• Shenzhen regeneration offers new blueprint for renovating China’s urban villages

    12 June 2024

    Nantou Ancient City (NANTOU) in Shenzhen is a unique urban regeneration project that encapsulates the dual characteristics of historical significance and contemporary urban village renewal. This site, with a legacy dating back 1700 years, boasts remnants like the city gate, court, and ancestral hall, providing a distinct branding edge and reflecting the site’s rich past.


    The Nantou Ancient City project spans 350,000 square metres, encompassing 992 buildings. The first phase, completed in 2021, involved refurbishing about 300 buildings, with a Gross Floor Area of 89,000 square metres.

    The Government initiated an improvement programme in 2018, selecting NANTOU to pilot the innovative “Urban Space Operator” model. This model, through a joint venture (JV) between the government, village committee, and a private entity, aimed to address urban density issues while balancing public interests with private investment. The success of this phase, following three years of operation and refurbishment, is a testament to the effective long-lease strategy employed by the JV.

    This strategy has established a sustainable model of urban regeneration, offering a balance of public responsibilities, individual landlord interests, and financial viability. NANTOU now stands as a model for revitalising urban villages across China, suggesting a scalable solution for enhancing communities by catering to the needs of dynamic modern urban populations.

    NANTOU is indicative of the “Urban Village” concept, a byproduct of Shenzhen’s rapid urbanisation following its designation as a Special Economic Zone in the 1980s. It is one of over 400 such urban villages, originally informal housing solutions for a surging migrant population, which adapted to high-density living to maximise rental income. This transformation, while optimising space and affordability, resulted in significant challenges such as compromised hygiene and fire safety.

    In  May 2024 the project was selected as one of the 12 winners of the ULI Asia Pacific Awards for Excellence, a great honour and one of a number of honours bestowed on the project.

    Images: Nantou Ancient City

    Excellence in all areas

    NANTOU exemplifies leadership in urban renewal, transcending conventional redevelopment by championing co-existence and cultural activation. In alignment with governmental directives against massive redevelopment for environmental sustainability and optimal utilisation of existing infrastructure, NANTOU pioneers a progressive model in urban village revitalisation.

    Avoiding the displacement of communities and forceful imposition of new programmes, NANTOU strategically integrates enduring and emerging programmes, injecting dynamic “new villagers” into the fabric of society. This infusion includes creative industry professionals, entrepreneurs, artists, and performers, enhancing community vibrancy in multifaceted ways.

    The result is a compassionate, multi-layered society where the pursuit of quality living is paramount. Artists, designers, and creatives find a welcoming neighbourhood that steers clear of excessive tourism-driven commercialisation, offering a healthier paradigm for community living in the city. NANTOU’s commitment to balance and integration sets a benchmark for excellence in urban regeneration.

    The future needs of the community

    The Nantou Ancient City project stands as a response to the evolving urban demands of Shenzhen, reflecting a broader pattern in Chinese and global city development. It confronts the challenge of traditional zoning, which often segregates urban functions, leading to inefficient transport use, environmental stress, and inactive zones during off-peak hours.

    NANTOU addresses these issues by integrating micro-scale mixed-use planning, crafting a community-centric model that fosters collaboration among developers and operators. It revives the concept of the ‘tribe’—a foundational element of societal cohesion found in historical villages and contemporary virtual spaces—reinforcing the innate human desire for communal belonging.

    Urban villages, often at risk of eroding under the pressure of city development, are revitalised by NANTOU. It preserves their historical essence while integrating them into the city’s current and future fabric, ensuring their survival and relevance. The trilateral mechanism established for NANTOU exemplifies successful co-existence, marrying the past’s heritage with the present’s vibrancy and the future’s sustainability. This approach is a testament to NANTOU’s commitment to nurturing a living, breathing community that remains resilient and adaptable to the changing urban landscape.

    Sustainability & stewardship

    NANTOU exhibits a commitment to environmental sustainability and stewardship with a focus on enhancing spatial quality over maximising rental areas. During its development, a mere 5% of buildings were reconstructed, and only due to dilapidation. Prioritising green spaces, the joint venture (JV) purchased and cleared select properties to create pocket gardens, thereby improving urban greenery.

    Architectural strategies included implementing external circulation in a major factory building to allow for better daylight penetration, even at the cost of building efficiency. Additionally, a bamboo roof garden was installed to improve thermal insulation. Adherence to a design guideline mandates the use of local and original finishes, fostering a visual harmony that reflects the various eras of construction, and prioritises the use of natural and reclaimed materials, such as old stone for paving and bamboo for structures.

    Resilience is built into NANTOU’s operational model, with the JV overseeing continuous management and ensuring that any tenant changes or modifications to façades and shopfronts align with the community aesthetic. This controlled yet flexible approach encourages public participation and allows tenants to contribute to a vibrant, yet ‘ordered’, streetscape. The project’s approval criteria underscore the importance of freedom of expression while maintaining environmental harmony.

    Positive community impact

    NANTOU has catalysed transformative change in its urban village community, with impacts reaching economic, social, and cultural domains. Previously, the area’s housing was primarily subdivided for maximum rental yield, offering minimal living conditions without communal infrastructure. Only a fraction of space was dedicated to basic commercial activities.

    Post-revitalisation, there’s been a tangible uplift in property and rental values, spurring voluntary participation from local landlords in ongoing improvement efforts. The project has also stimulated economic activation, increasing job opportunities with competitive salaries, and enhancing tax revenues through increased economic activities. Culturally, NANTOU has become a nexus for free public engagement, inviting locals to experience performances, exhibitions, and markets previously beyond their reach. This cultural enrichment extends to leisure opportunities for both established residents and newcomers, fostering a broader community ethos.

    Furthermore, the project maintains a concerted effort to enhance public participation. Initiatives include pairing volunteer designers with local businesses, supporting stay-at-home parents in entrepreneurial ventures, and creating interest groups that bridge the gap between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ NANTOU, enabling collective event preparation and community sharing. In essence, NANTOU not only revitalises space but also rekindles the spirit of community.

    Challenges met and overcome

    NANTOU surmounted challenges to marry historic integrity with progressive urban development. To achieve architectural unity across 300 structures, a consortium of diverse architects was formed, crafting a coherent design language that respected NANTOU’s historical context while infusing contemporary vibrancy. Moreover, ensuring the existing community’s fabric remained undisturbed while integrating new functions proved challenging. Strategies included non-traditional tenant selection to maintain authenticity and prevent over-commercialisation, preserving NANTOU’s cultural ethos.

    Landlord engagement presented another hurdle, given their varying levels of expertise in planning and design. This was addressed by involving them in decisions impacting their interests, such as converting private spaces to public utilities or integrating private gardens into public spaces, ensuring the original would not be lost over time. The crucial task of aligning individual property owners’ expectations with market realities was tackled through the village committee and KOLs, who helped navigate rental value assessments and facilitated consensus. This led to the swift securing of long-term leases, underpinned by government incentives, enhancing community commitment to the project.

    These solutions not only resolved immediate issues but also crafted a blueprint for future projects, demonstrating that inclusivity and innovation are key to sustainable urban regeneration.

    Lessons for others

    The Nantou Ancient City project stands as an instructive model through its innovative trilateral mechanism, uniting the interests of the government, local villagers, and an urban space operator within a joint venture (JV). This collaborative approach ensures that social responsibility, individual property interests, and market viability are all addressed, creating a replicable framework for other communities.

    NANTOU’s model is adaptable; while the stakeholders’ capabilities and commitment levels may vary across different contexts, the core principle of balanced participation remains consistent. By adjusting shareholding proportions and the distribution of rights and responsibilities, the mechanism can be tailored to suit various urban village revitalisations.

    NANTOU’s approach, characterised by a ‘soft-landing’ strategy, aims to integrate new elements into the existing community fabric without disruption, offering a subtle yet effective method of transformation that other urban revitalisation efforts could emulate.


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