For several decades now, old urban communities in China have been demolished to make way for new-build residential dwellings. It is only since the last decade that the well-being of residents has been taken into consideration by the Chinese government. Xin Li concludes in her PhD thesis that there is still a world to win here.

In China, urban redevelopment is a phenomenon that in the past few decades has led to large-scale demolition of old urban areas. Millions of residents, often with low income, are forced to relocate to make way for high-rise dwellings for more prosperous residents. As a result, social, emotional and material relationships between residents and their living environment have become disrupted. 

In 2008, the national government-initiated Shantytown Redevelopment Projects (SRPs) to improve the living conditions of low-income residents in deteriorating ‘danwei’ and urbanised rural communities on the outskirts of the city. These residents are among the most socio-economically disadvantaged groups in China today. The danwei were compounds that combined production, housing, and the provision of basic services such as food, education and pensions for workers of large state-owned enterprises. With the dismantling of many major industries in China, jobs and social facilities have disappeared. Due to unemployment, low income, poor health and lack of facilities, the danwei residents are too poor to afford better housing elsewhere, and they are rarely or not involved in decision-making processes relating to urban redevelopment.

Stressful process

In June of this year, OTB PhD Xin Li obtained her doctorate with a study investigating the emotional impact that forced relocation out of a protected environment has on residents. Her research focused in particular on residents undergoing the pre-demolition stage in Shenyang, an industrial city in Northeast China. The pre-relocation and pre-demolition stage is the most stressful and conflicting stage for residents involved in urban redevelopment and forced relocation. By studying the relocatees during this stage, Xin Li was able to gain insight into their emotions and experiences. At this stage, the relocatees need to negotiate and make significant decisions with regard to the compensation that they can get from local governments and/or developers. Families, especially those with multiple generations living under one roof, often have heated discussions and conflicting ideas about the type and amount of compensation, and whose housing preferences and needs should get priority.

Li found that residents have mixed feelings about forced relocation and urban redevelopment. Many home owners and older people are unwilling to move. They don’t have high expectations with regard to the amount of compensation (monetary or in kind, for example in the form of alternative housing) they will receive, and are uncertain about future opportunities during and after the forced relocation. Despite the promises made to rebuild comparable public and commercial facilities in the relocation neighbourhoods and the fact that local governments are making more effort to compensate danwei homeowners, they don’t feel reassured. They feel unable to determine beforehand what negative consequences relocation will have, and how long these consequences will last. Their current neighbourhood makes them feel rooted, and over the years they have developed living strategies to overcome their deprived socio-economic situation. Relocating to another neighbourhood would undermine these strategies. Other residents anticipate a potential improvement of their living conditions, because neighbourhood decline has been challenging their daily activities and affecting their quality of life for years. They are, to a certain extent, prepared to accept forced relocation if it will improve their living conditions. Some residents even try to increase the value of their home by adding illegal extensions to maximise financial compensation.

More careful compensation policy

Li’s research findings demonstrate that the central state and local governments could in fact reduce or mitigate the uncertainties and related negative impact on residents caused by relocation. At the heart of the problem lies the disparity between the project scope and the expectations of the residents, with ignorance on the part of the government of the diverse needs of the affected residents, and of the associated feelings of uncertainty and anxiety. Li therefore advises local governments to consider the physical, social, economic and psychological impact of urban redevelopment on residents. Local governments should also work to develop a more balanced compensation policy, which is the greatest concern of the relocatees. The compensation criteria should cover various needs of relocatees regarding rehousing, such as dwelling size, nearby public and commercial facilities, and job opportunities. Local governments also should devote more attention to socio-economic and family situations of affected residents prior to redevelopment and forced relocation.

Published: June 2018