Affordable Housing and the Resilient Chinese City: Seeking Strategies for Urban Village Redevelopment in a Changing Climate

PI: Lawrence J. Vale (Department of Urban Studies and Planning, MIT)


Chinese cities face both critical shortages of affordable housing and significant vulnerability to the growing effects of climate change. To be sustainable, real estate development needs to consider these factors together. This one-year pilot project, working with Chinese colleagues in the Pearl River Delta, seeks to develop a preliminary framework for understanding that intersection in the context of urban village redevelopment. This initial scope of work, which starts with a focus on Shenzhen, entails 1) assessing the state of knowledge about the level of risk and vulnerability of urban villages to climate change-exacerbated natural hazards, 2) ascertaining the gaps in available data, and 3) identifying promising examples of urban village redevelopment strategies that deserve more detailed follow-on study.

Extreme weather events linked to climate change are wreaking ever-greater devastation upon the lives and property of urban dwellers in cities around the world. Two coastal Chinese cities – Guangzhou and Shenzhen – are among the world’s ten urban areas considered most financially vulnerable to flooding. In response to such rising concerns, government policy makers, real estate developers, designers, researchers, and philanthropic organizations are increasingly interested in improving the ‘resilience’ of urban environments. Moreover, those with the lowest incomes often live in the most vulnerable low-lying parts of cities and therefore bear the brunt of flooding. Though researchers and practitioners from a range of geographic and intellectual orientations have drawn considerable attention to the issue, the concept and goals of urban resilience remain relatively undefined, especially in relation to the urgent need to retain and expand sources of affordable housing. An unparalleled scope and scale of urbanization and China’s unique urban citizenship and land management policies have created a patchwork urban fabric in which urban villages now sit within some of the most densely built up urban areas in the world. These urban villages, loosely regulated, function as critical affordable housing for rural migrant workers and a necessary part of the urban regional economy, according to researchers. At the same time, however, many city officials and developers consider them inefficient and unsafe, and target them for large-scale redevelopment.

We pose several interrelated questions: What has previous research revealed about the level of vulnerability of urban villages? Are there existing examples of urban village redevelopment that have made notable strides in achieving enhanced environmental protection in vulnerable areas? If so, to what extent have such places been able to remain a source of affordable housing? Do these redeveloped urban villages support access to economic livelihood, enhancement of personal security (including security of tenure) and capacity for well-governed communities? Our longer-term goal is to develop a suite of research tools that would allow real estate developers, designers and researchers to assess existing and proposed housing projects with respect to their impacts on urban resilience.