Journal of Urban Design The Future of a Chinese Water Village



Journal of Urban Design The Future of a Chinese Water Village
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Journal of Urban Design
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The Future of a Chinese Water Village.
Alternative Design Practices Aimed to
Provide New Life for Traditional Water
Villages in the Pearl River Delta
Peter C. Bosselmann , G. Mathias Kondolf , Feng Jiang , Bao
Geping , Zhang Zhimin & Liu Mingxin
Department of City and Regional Planning , College of
Environmental Design, University of California at Berkeley , USA
Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental
Planning , College of Environmental Design, University of
California at Berkeley , USA
Department of Landscape Architecture , South China University
of Technology , Guangzhou, China
Research Center of Architecture History and Culture, South China
University of Technology , Guangzhou
Published online: 25 Mar 2010.
To cite this article: Peter C. Bosselmann , G. Mathias Kondolf , Feng Jiang , Bao Geping , Zhang
Zhimin & Liu Mingxin (2010) The Future of a Chinese Water Village. Alternative Design Practices
Aimed to Provide New Life for Traditional Water Villages in the Pearl River Delta, Journal of Urban
Design, 15:2, 243-267, DOI: 10.1080/13574801003638053
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Journal of Urban Design, Vol. 15. No. 2, 243–267, May 2010
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The Future of a Chinese Water Village. Alternative
Design Practices Aimed to Provide New Life for
Traditional Water Villages in the Pearl River Delta
*College of Environmental Design, Department of City and Regional Planning, University of
California at Berkeley, USA; **College of Environmental Design, Department of Landscape
Architecture and Environmental Planning, University of California at Berkeley, USA; †Department
of Landscape Architecture, South China University of Technology, Guangzhou, China; ‡Research
Center of Architecture History and Culture, South China University of Technology, Guangzhou
ABSTRACT Chinese cities have experienced unprecedented growth and transformation in
the recent decades. Urban expansion into former agricultural land and the incorporation of
villages into urbanized areas are commonly observed. This paper focuses on the current
city extension of Foshan into the river landscape of the Pearl River Delta. The authors
examine a group of water villages that will become part of Foshan’s new city centre.
A morphological analysis of settlement forms is used in combination with a fluvial
morphological analysis of the water system. Through direct observation, select interviews
with villagers, mapping and measurements, an international design team developed
proposals demonstrating how social and ecological conditions can be incorporated into the
design of Foshan’s new urban centre, producing a transformation that has roots in the
village’s essential spatial structure and the functioning of its water system.
The Pearl River Delta Region (Figure 1) experienced the consequences of China’s
1978 economic reforms earlier than other parts of the country. Due to its history as
a gateway into China and its location near Hong Kong, investments in industry
arrived earlier in the Delta Region than, for example, in Shanghai or other coastal
regions. The delta is now home to a greater concentration of manufacturing plants
than anywhere in the world, and is the origin of many consumer goods that can be
found on store shelves worldwide. At the time of the 2000 census, the Greater
Pearl River Delta Region, which includes Hong Kong, Macao and the Pearl River
Economic Zone of Guangdong Province, had a population of 31 million registered
inhabitants, or 48 million when including migrant workers from rural parts of
China (Greater Pearl River Delta, no date). The Delta Region’s gross domestic
product (GDP) reached 282 billion USD by 2000, with an annual growth rate of
Correspondence Address: Peter C. Bosselmann, College of Environmental Design,
Department of City and Regional Planning, University of California at Berkeley, USA.
Email: [email protected]
1357-4809 Print/1469-9664 Online/10/020243-25 q 2010 Taylor & Francis
DOI: 10.1080/13574801003638053
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P. C. Bosselmann et al.
Figure 1. Pearl River Delta, an urban region of 50 million inhabitants. Source: Berkeley GISC, utilizing
Landsat 2000 satellite data.
13.5%. The explosion of manufacturing in this region has been accompanied by
rapid urbanization and a transformation of land and water, much of which has
occurred more rapidly than the official planning process can keep pace.
The lifeline of the region is the Pearl River, which is composed of three rivers
that debouch into a common estuary. The main branch, the Xi Jiang (West River),
originates over 2000 kilometres to the west in Yunnan Province, a mountainous
region to the east of the Himalayas. With its many tributaries, the Xi Jiang drains
over 353 120 square kilometres of southwestern China. With an average discharge
of 7580 m3s21, it is by far the largest affluent to the Delta (SCUT, no date). Its main
flow meets the northern branch of the Pearl River, Bei Jiang, in the western portion
of the Delta and connects there during floods, but turns sharply to the south and
exits west of Macao into the South China Sea.
The Pearl River Delta was formed by sediments deposited at the mouths of
the western, northern and eastern branches. Much of the land in the Delta was
deposited within the past millennium (Figures 2a and 2b). Since the Ming Dynasty
(1368 – 1644) an extensive open estuary has been filled by alluvial sediments,
traversed by the many tributaries and distributaries of the three rivers. The city of
Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong Province and, in the West, still better known as
Canton, was founded in 214BC on what was then the main branch of the Bei Jiang,
the ‘North River’. As the main flow of the Bei Jiang shifted southward in the 7th
century towards another distributary, the Fen Jeng, the city of Foshan developed
along its banks. Foshan was one of the Four Famous Towns in Late Imperial
China, and is now Guangdong’s third largest city (Figure 3). The natural history of
the changing river system has been well recorded since Guangzhou opened to the
West in the 17th century; it was the first Chinese city to permit foreign trade. Since
that time, the commercial importance of navigation made it necessary to chart the
complex river system, and the approaches to Guangzhou and Foshan were well
documented on maps.
Water Villages
This paper focuses on the City of Foshan and one water village in particular,
Dadun, within the prefecture of Foshan and now part of the its new City Centre.
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The Future of a Chinese Water Village
Figure 2a and 2b. Growth of the Pearl River Delta, based on historical maps. Source: adapted from
Marks (1998).
Dadun exemplifies many characteristics typical of water villages in the Pearl River
Delta. The history of the village reaches back to the Qing Dynasty (17th century),
when the low-lying alluvial lands of the Delta were densely settled in a
characteristic pattern of canals, fish ponds and ‘water villages’. Water villages are
crossed by canals and surrounded by fishponds, with a large banyan tree typically
marking each entrance to the village (Figure 4). The tree-lined canals and dense
spacing of buildings create a compelling, intimate urban experience (Figure 5)
with a cool micro-climate during hot summer months. The network of canals
provides a convenient water supply and method of transport using narrow boats
(Wu, 1995).
Although the many branches of the Pearl River that cross the Delta are
channelled by levees, major floods (2.5 metres deep) inundated the low-lying
region in 1915, in 1924 (knee-deep, or about 0.35 metres), and again in 1962 (2.3
metres-deep) (Liang, 1988). In the 1962 flood, the levees failed, causing extensive
flood-plain inundation. Many residents took refuge from the flood in the second
and third floors of buildings, an experience that has motivated the construction of
multi-storey buildings in Delta villages since.1
Silk Worms and Fish Farms
Traditionally, until the 1980s, villagers such as those in Dadun derived their
livelihood from a combination of aquaculture, silkworm cultivation and growing
fruit trees, vegetables and flowers in garden plots (for subsistence and market
trade). Villagers cultivated mulberry trees on the berms between ponds, and
fertilized the trees with nutrient-rich mud, excavated from the fishponds when
they were periodically drained (Figure 6). They harvested the leaves of the
mulberry trees and fed them to silk worms, whose larvae they sold to silk
processing facilities in the region (Marks, 1998). Organic matter, notably the dung
of silkworms, served as food for fish.2 Villagers also collected their ‘night soil’
(faeces) to put on garden plots as fertilizer. This traditional practice is highlighted
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Figure 3. Maps showing southward migration of the main branch of the North River from the 18th to
the 21st century. Source: adapted from Marks (1998).
Figure 4. Map of canals and fish ponds outside Dadun.
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The Future of a Chinese Water Village
Figure 5. The main canal in Dadun. Note the stone faced sides of the canal and the steps that lead down
to the water, wherever a lane meets the canal. Source: photo by Bosselmann.
as an example of a sustainable, closed system, in which the waste products from
one process were utilized in another (Bruenig et al., 1986).
From 1925 to 1930, the silk industry developed rapidly, creating strong
demand for silkworm larvae. In Dadun during this time, approximately 60% of
the cultivated area was taken up by mulberry trees and 40% by fishponds. The
farmers could make several times more per unit area of cultivation by combining
silk and fish production, than by growing rice or other crops (Liang, 1988). The
farmers sold the silkworm larvae to a small nearby silk factory, one of the many
that were scattered around the region. Shortly before World War II, this nearby
factory closed, and silk production in Dadun ceased until the 1960s. From the
1960s to the 1980s, the government required farmers to rebuild the silk
production. However, by the 1980s, silk production was negatively affected by air
pollution, and the industrialization of silk production in large factories resulted in
low prices for silkworm larvae, causing silk production in Dadun to cease once
Figure 6. Traditional fish pond operation and garden plots on adjacent lands, showing energy and
nutrient flows in a closed system, in which wastes from one function were utilized in other functions.
Source: diagram by Kondolf.
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again (Liang, 1988). Most mulberry trees were cut, and land use adjacent to the
fishponds shifted to other cash crops, such as flowers, or to garden plots. After this
change, farmers in Dadun began purchasing food to feed their fish, and this richer
food was probably responsible for the episodes of anoxia that began to occur in the
ponds, typically triggered by changes in the weather such as heat waves. With the
advent of electric water pumps in the 1960s, farmers could easily empty the ponds
to harvest the fish, allowing them to harvest annually instead of every few years as
had previously been the practice (Liang, 1988). After the construction of several
large fertilizer plants in 1972, chemical fertilizers became widely available, and the
traditional practice of collecting night soil for use as fertilizer was gradually
discontinued. Since the human faecal matter was no longer used as a resource, it
became a waste product, and toilets were installed that discharged either directly
to canals or to pipes that drained into the canals.
Urbanization of Agricultural Land
Since the opening of Guangdong Province to investment and trade in 1978 and the
explosive industrialization that ensued, Pearl River Delta cities such as
Guangzhou and Foshan have expanded rapidly. In 1990, Guangzhou had a
population of 3 million; in 2005, it had 7.4 million permanent residents (see City of
Guangzhou, no date) and (as estimated in 2003) 4.2 million ‘floating people’, a
Figure 7. Master plan proposed by Sasaki Associates (2003) and modified by the Foshan City Planning
Department (City of Foshan).
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The Future of a Chinese Water Village
working population from various rural parts of China that migrated to the Delta
Region in search for work. Twenty kilometres to the southwest of Guangzhou,
Foshan, one of the fastest-growing cities in the Delta, grew through annexation
and emigration from 323 000 inhabitants in 1990, to 4 million (see Population of
Guangdon City, no date) 10 years later. This trend continues as the city
grows southward, jumping over the Dong Ping River, its former southern limit.
An impressive new bridge now links the newly-constructed stadium with the
old city centre.
The south bank has been designated a new city centre for Foshan, and a plan
developed by Sasaki Associates, Inc. in 2003 (Sanchez-Ruiz, 2003) was selected in
a competition, and adopted (with modifications) by the city (Figure 7). While the
plan’s text called for landscape elements to be “built according to the existing
natural context, such as canal, lake, island, hill, wetland”, the plan did not
acknowledge the complex pre-existing system of canals and the traditional water
villages based upon them. The plan evidently assumed the water villages would
be erased and replaced with an entirely new urban structure. An eight-lane road
was proposed to pass through what is now the centre of Dadun village.
The villagers resisted, asserting their ownership rights to village land and
dissatisfaction with the compensation offered by the government. As a result, the
new road now stops abruptly at the edge of the village. The Sasaki Plan is thus
partially constructed: completed elements include the city’s new stadium, a large
media headquarters building and a central park, whose water features include a
meandering, decorative canal. Since the water quality in the canals in Dadun is
compromised due to the discharge of untreated sewage, the authorities have
installed a water gate along the northern boundary of the village, disconnecting
the polluted waters of the village canals from contaminating the decorative canal
in the new park. This disconnection has exacerbated the contamination problem
within the village by eliminating flushing from the north, although the village
canals still have one connection to the larger canal system (and ultimately the
Dong Ping River) to the east, which induces a tidal range of about 1 metre in the
eastern end of the village canal network.
The Sasaki Plan called for a large, decorative landscaped lake and a
symmetrically meandering canal. These features have been built in a modified
form. The lake measures 230 metres in diameter and the canal is approximately 30
metres wide and 500 metres long. The new lake is substantially larger than any
existing water body on the site, and the new canal is several times wider than any
existing canals. These new features are too wide to be shaded and so will receive
direct sunlight over their entire surface. However, the Sasaki Plan did not present
or refer to analyses of water temperature and water quality in the proposed lake
and canal, anticipated loading of nutrients, expected rates of flushing by tides, or
detail whether this flushing would be sufficient to keep pace with the
eutrophication of such nutrient-laden waters when exposed to direct sun.
The Rapidly Changing Cultural Landscape
Today in China, great pressures on cultural landscapes have helped to create an
awareness of the lacking conceptual foundations capable of guiding past and
current planning practices (Whitehand & Gu, 2006). Past development practices,
such as encapsulating villages (erasures are rare) with new housing and industry,
are being met with much resistance; the villagers of Dadun proved no exception.
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Figure 8. Modified Road Grid to bypass ‘Water Villages’. Source: collage by Sugrue).
At the national level, land development practices are now being reconsidered in
light of their social and environmental consequences. Dadun’s resistance is
consistent with a revised national policy that China’s President, Hu Jintao,
proposed to the October 2006 Central Committee meeting, in which he called on
the committee to “build a harmonious socialist society”.3 This shift in policy was
designed to address the widening gap between rich and poor in Chinese society
and the environmental degradation associated with prior policies, which had
aimed to ‘expand the economy’ at any cost. The October 2007 party congress and
re-election of President Hu Jintao confirmed the commitment to better
urbanization practices, where “new developments meet the old with greater
harmony”.4 The Foshan-Dadun example is far from unique, and similar conflicts
are likely to arise in coming decades throughout the Delta Region as government
officials interpret what a more harmonious co-existence between new and old
might entail.
As an alternative to confrontation, a ‘harmonious’ integration of such villages
into the newly-developing urban fabric would create a green belt of ponds, canals
and villages within the new centre, as shown (Figure 8). The villages could play an
economically viable and socially important role as distinct districts within the new
cities. To date, there are no models for such successful integration of water villages
in the Delta. However, if such an approach could be articulated and disseminated,
it may be possible to avoid some future social conflicts, and preserve the unique
cultural and environmental attributes of such villages while the surrounding
landscape transforms. However, ‘harmonious integration’ would also need to
address the changing demographics of the population that now occupy the
villages, especially the large influx of a young migrant workforce from rural parts
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The Future of a Chinese Water Village
of China that have taken up residence in the villages in order to work in nearby
This paper presents results of a collaborative study between faculty and
students of the South China University of Technology (SCUT) and the University
of California Berkeley (UCB), in which the authors worked with city and village
leaders to develop strategies to preserve and restore fluvial patterns, and to
transform the urban patterns of Dadun village and its four neighbouring water
villages to suit the needs of all villagers, including the migrant population. From
this experience and research in other such villages, a general approach is
proposed to integrate distinct villages into newly-developing urban areas,
articulated through a set of planning and design principles. The approach
proposed here should also be applicable to other villages throughout the Pearl
River Delta.
The work proceeded in three steps. First, the methods included detailed
observations combined with interviews with village leaders, as well as a review of
the literature that was available to the authors. This preliminary research made it
possible to articulate hypothetical design approaches that addressed a gradual
transformation of the settlements within a fragile cultural and ecological
landscape. Second, fieldwork was conducted, water quality was measured, and
investigations examined planned sewer systems, road networks, and topics
related to village morphology and building typology. Use of public spaces by the
villagers was also recorded and maps were made of urban form using
photographic records and satellite data. Third, design principles were illustrated
as a partial test of the hypotheses.
Observing, Listening and Reading
Villages within Cities
The integration of rural villages into expanding cities is a current and common
phenomenon in China. Like the expanding cities of the industrialized world at the
turn of the 19th to the 20th centuries, Chinese villages are being absorbed into new
urban structures. As in the West, the current rapid urbanization in China follows
regular geometric patterns. Wide and straight roads form a large-scale grid of city
blocks that accommodate sizeable building footprints with high land utilization. If
villages are encapsulated into the new urban fabric, the new regular urban pattern
is interrupted by an obviously older pattern of narrow irregular pathways, small
blocks and the occasional historic structure, frequently an ancestor’s hall or a
shrine. Literally translated, “villages within a city” can easily be spotted on drives
through the recently built city extensions in Guangzhou and Foshan.
The reasons why villages have become encapsulated into the expanding cities
and why villages were not simply erased is related to historically defined rights.
During the ‘Long March’, Mao Zedong severed China’s long feudal tradition,
which had ruled the existence of an estimated 300 million landless farmers (Ping
Li, 2003). As a result of land reforms, the Chinese farming population was given
autonomy of operation, including land ownership (Ping Li, 2003). At the same
time, the land reform, known as ‘tu gai’, solidified support among the rural
population, who had been active participants in the Chinese revolution of 1949—
referred to in China as the 1946 –1950 ‘War of Liberation’ (Ping Li, 2003). In the
mid-1950s, following the Soviet Russian models, individual rights to property
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Figure 9. The benefits for the migrant population who find housing in Dadun are rarely acknowledged.
Source: photo by Bosselmann.
were converted to collective rights, which have been maintained to the present
day (Ping Li, 2003). The village as a farming collective holds authority over land
use rights and controls development independent of neighbouring city or
prefecture government. As the neighbouring city expands onto farmland, the
collective is compensated for their loss of land. The villagers transfer their
remaining land, including their homestead, into 30-year land leases for industry
or commerce, or 50-year leases for residential property. Inside the village, villagers
frequently rent housing to migrant workers, the so-called ‘floating population’.
Thus, the former farmer becomes a landlord and the village becomes an enclave
for migrants.
The incentive to increase density in the former rural village has led to new
four or five-storey cinderblock construction replacing the original one-storey farm
buildings. The already narrow lanes become narrower as building heights ascend
and upper floors cantilever until they nearly touch each other across the lane. The
lanes are damp and dark even during the day and the migrant population quickly
outnumbers the local villagers by a sizeable factor. The rental income gained can
be invested and some villagers prefer to move into nearby modern high-rise
apartments. The neighbouring city authorities frequently perceive village
conditions as undesirable; urban villages are considered slums, overpopulated,
full of precarious construction, and plagued by severe infrastructure deficiencies
and sometimes social disorder. Rarely acknowledged are the benefits for the
migrant population (Figure 9). For the growing pool of migrant workers, much
work is readily available, but there are few affordable places to live. The relatively
cheap housing in the urban villages is vital for the existence of low labour costs,
thus to the economy of the region (Ma & Wu, 2005).
A research team from the Berlage Institute in The Netherlands, together with
planners at South China University of Technology, have identified four stages of
village transformation in the Pearl River Delta (Uehara, 2004).The first, the ‘village
stand-alone’ phase is replaced by the beginnings of urbanization, as in the case of
Dadun, where a new road grid points towards the village. In the second, ‘target’
phase, the former farming village transforms into a village within the city.
The Future of a Chinese Water Village
The local government reclassifies farmland as ‘land for collective development’ or
‘housing based land’ and starts farmland compensation procedures. The Dutch
group labels this third phase as ‘swallowing, extrusion and amputation’. The three
terms describe the encapsulation of the village, the increase in land utilization up
to a ratio of five times the land area, and the breaking of wide roads through the
former village, dividing the village in the process. In a fourth phase, rarely
observed thus far, erasure of the village is expected.5
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Dadun Village within the City of Foshan
In the winter of 2008, Dadun village was at the beginning of the second phase. The
village had become a target. The ‘floating population’ of an estimated 6000 people
already outnumbered the 3500 permanent residents. Dadun, like the neighbouring villages, was still traversed by a system of canals and surrounded by
fishponds. Until the recent past, the canal network was connected to the Dong
Ping River, whose tidal fluctuations induced a circulation through the connected
canal system. Dadun had maintained a classic water village structure, with its
basic form determined by the canals and its lanes arranged perpendicular to the
canals. Its traditional pattern of fish ponds and silk production has been
abandoned, and with the explosion of industrial growth in the region, villagers
have leased some surrounding agricultural land to industry and intensified land
use within the village to create rental units in order to meet the housing demand
created by the large population of immigrants from other parts of China.
The setting of a village in a river landscape held great attraction to the participants
in this collaborative study. Dadun’s spatial structure of lanes, canals and public
spaces was of high quality. The participants were impressed by the canals with
their stone-faced walls. Two centuries ago, in a concerted effort, identical stone
rings were carved into natural stone blocks to serve as ties for boats. Wherever a
lane meets a canal at right angle, steps lead down to the water. Ancestor halls of
the two predominant families, the Her and the Liang, open out to medium sized
squares. Remnants of two watchtowers remind visitors that the village was once a
wealthy market town and that the need for protection was of some urgency.
Apparently, the two leading families had been in a state of feud at some time in the
past. Remnants of a wall that separated the village could still be seen near an
ancient shrine at the centre. There, next to the Buddhist shrine, a bosque of old
trees enclosed a formal stone-faced pond.
Observations of Dadun quickly led to an understanding of how the village
had functioned in the river landscape of the Pearl River Delta. The elements of the
landscape that were observed had formed the basis of Dadun’s social and cultural
existence, an existence that had abruptly disappeared in the last two decades.
Admittedly, the authors looked at the disappearing river landscape with much
appreciation, but with full realization that the landscape had been permanently
changed. At the same time, it was realized that the observations could lead to a
better understanding how the former landscape had evolved and how a future
landscape could be constructed that is attentive to the balance of natural and
social forces, such as the interplay between the water system, vegetation, climate,
settlement patterns and the dynamics of changing demographics.
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In January 2008, Chairman Liang Jinghua and the committee of Dadun
villagers were faced with two choices. On the one hand, they could negotiate with
land developers who would offer higher compensation for the land than the Foshan
city government. If the villagers agreed to an offer, they would gain funds and could
invest in property inside the new centre or elsewhere. The local government would
return 15% of the land areas to them and the villagers would have the right to
develop it. The real estate developer, together with the City of Foshan, would
implement the city centre plan, which would call for the demolition of the village,
the building of a park connected to the new sport stadium and completion of the
road grid. The details of this planning scenario have not been worked out, but could
include the preservation of historic structures within the village, the canals and
some of the ponds. One could imagine a museum-like park landscape that evokes
memories of the past, including displays of fish farming and mulberry-silkworm
cultivation. Unresolved in this scenario is the future of the 6000 migrant workers,
who currently rent space in the village.
A second scenario, the one currently pursued by the local village committee,
was not to sell the development rights, but to maintain collective ownership and
control over the village’s planning and building permit process. The contribution
here supported the second choice. Four hypotheses guided the work:
The villager’s control over land use and building renewal activities make
possible a gradual renewal that will lead to the village’s transformation as part
of the new centre for Foshan. To finance the renewal, the villagers invest the
lease and rental income into new revenue generating ventures that support
commercial, recreational and cultural activities for the emerging city centre
population of 30 000 new residents.
. The historic canal system can be improved and the water system of ponds and
canals together with the trees that line them can play an important role in
attenuating potential floods.
. The canals have an important ecological function, beneficial to plant and animal
life, thus importantly contributing to air quality and a comfortable microclimate.
. The existing physical configuration of village’s blocks and parcels has the
potential for renewal, modernization and improved sanitary conditions. The
envisioned building improvements will benefit all village residents including
the migrant workers.
Admittedly, the first of the four hypotheses constitutes a weak link in the
conceptual approach and it will be necessary to return to the topic of what
historians call ‘synoecism’, the amalgamation of settlements of uneven size and
power, later in the discussion. In addition, the first hypothesis could not be tested
conclusively in a two-week workshop. However, the remaining three hypotheses
were to be tested, first by gathering detailed information through measurements
and field surveys, followed by the illustration of design principles.
Fieldwork, Map Making and Detailed Measurements
Canals, Water Quality and Micro-climate
It had become clear from the observations that villagers made frequent use of the
multiple steps leading down into the canals (Figure 5). In the past, they
The Future of a Chinese Water Village
Table 1. Concentrations of Fecal Coliform in Sampled Water Bodies in Dadun
Sample no.
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Faecal coliform concentration (colonies/litre)
1 £ 104
1 £ 104
2 £ 104
1.4 £ 105
2.8 £ 105
Dong-Ping River mainstream
Fish ponds
Canal between Dadun and Xiaochong
Well water in Dadun village
Canal in Dadun
traditionally drew water, washed clothes and swam in the canals, all activities
reflecting a good water quality (some long-time villagers in Dadun insisted that
they could drink the canal water in the past). Drinking water was drawn from
shallow wells, which were hydrologically connected with the canals. However,
once night soil was no longer applied to crops, and raw sewage began to be
discharged into canals, the waters became too contaminated for these practices.
As part of the workshop, water samples were collected and tested for faecal
coliform from the nearby Dong Ping River, from a fishpond, from a domestic well
and from several locations within the Dadun canal systems. The presence of faecal
coliform bacteria indicates sewage contamination and the possible presence of
pathogenic bacteria and viruses. Lab results showed extremely high concentrations of faecal coliform in the canal and the well (which are inferred to be
hydrologically connected to the canal). It is worth noting that the water samples
from the middle of Dadun and the well would not be suitable for agricultural or
general landscape use according to the water quality standards for surface water
in China.6 The water sample from the canal between Dadun and Xiaochong met
the standard for industrial uses and recreation with no direct contact.
Measurements were made of concentrations an order of magnitude lower in the
mainstream river and fishpond samples. These samples met the standard for
direct human contact in China, such as swimming, but do not meet the standard in
the United States (10 000 colonies/Litre compared with 2000, respectively) (US
EPA, 2003). The US standard for swimming correlates to an 8 added
gastrointestinal illnesses per 1000 swimmers (USGS, 2007). Clearly, water quality
Figure 10. Locations where water samples were taken.
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Figure 11. Shading the water surfaces. Source: photo by Bosselmann.
was compromised in Dadun, and the domestic well and canals were heavily
contaminated and not fit for human contact (Table 1 and Figure 10).
The loads of sewage and constituents from runoff make the canals vulnerable
to eutrophication, the over-enrichment by nutrients, which, when combined with
sunlight, can result in algal blooms that rob the water of dissolved oxygen.
The tree-shaded canals and close spacing of buildings (creating alleys 1.5
metres wide, or just wide enough for two people with poles to pass) created a
cooler micro-climate, both by virtue of the shading from trees and buildings and
by the circulation of cool air from the canal along the alleys, which are oriented
perpendicular to the canals (Figure 11). Most of the canals in Dadun are oriented
roughly NW – SE, along the axis of the southeasterly breezes that prevail during
the hot summer.
Comb Structure
As part of the workshop, maps were made from satellite information. When the
maps were carried around the village they attracted much attention. Villagers had
rarely seen a map image of their village, especially not one that showed buildings
and lanes in photographic detail. For us the maps became a way to analyze the
village’s fine-toothed comb structure of canals and lanes; the walks along the
canals form the ridge of the comb and the narrowly spaced lanes form the finetoothed teeth of the comb. The distance between lanes allowed for a single
property with front and back entrances opening onto parallel lanes. The buildings
fronting the canals along the ridge of the comb were generally executed in a more
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elaborate design and frequently housed small ancestor halls belonging to one of
the two predominate clans. Some comb structures accommodated two separate
properties between lanes. The properties were generally smaller and would
have only a front entrance, but no back door. This fine grain pattern could have
emerged through divisions among family members.
The spacing between parallel lanes rarely exceeded 10 metres with 7.8 being a
more common dimension. The property frontage length alongside the lanes also
generally measured 10 metres. Thus the properties were square or nearly square
and measured between 80 – 100 square metres. Judging from the roof structures,
ceiling beams span 4.5 to a maximum of 5 metres, which is typical of single span
wooden roof construction between masonry walls in other parts of the world.
Thus property dimensions produced a main structure with gable walls of 5 metres
in width and a length of 7 to 10 metres measured along the roof ridge. The single
orientation of the main structure is directed towards a small court in the centre of
the property. Two very small buildings flank the court, serving as entrances to the
court from the lanes; they were generally also used for storage. The settlement
pattern described here constitutes a regional adaptation of an ancient Chinese
building typology,7 it is still visible in Dadun, but only traces can be found on the
aerial views. As a result of extensions and remodelling, the courtyards and small
flanking buildings have almost disappeared. Although the ridged roof with
gables facing the lanes is still most common, new flat roofed structures and some
pavilion shaped roofs have started to appear as a result of remodelling. This type
of roof suggests a freestanding structure with an orientation to four directions and
it is always associated with multi-storey structures (Figure 17a).
The residential typology described above is also evident in the Liang family
ancestor hall, but with the far more generous dimensions of 35 by 25 metres.
Members of the project team subsequently surveyed this group of structures
(Figures 12a and 12b).
Public Life
The team found public spaces inside the village to be of high quality. The main
square in front of the Liang ancestral hall (Figures 12a and 12b) measures 30
metres between the entrance to the ancestral hall and the canal. The length of 74
metres appears too generous nowadays, but must have been adequate when the
square was used as a yard by school children. In the 1980s, a new primary school
was built three blocks away, at the western edge of the village.
The square in front of the Her family ancestral hall is more modestly
dimensioned. It measures 18 metres from the canal to the front steps of the
ancestral hall and is 35 metres long. The two main ceremonial squares are not used
much on a daily basis. Elderly residents and children sit or play on the paved
walks alongside canals; these walks widen in places and sometimes have a width
of 10 metres, but generally measure only 3 to 5 metres. Particularly popular is a
place alongside a canal in front of the Buddhist shine. A cluster of male residents
gathers here to sit in the shade under a bosque of trees. Clearly, people gather in
the places that are comfortable and subject to shade and light breezes from the
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Figure 12a and 12b. Liang’s Family Ancestral Hall in Dadun. Source: Surveyed by Zhang Zhimin and
Shelpy Huang, assisted and drawn by Gan Yile, Zhao Yiyun, Xu Huan, Cheng Zhi, Li Ran and Hua Sha.
Testing Hypotheses through Design
When the workshop team arrived in January 2008, the upgrading of buildings was
in evidence. In addition, villagers had built new modern homes for themselves at
the village outskirts. It was more difficult for the villagers to address the issues
related to water quality and water circulation, and the repairs necessary to the
Figure 13. Location map of Dadun, nearby villages, the Dong Ping River and the system of canals.
Source: drawn by SCUT students.
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Figure 14. Proposed improvements to canal cross-sections with provisions to treat and store grey water
from homes and run-off after rains for release into canals. The section sewer pipes under the
paved walkways along the margins of the canals collect household sewerage and connect them to the
sewer main.
system of canals and ponds (Figure 13). Therefore, the team prioritized tasks,
designed solutions and illustrated them as principles that could direct the
integration of the village into the new Foshan City Centre. The first group of
principles addressed the water system:
Improve water quality in canals up to a level that permits human contact,
including swimming. As trunk sewer lines will serve the surrounding new
urban development, it will be possible to collect sewage within the village by
laying sewer pipes under the paved walkways, along the margins of the canals,
and connect them to the sewer main. At the same time, grey water from homes,
together with run-off after rains, can be locally treated under the pavement of
the canal margins and stored there to be fed into the canal system as needed
(Figure 14).
. Preserve waterways and wind flow paths to preserve and restore the important
function of canals as a cool air resource. This requires maintenance of the
perpendicular orientation of lanes to avoid blocking ambient wind flow
patterns (Figure 15).
. Distinguish the village from the surrounding urban center. This can be accomplished
through retention of a ring of fishponds around the village, or similar strategies
to create a sense of entrance to the village (Figure 16). To address the gradual
transformation of the village’s closely-knit building fabric, the team illustrated
additional design principles that address the dimensions of blocks, lanes and
Figure 16. Fishponds around the village, or similar
Figure 15. The perpendicular orientation of lanes strategies to create a sense of entrance to the
to the canals is maintained to avoid blocking of village and set the village apart from the New
ambient wind flow pattern.
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parcelization. It was urgent in this regard to tighten the existing regulatory
responses to increased building heights for structures located on narrow lanes,
thus preserving natural ventilation and access to ambient light.
. Retain the distinctive urban morphology. This principle acknowledges the
transformation of structures from farming-related activities to more exclusively
residential use including the construction of units for the migrant population.
The increase in building heights should be limited to four floors. The spacing of
neighbouring structures should be set to 4 metres across lanes for all structures
exceeding two floors. Land coverage by new building construction should be
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Figure 17. Dadun’s characteristic urban morphology: (a) existing village fabric; (b) existing building
heights; and (c) proposed rules to provide sufficient ambient light, ventilation and open space. Source:
diagrams by Andrea Gaffney.
reduced and, as a result, the open space area on a given lot will increase from
the current 10% to 25%. Some parcels will prove too small to accommodate
new development under these rules. In that case, assembly of neighbouring
parcels should be encouraged, but land assembly should be limited to not more
than two parcels. Parcels should never be assembled across lanes, since that
would result in the closure of lanes. The building frontage facing canals
should be maintained; new construction along canals should be built up to the
frontage line established by neighbouring buildings (Figure 17a, 17b, 17c
and Figure 18).
These detailed rules would apply to all new construction. In addition, in the
villages two significant family heritage halls and the Buddhist shrine (with its
three separate temples) should be placed on a historic registrar. The team
illustrated rehabilitation proposals for the abandoned historic schoolhouse, two
partially ruined fortification towers, numerous small ancestor shrines, an
abandoned factory building, and a former social hall. While not necessarily of
great historic significance, these structures contribute significantly to the character
of the village and they could be reused as commercial enterprises, restaurants and
shops (Figure 19).
Attention to the historic structures of the village, to the canals and ponds,
squares and lanes and the gradual renewal of the villages’ residential fabric could
result in a high quality environment that would be in marked contrast to much of
what is developed in China today. However, there is much delicacy to this
proposal and this was briefly mentioned in the first hypothesis: the villagers right
P. C. Bosselmann et al.
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Figure 18. New construction along canals should be built up to a building frontage line established by
neighbouring buildings.
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Figure 20. Workshop participants in Dadun. Note,
incremental construction and building activities in
the background. Photograph by Kristen Podolak.
Figure 19. Historic tower structures from the Qing
dynasty, 17th century watchtower contribute
significantly to the character of the village and
they could be reused as commercial enterprises
attractive to the nearby New City Centre population. Photograph by Peter Bosselmann.
to self-determination and their control over an incremental process that
transforms the village into a part of the new centre.
The aim of the work was not to simply preserve a rural way of life that has
largely disappeared from the outskirts of cities in the Pearl River Delta, but to
bring new life into Dadun that could serve as a viable cultural, residential and
commercial place within the new City Centre of Foshan. The proposal was based
upon the premise that a Dadun with its ponds and canals transformed in the
manner described here would be in stark contrast to the urban high-rise
development that will soon surround it and therefore, because of its contrast,
remain attractive to the current residents as well as to newcomers, in a mutually
beneficial symbiosis.
The proposal is of a delicate nature, because it is based upon land use controls
that originated in the early Communist era and rest with the village central
committee. The question remains: will the villagers maintain their right to selfdetermination in light of sky rocketing land values on neighbouring land that was
once farmed by them and their forefathers? In addition, examples of the
incremental renewal envisioned here are in their infancy, a private developer or
government entity might be reluctant to satisfy such a highly specialized sector of
the housing market. Only very few projects of this type have been observed in the
Guangzhou area. One project, on Jiefangzhong Road designed by the architect He
Jingtang together with preservation architects Feng Jiang and Lui Hui,
incorporates traditional row housing and combines it with new commercial
space and low-income housing.
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The strongest evidence that the villagers have an interest in transforming
their village comes from the gradual renewal of residential structures consistent
with the ‘comb’ structure of lanes and canals. In places near the village edges that
are accessible by car, villagers have invested in new construction. Also, in the core
of the village much recent rebuilding activity can be observed. This gradual
transformation is illustrated in Figure 17b, a map that was traced from recent
satellite information; the new construction is distinguished, in grey, from the
traditional building typology. However, the transformation needs to be further
directed through controls that benefit the construction of rental units for migrant
workers. Justification for such controls will be driven by the housing demand for
the migrant workforce population.
The demand for a skilled workforce is growing in the industrialized cities of
the Pearl River Delta. More so than in the past, industry will try to hold on to
qualified workers and that can only happen if the workers are compensated with a
higher quality of life, including better housing.
The next phase of industrialization will also address water issues more
comprehensively. The responsibility to connect Dadun to modern sewer
infrastructure falls under the authority of the Foshan city government. For the
official planner, the urban landscape management of canals, levees, water gates
and ponds requires a shift in thinking that embraces alternative approaches, more
sensitive to natural processes the cultural landscapes and the changing needs of
the population. Greater value would need to be placed upon local identity not
being lost in the trend towards internationalization of urban form. These issues
are just in the beginning state of receiving attention, and implementation
frequently falls by the wayside due to the unrelenting pace of change that
planners need to manage.
An alternative development practice might yield results that could be
considered similar by some observers. However, upon a closer look, here the
control over land-use does not rest with local residents, but with a real estate
developer. Xintiandi is a successful development in Shanghai that incorporated
historic structures into a commercial entertainment district. As a place it has
become so successful that the name is used as a verb among developers and
designers, as in to ‘xintiandi’ a place, evoking an image of alleys lined with
restored historic courtyard houses and full of people sitting on tables along streets
enjoying world-class hospitality. Literally translated as ‘New Heaven and Earth’,
Xintiandi is located in the centre of Shanghai, a car-free two city block area, where
only 15 years ago there was a crowded neighbourhood with up to 30 families per
courtyard house. The inhabitants were moved out. China’s first ‘life style centre’
(Goldberger, 2005) now serves as the ‘value generator’ for the adjacent high-rise
office and residential development complex that is part of the same development.
The proposal was not to follow the Xintiandi example. We might be ahead of our
time and some readers will criticize our proposal as too academic, but the pace of
change in the Pearl River Delta is rapid. Social and environmental problems are
mounting; a more comprehensive approach that involves local concerns in the
dynamics of urbanization is urgently needed.
The historian Spiro Kostof (1991) reminds us that synoecism, the administrative
coming together of several proximate villages to form a town, is repeatedly
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attested to in history throughout the world since ancient times. Villages are
absorbed into a new town in a process in which the villagers exchange their
pastoral ways and the laws of their tribe or clan for the presumably free and
durable institutions of the city. The transaction is of a political nature with strong
physical and social consequences. As Kostof points out, history shows that such
unions have mostly been involuntary and resisted strongly. The physical
consequences of the merger produce a form that Kostof describes as ‘organic’ next
to planed and orthogonal development patterns. Throughout history, well known
examples include Athens, Sienna or numerous cities in Iran such as Kazvin, but
also Calcutta, even in Greenwich Village in Manhattan. In these cities and many
more, the juxtaposition of forms remains traceable, thus the dynamics of the longago social integration can still be recalled, or imagined as part of cultural progress.
When the Foshan officials found the Dadun workshop proposal ‘not entirely
practical’, they were referring to the difficulties that Dadun’s village committee
will be facing to make the proposal a reality. Allowing a developer redevelop the
central park of Foshan’s new City Centre might be simpler from the official
planner’s perspective. Incidentally, the City of Foshan is talking to the developer
of Xintiandi about a similar development in the historic centre of Foshan, adjacent
to the famous Zumiao temple, the ancient water temple that has survived many
wars and the Cultural Revolution.
The attempt by the authors to convince the planners of Foshan to support the
villagers in giving their village a new economic base as a service provider to the
large sport arena and the new City Centre, and as a place to live for a new
population that found employment in the nearby industries is consistent with the
goal to develop the ‘new’ and have it meet the ‘old’ with greater harmony. If, at the
same time, a compact urban settlement pattern, as opposed to free standing highrise tower development, could be further improved in a manner that saves energy,
does not lead to overcrowding yet produces acceptable densities, is more
compatible with the local climate, produces cleaner air through mature tree
coverage and demonstrates how water quality could be improved through
innovative sewer and run-off management, then the proposal to transform Dadun
would be a very good idea. The time has come to think about how to solve the
difficulties of its implementation (Figure 20).8
In March 2009, on a return visit to the Peal River Delta, the authors learned that the
City of Foshan entered into an agreement with the Dadun Village Committee. The
villagers agreed to pay for the installation of a local sewer system that the City of
Foshan will connect to the new sewer treatment centre. In return, the City of
Foshan has cancelled the water-lock; the barrier to the free flow of river water to
the village’s canal system has been removed.
The workshop was made possible through funding from the Beatrice Farrand
Fund, University of California, Department of Landscape Architecture and
Environmental Planning and from the Institute of Oriental Architecture, South
China Institute of Technology, Professor Wu Qigzhou Director. In addition to the
authors, the project team included the following participants: Krishna
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Balakrishnan, Chen Jingxiang, Chen Lan, Chen Siyun, Chen Wei, Chen Yiping,
Duan Xuewen, Peter Frankel, Andrea Gaffney, Gan Yile, Guan Faifan, Guo Xin,
Hua Sha, Jin Lei, Kirsten Johnson, Li Boxie, Li Junjun, Li Wenxuan, Li Yue, Li
Xuesi, Lin Feng, Lin Yuming, Liu Zheng, Luo Yunshan, Stacey Mclean, Kristen
Podolak, Shelpy Huang, John Sugrue, Nadine Soubotin, Sui Xin, Carrie Wallace,
Wang Ge, Sam Woodhams-Roberts, Xiong Xiangnan, Xu Diandian, Ye Bicen,
Zhang Guojun, Zhang Yuanyuan and Zhao Yiyun. Special thanks go to John
Sugrue for assembling the illustrations and to Kristen Podolak for her work on the
water quality analysis.
1. Chairman Liang Jinghua of Dadun Village, personal communication with the authors, January
2. ibid.
3. See¼ en&art ¼ 7332; dated 27 September 2006
4. ibid.
5. During our stay we learned about the erasure of one former water village within Guangzhou, Liede
Village. The village was completely erased in December of 2007. The plan to move residents from
Liede originated with the real estate developers. The villagers of Liede resisted and found
themselves surrounded by the newly designated and expanded CBD of Guangzhou. Construction
and roads destroyed the rural canal pattern. Initially the villagers objected to relocation, but after
the environment inside the village deteriorated, the villagers agreed to move.
6. GB 3838-2002. Environmental quality standard for surface water. Ministry of Environmental
Protection. The People’s Republic of China. Available at
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(Cambridge: MIT Press). The Chinese courtyard typology is well known. The Danish architect and
planner Steen Eiler Rassmussen might have been the first to describe it.
8. To ‘visit’ Dadun, go to Google Earth, type in ‘Foshan, China’ and descend on the Foshan name label.
Once you see the urbanized area you will spot a bow tie shaped river formation to the south of the
city centre and a doughnut shaped, perfectly round large stadium. Shift the focus of the frame onto
the round shape of the stadium and descend further. You will see the bridge across the Dong Ping
River and a major new road that ends abruptly at Dadun village.
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