A City Among the Villages

Rapid and somewhat disturbing changes are overcoming China as it pursues economic development, said professor Margaret Crawford, University of California, Berkeley, at the Food & The City symposium at Dumbarton Oaks. In Guangzhou, where the land and water have “inter-penetrated” for centuries, the Pearl River Delta region, which was once a maze of rivers, streams, and canals, is increasingly being taken over by land and development. Much of the estuary landscape is being reclaimed and filled-in. The old village-centric agricultural landscape is becoming either industrial farms or a sea of high-rise towers punctuated by spotty patches of urban farms. Of the 1,100 agricultural villages in Guangzhou, many have simply been swallowed whole by an expanding metropolis. “It’s now a city among the villages.”

Historically, the Pearl River Delta has been a “very rich agricultural landscape,” enabling up to three crop harvests per year. There has also been a diversity of crops, with the area being a major zone for producing rice, fruit (some tropical), sweet potatoes, peanuts, and safflower oils. Until 1985, the Delta was made up of small agricultural villages defined by a unique social structure. Often entire villages shared the same surname, demonstrating their same lineage. Villagers left these compact settlements by boat for market towns. Given Cantonese food is all about the freshest ingredients, markets were busy trading produce constantly. Now, the cities of the urbanizing Guangzhou have engulfed the villages of the Delta, and there are reasons for this based in the political economy of China. 

When the Communists took over in China in the late 1940s, the “social order was inverted.” Landlords became “bad elements,” while the poor, landless underclasses rose to the top. Land was redistributed via People’s Communes. Later, the Communes, which proved to be too unwieldly due to their size, were then broken apart, becoming smaller “production bridages” about the size of the old villages. By 1985, the central government has de-collectivized the land, and 90 percent of all agricultural land became marketized.

With the marketization of land (which is still all owned by the state and only leased out), the municipal governments in Guangzhou (and really everywhere else in China) saw buying cheap farm land and selling it as development land as a key way to raise funds. Given localities receive so little from the provincial and central governments in China, this system quickly became a way to raise city revenue. The effect: explosive development everywhere. Crawford said municipal leaders also all need a “mega-project in order to get promoted,” which only further contributed to the push to grow bigger and faster. 

At the same time, the old “Hukou” residency permit system, which had been established in the 1950s and gave each citizen a pass card that provided them with rights to education, healthcare, and other services in the community where they have received a permit alone, was having an impact on development patterns. The Hukou system, which created a two-class system with people having either rural or urban Hukous, created opportunities for some in Guangzhou and not others. “The system is still in existence,” said Crawford. 

Basically, the marketization of land opened up lots of opportunities for those lucky few who had urban Hukous. They had “negotiated positions” that enabled them to re-categorize their agricultural land as development land. At the same time, since the economic opening in the late 70s, Guangzhou has been growing 60 percent annually, with much of the influx coming from more poorer provinces. In this new Guangzhou, there were now many different categories of people mixing — those native residents with urban hukous, people with residency permits from other poorer cities, and migrants with rural residency permits. Migrants have very limited access to schools or healthcare in their new homes. They often open stores that cater to other migrants. Interestingly, in many of the old Guangzhou villages, the residents have all made land deals and have left, leaving only migrants.

Examining Panyu, one part of Guangzhou, Crawford and her students found an incredible mix of new types of development reflecting all these development deals and changing demographics: high-rises, restaurants with live seafood, California-style villa subdivisions, and gaming industry buildings. Leftover parcels of agricultural land dot the new urban landscape. In a “messy” process of redevelopment, these parcels are often simply left vacant or rented by incoming migrants to “farm so they can augment their own diets.” They found that if Panyu’s communities actually put these leftover urban farms to productive use, some 220 families could be fed annually. Given the incredible water pollution, there may still be food safety issues in using what could be contaminated semi-urban plots to grow food.

The Chinese government is increasingly focused on “complete food security” for all its citizens. The general public is now more interested in organic, safe food products. But Crawford thinks that industrial farming will entirely take over agriculture in the area, leading to even more water pollution.

While “urban agriculture has to be rebranded in a cultural context” given it’s viewed as “something you stop doing as soon as you can,” some agriculture and design universities are starting to see the opportunities. New values brought in from Chinese who have studied overseas means the cultural understanding of urban farming may be slowly changing.

Crawford also thought these dense environments with their incredibly high land values would be the perfect locations for vertical farms.

This is the third in a series of posts about Food & The City, a symposium at Dumbarton Oaks.

Image credit: Urban development at the edge of Guangzhou / Pop colcha

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