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Do large-scale cultural events help neighborhoods? Reflections on the #UABB in Nantou, Shenzhen

We visited Nantou on the last leg of our 2016 week-long field trip to Shenzhen on a hot, humid day. In contrast to the pulsating lanes of Baishouzhou and its unapologetic messiness, where we had spent relatively more time, Nantou appeared quaint and well suited to touristic exploration.  After all, the settlement had once been a walled city of considerable political importance, and the remnants of that history were strewn across the village in the form of arched gateways, temples and sacred niches. My most vivid memory is that of an active main street full of the myriad tastes of China punctuated by a select number of restored (or being restored) buildings. This, in stark contrast to Hubei, a true blue urban village dating back to the 15th century that faces redevelopment.

This year, Nantou was the venue of the UABB, the bi-city biennale of Urbanism/Architecture that brings together artwork related to the urban experiences of Hong Kong and Shenzhen. Walking towards the South Gate of Nantou, we recognized familiar landmarks – the ancestor hall, the ornate gate itself, the garden and its sculptures. And further in, the smaller gate that enters the settlement itself.

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The impressive gate and ancestor hall in Nantou remains unchanged. The white blank wall with the UABB signage on it hides a politically contentious painting that caused a furor during the event’s opening. The controversy led to the review and censoring of many artworks, raising queries about the UABB as a space for dialogue, creativity and expression.

Once we stepped inside, we realized how transformed the space was from what it used to be. The street before us, full of vendors and teeming with life, was now a subdued cleaned-up version of itself. New open spaces had been carved out and designed with great taste, but ‘no climbing’, ‘no touching’ signs all over the street furniture in these made us wonder what the village residents were thinking about the redesign interventions. At the very least, these spaces were being used in many ways and by different kinds of people. Newspapers were being read here, mothers and children were catching the winter sun and old women were resting as well. Further in, we found another lovely large open space – a new basketball court, temporarily in disuse. Presumably it will be resurrected and used as it should once the UABB is over.

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Shaun Teo, whose PhD research is looking at the UABB’s transformative impacts, pointed out many more interventions in a very interesting tour he conducted that afternoon. He showed us some of the redesigned shops in the village, which looked beautiful but to my eyes were a clear push towards gentrification. Shaun showed us two interventions that emerged from a competition: 1- An attempt at entrepreneurship by a migrant renter who was running a cafe at the UABB in partnership with one of the organizers, and 2- A young urban designer’s redesign of a ground floor shop into the Nantou Living Room, his living space that doubles up into a space for village residents to meet and interact. Already, fresh interventions are spinning off of these. The entrepreneur is gathering capital to set up shop on a more permanent basis and the urban designer is taking baby steps forward with the landscaping of a “secret garden” tucked away behind his alley.

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What does an event like the UABB signify to the residents of a neighborhood like Nantou? It is obvious that many have been displaced to make the event possible. Vendors, for sure, have been asked to leave and even some factories in order to get clear floor space for the exhibition halls. Most likely, the UABB has sped up the process of gentrification and the pricing out of current renters, in a location where rents are already quite high. This might mean higher densities and I’m unsure how Shenzhen authorities will balance the heritage value of Nantou will the unfolding densification processes.

On the positive side, the redesigned public spaces and wall art have added value too. From what I heard, the design of the venue was not exactly a consultative process, nor have the venues of previous editions of the UABB retained their look and feel after the event. Perhaps Nantou will reclaim its spaces back and make of them what they want to. Given that Shenzhen is currently working on the redevelopment of urban villages, a gentrified Nantou with a smattering of resident-friendly spaces and interventions is perhaps a best case scenario!

Indian cities need to deeply study concentrated poverty and find solutions: Urban transformation is the only way forward! April 12, 2012

It’s a changed world from the one we grew up in, for sure. When I was a kid, anything that came from or had origins in the United States of America was regarded with utter fascination in India. The US and Europe, the first world, were regarded as havens of prosperity and wealth, largely because we believed these were nations that were able to give even ordinary citizens a basic minimum standard of living, amenities and equal opportunity.

How wrong this notion was, especially for the United States, we have seen in the aftermath of the worldwide economic recession we have experienced since 2008. A report released a few days before by the Citizen’s Committee for Children reveals that were are 1.6 million people living below the federal poverty line in New York in 2010, up by 120,000 since 2008 (US Census data). One in three of the city’s children live in poverty. In fact, they live in “neighborhoods of concentrated poverty” where residents face obstacles like lack of employment, high crime rates, few educational opportunities and poor housing quality.

Concentrated poverty (also called neighborhood poverty) is a well-defined term in US policy and scholarship. Federal poverty lines too are defined clearly and are comparative to the overall income levels of Americans, which means the poverty line rises and falls proportional to the income levels of higher income groups.

In India, the situation is very different. The poverty line an absolute concept, some say this is so because the nation would be able to show very little progress on poverty alleviation if it were to be relative considering the type of skewed and dramatic economic development we are seeing in this country.

The study of poverty in India, from what I have seen, is on a pan-India scale and discusses the relative concentrations of poverty in certain states and regions in the country. Unlike the US, where concentrated poverty is studied within cities by census tract, Indian cities are not identifying and focusing interventions on pockets where there is a higher density of people living in socio-economic deprivation. Despite available technology (something as simple as google maps and community surveys in conjunction with each other, as well as poverty data from the census), there is inadequate understanding on concentrated poverty and the factors that lead to the perpetuation of such a phenomenon.

In the US, racial and ethnic segregation is often a factor. In India, we might find caste, class and the prevalence of illegal, informal settlements like slums to be reasons for concentrated poverty. We do need to recognize these areas in a city because people, especially children, get trapped in a spiral of poverty that they will probably not emerge out of for generations into the future. We need to collect sufficient data and understanding of such areas to be able to look for innovative solutions for education, employment, career counseling, housing improvement, basic services, health, water quality and many other areas where small improvements can make big impacts.

Who will do this? I doubt the government will take initiative unless we force their hand. We meaning professionals, NGOs and civil society working together to transform our cities. Without urban transformation, all the glitz and glamor of rising GDP is nought!




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