Between the late 1980s and 2010, the city of Guangzhou doubled in population, expanding from 6 to 12 million residents. To accommodate Guangzhou’s rapid urbanization, many farmlands were transformed into urban land and used for new developments. As rural areas became dense city, with millions of migrants taking up residence in housing blocks, the ‘urban village’ was born. Today, a critical planning challenge is how to connect these areas’ residents with access to transportation and opportunity. Recently, the Guangzhou government has begun investing in urban environment upgrades around BRT stations, leading to better connected residents and improved life in the urban village.
A traditional, core village typically consists of a handful of houses, an ancestral hall and small public square. Today, the core buildings of the villages surrounding Guangzhou remain in place, but around (and above) them, the land has transformed from agricultural fields to extremely high density urban villages. Along major alleyways of these new developments, the ground floor is generally reserved for shops and restaurants, with stacks of residential space above. The winding interior pathways are often too narrow for motor vehicles, effectively creating vast pedestrian only networks.
Guangzhou has 304 urban villages in the metropolitan area, 23 of which are located along the 23km BRT corridor. There are about 6 million people living in these villages, and an estimated 5 million of them are ‘floating’ or unregistered population. Major challenges face these areas, including safety, cleanliness, and transit access. In recent years, the Guangzhou government, with input from ITDP, has worked to address these concerns.
In May 2014 the Party Secretary of Guangzhou, a city-wide position, approved a 3-year action plan to solve the safety issues of urban villages. The new policy has been carried out by local ‘Sub-district offices’, which each manage 10-20 urban communities. Contrary to the earlier redevelopment plans, this action plan focuses on upgrading the infrastructure and management system of the urban villages instead of tearing the villages down and replacing them with high rise apartments.
To begin the campaign, several of the largest urban villages along the BRT corridor were selected as the demonstration areas for urban environmental upgrades. One of those selected, Tangxia Village, is just 0.3 km2, but is one of the largest urban village areas in Guangzhou by number of residents. The total population of the subdistrict is 350,000, of which an estimated 260,000 are migrant workers.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the Tangxiacun BRT station, just outside the urban village, is one of the most heavily used BRT stations in the world. At peak hours, the station has 8,000 passengers boarding per hour. ITDP’s survey in September 2014 showed that 70% of the people exiting Tangxia Village in the morning peak use BRT buses.
In 2010, ITDP proposed urban design improvements for the Tangxia BRT station area. At the time, the recommendations were only partially implemented before Tangxia Village was included in a list of urban villages slated for demolition. Though the demolition plan was scraped, the area experienced a gradual degradation of the urban environment. Now, with the new policy of urban village upgrading in place, the situation has been dramatically reversed.
Urban environment upgrades have significantly improved infrastructure and management in the Tangxia subdistrict. From November 2014 to mid-2015, the local government has widened and paved over 3500m of streets, built 3000m of walkways, installed 4200m of traffic fences and 158 bike parking racks, and has dredged and rebuilt the sewer for 150 streets, which has solved flooding problems in 26 locations. It has also cleared up informal stalls, garbage and unsafe cables. The Tangxia local government implemented a street cleaning system in which their staff help maintain clean streets for 16 hours each day, while requiring shops with street frontage to keep their doorways clean and formalize their business operations. Car parking in Tangxia is now limited to designated spots.
The residents, store owners and designated staff also play important roles. Many shops in Tangxia Village have responded to the improvements by installing glass frontages, making the urban village interior more appealing to pedestrians. The local management team has a patrolling and cleaning schedule, and their contact details are open to the public so that residents can contact them as soon as they find any problems in the area. The local government has also installed over 500 HD-CCTV cameras and set up Wechat groups to monitor the security and environment of the villages.
As a result of these dramatic urban village improvements, the BRT station areas, including BRT access routes for the urban villages, are greatly improved. With cleaner, safer pathways, and more active frontages, urban village residents live in better conditions, and access to transit, jobs, and opportunities through the BRT is easier than ever.