Power Relations among Participants in Urban Consolidation

By Xiang (Adam) Li

Case Studies of three Residential Redevelopment Projects in Shenzhen, China

For the past two decades, as the urbanization in China has entered medium-growth-rate phase, the marginal benefit of investment on production factors is decreasing. The Chinese government has tried to upgrade China’s economic structure by transforming the current investment-driven urban development pattern into an innovation-driven one. In this context, urban consolidation policies have been put forward by the central and local governments in China to increase density and efficiency of land use in established urban areas, particularly in megacities where construction land is in short supply due to rapid urban expansion.

Since the 1980s, when market-oriented economic reform and land reform were launched, local governments have been transferring the land use right to gain local revenue. Cities of various sizes have experienced wave after wave of urban projects, resulting in rapid urban growth. Urban planning has been playing an important role in the rapid urban expansion process. Through the prediction of incremental population, increment-led planning has resulted in significant increases to urban construction land. Subsequently, serious issues have arisen, such as new town vacancy, inefficient land use, waste of land resources, large amount of rural land absorption, environmental quality degradation, voracious energy consumption and increasing local debt. The growth model that relies on land expansion for economic growth is no longer practicable.

To build a more consolidated world

The transition from urban sprawl to urban consolidation in Chinese urban planning highlights the importance and popularity of redevelopment-led planning, which focuses on increasing the land use efficiency of underutilized land  in the built-up area to accommodate to incremental population and economic growth. Therefore, land redevelopment becomes the main approach in urban consolidation process, in which are two main challenges: ambiguous and scattered property right replacement and interest redistribution of various stakeholders.

However, as to Chinese planning and land system regulations, spontaneous land use change and land use right transfer among users are forbidden. Only if the government buys the land use right back from the existing users can the land be leased through public auction. This regulation not only increases the transaction cost of property right but also results in severe social conflicts in the compulsory acquisition and demolishment process, which obstructs the achievement of urban consolidation.

The complex situation and the complicated property ownership of the built-up area create a situation in which redevelopment-led planning needs to respect more the legitimate rights and interests of property owners. As such, urban consolidation policies allow direct negotiations of property right transfer between developers and property owners. This was not the case in the past when local governments played the main role in implementing the consolidation projects. In the marketization of land redevelopment process, local governments act as a planning guide while the developers were the main operator of consolidation projects. Furthermore, with the establishment of “the Property Act” in China, residents’ lawful private property is protected by the government. These policies have changed the power structure in urban consolidation projects by on the one hand empowering private property owners and on the other restricting the influences of governments and developers.

Despite the increasing number of studies on the concepts of urban consolidation in China, there is a general lack of empirical research on the implementation of urban consolidation. It is particularly inadequate in the understanding of the dynamic power (re)structure in urban consolidation processes.

This research develops a framework for power relations to describe the power discharge among participants at the higher level of abstraction related to the localised practices by the ‘power sources approach’ including actors, power sources, rules of interaction, goals and outcomes. Case studies of three old residential areas in Luohu District, Shenzhen are used to illustrate the application of the framework. Firstly, the research will identify and assess on-going power relations between the key stakeholders at project level in order to examine the process of urban consolidation policy-making and policy-implementation. The research will then, investigate the sources of power and the mechanisms that trigger changes in the built environment and evaluate the impact of different forms of power relations on the outcome of urban consolidation.