tower in Pudong – the World Financial Tower – had been completed, and I stood on its public observation deck, staring down the spire tip of the neighbouring Jin Mao Tower.  2012: the Shanghai Tower – the tallest of them all – is currently under construction.  As skyscrapers become taller, so will the next township, which should only get better.♦

Image Credits: Satellite imaging extracted from Google Earth; Aerial photos are author’s own; Corbusier’s schemes and the Vitruvian man were extracted from Google.


  1. Gentrification and urban gentrification refer to the changes that result when wealthier people (“gentry”) acquire or rent property in low income and working class communities. Urban gentrification is associated with migration within a population. In a community undergoing gentrification, the average income increases and average family size decreases. It is commonly believed that this results in the displacement of the poorer, pre-gentrification residents, who are unable to pay increased rents or house prices and property taxes. Often old industrial buildings are converted to residences and shops. In addition, new businesses, catering to a more affluent base of consumers, move in, further increasing the appeal to more affluent migrants and decreasing the accessibility to the poor. (Source: Wikipedia)
  2. Lilong is the indigenous housing of Shanghai, where it was not uncommon for the 1st tenant to sublet to 2 or more 2nd tenants who will sublet to a few other 3rd tenants to cover their rent successively.  Google for more information.
  3. The Chinese tiered city system is characterized by the city’s economy scale and population size.
  4. Tabula Rasa in the context of site and development refer to empty land as it is.

Leave a Reply