The Right to Envision the City? The Emerging Vision Conflicts in Redeveloping Historic Nanjing, China

By Hao Chen (Nanjing University), Lili Wang (Southern University of Science and Technology), and Paul Waley (University of Leeds)

Our study takes place in Laochengnan (old city south, literally translated), a historic area in the old city of Nanjing, China. Nanjing used to be the ancient capital of China’s ten dynasties and is famous for its historic heritage. The Laochengnan area is located in the south of the old city, comprised of thousands of traditional houses inherited from Ming or Qing dynasties. Because of its long-standing history and rich folk culture, many local people and scholars regard it as the cultural root of Nanjing. As in many other Chinese cities, Laochengnan faced the threat of redevelopment. Since 2006, the local government has tried to transform the area into a high-end residential area and a commercial and business district. Such entrepreneurial plans triggered widespread and intense tensions and conflicts between local governments, local cultural activists, national cultural elites, the central government, and local residents. These tensions and conflicts are, our research shows, organized around three competing urban visions – entrepreneurial redevelopment, historical conservation, and community conservation.

The location and layout of Laochengnan in Nanjing

In Chinese urban studies, housing-defending activities of displaced residents during the process of urban redevelopment have been well documented. Since the 1990s, the resistance of residents to urban redevelopment has been generally conceived as struggles around “welfare redistribution.” To elaborate, resisting residents are often depicted as mere interest-seekers, whose ultimate goal is to obtain a more preferable, in some cases more lucrative, compensation package, rather than to call off the redevelopment project based on a fundamentally different urban vision. We want to highlight that the existing literature, while having successfully documented the struggles of displaced residents for better compensation, has mostly ignored those cases where residents not only struggle for material benefits but also for an urban vision that rejects the one put forward by the entrepreneurial growth coalition— they want a regeneration without displacement, or in other words, community conservation. As such, the literature has generally bypassed the crucial question of why and how residents’ rights to shape the future of their own homes and communities—to “the right to envision”—has been deprived or repressed by the state-led growth coalition.

The tension between growth-oriented urban redevelopment and community conservation in Chinese cities is further complicated by the rise of another urban vision: that of historical conservation. Since the 2000s, the radical clearance of historic neighborhoods in cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Xi’an, Nanjing, and Suzhou triggered intense and sustained disapproval and critique from local and national cultural and political elites. Historic conservation as an alternative urban vision has gained increasing momentum and popularity in Chinese society.

The Laomendong Neighborhood in Laochengnan after redevelopment (Photo taken by Hao Chen in 2017)
Some remaining historic structures that await renovation after residents were displaced (Photo taken by Hao Chen in 2018)

Through an in-depth analysis of the struggles between the three competing urban visions embodied in the Laochengnan case, we ask the following questions that are crucial to understanding contemporary urban politics in China yet are more or less understudied and explored. Firstly, how do conflicts between the three competing visions—entrepreneurial redevelopment, historic conservation, and social conservation—unfold in the everyday politics of Chinese cities? Secondly, what is the scope for historic conservation to aid in resisting displacement and helping marginalized urban inhabitants realize their “right to the city,” not merely to claim material benefits but more importantly the right to “envision,” that is, to imagine future possibilities for their neighborhoods that go beyond the entrepreneurial redevelopment plans led by the state-led growth coalition?

Through field work stretching over nine years and employing a combination of research methods of participatory observation, semi-structured interviews, and archival analysis, this research adds new insights to the study of urban redevelopment politics and historic conservation politics in three ways.

Firstly, it illustrates the complex politics of urban redevelopment in China embodied in the conflicts between three competing visions—entrepreneurial redevelopment, historic conservation, and community conservation, advocated by three social forces, the local government-led growth coalition, conservationist cultural and political elites, and residents living in the historic neighborhoods, respectively. The research further shows how each group employs various tactics and strategies, including place stigmatization vs. counter-stigmatization, scale-jumping, media activism, and narrative articulation to defend their visions.

Secondly, the research illustrates the growing power of historic conservation in Chinese cities and the underlying forces behind that, including the CCP’s turn to cultural nationalism for legitimacy and the reactions of cultural elites to the radical clearance of historic landscapes since the late 1990s. As such, cultural elites and high-level political elites play increasingly crucial roles in the promotion of alternative conservationist visions, as well exhibited in the case of Laochengnan.

Thirdly, our paper finds that the vision of community conservation is poorly expressed and implemented in China. While the vision of “community-based conservation” is not entirely absent among social actors in China, elite activists and local residents who call for the vision often fail to defend it, as seen in the case of Laochengnan. One reason for this is that the vision of community conservation is traditionally outside the vision of historic conservation, which puts more emphasis on the survival of decaying historic structures rather than the wellbeing of to-be-displaced residents. Another more crucial reason is that local residents have generally been deprived of the right to envision in China. While they may have the right to negotiate a little better compensation package, lacking legislative support, they have little right to claim a different vision beyond the powerful vision of redevelopment or heritagization. While local residents in Laochengnan tried to articulate the discourse of historic conservation to argue for a rehabilitation without displacement, their resistance received little, if any, attention in the decision-making of the government.

To sum up, beyond the “distributional right to the city” which is emphasized in the extant literature, this research argues that the dispossession of residents’ visioning rights is equally destructive and dangerous, if not worse. Therefore, following Brenner et al. (2011) and Zhang (2018), we call for a shift in policy focus and scholarly attention from space to people, and more attention to the envisioning right of citizens, especially marginal groups, to shape their own homes and futures.

Read the UAR article here.

Cover Photo by Hao Chen of the Laomenxi Neighborhood in Laochengnan before redevelopment (2017).

Author Biographies

Hao Chen is associate research professor in the School of Architecture and Urban Planning, Nanjing University. His research focuses on the transformation of Chinese cities, including the regeneration of historic and traditional neighborhoods in inner cities, new town development, and the socio-spatial restructuring of Chinese cities.

Lili Wang is currently a junior fellow of the Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts at the Southern University of Science and Technology. She obtained her PhD from the Department of Geography of the Ohio State University. Her research interests are mainly in critical urban theories, planning studies, state theories, and China’s great urban transformation.

Paul Waley is senior research fellow in East Asian Geography at the University of Leeds. His research grows out of a strong focus on specific geographical settings in East Asia. Tokyo has provided the context for much of his research, but more recently he has been involved in research projects in Nanjing, Shanghai and Kunming.