Theorising Urban Planning in a Transitional Economy: The Case of Shenzhen, People's Republic of China

By Ng, Mee Kam; Tang, Wing-Shing | The Town Planning Review, June 2004 | Go to article overview

Theorising Urban Planning in a Transitional Economy: The Case of Shenzhen, People's Republic of China


Ng, Mee Kam, Tang, Wing-Shing, The Town Planning Review


Most of the existing planning theories (theories in urban development, of planning practice and justifications for planning) and debates about their interrelationships are derived from the contexts of basically 'demand-constrained' (capitalist) economies. Some authors have attempted to theorise urban planning in transitional economies. However, theorisation based on concrete planning practices in a city in the transition from a 'resource-constrained' to a 'demand-constrained' economy is an uncharted terrain. This paper attempts to take up this challenge and through a detailed case study of Shenzhen, China's first Special Economic Zone (SEZ) explores the relationships between urban development and planning in a transitional economy. Shenzhen's experience proves that a perceptive understanding of urban development can provide us with important clues for understanding the nature of and theoretica justifications for changing urban planning practices. In return, the reformed planning practice helps sharpen our reflections on the constraints and feasible options of urban development in a transitional economy. In this sense, urban planning practice, at least in the case of Shenzhen, is 'path dependent' and has the potential to be increasingly 'path shaping'.

Unlike the prolific publications on urban planning theories originating from the American and European contexts (Allmendinger, 2002; Blowers and Evans, 1997; Brooks, 2002; Campbell and Fainstein, 2003; Friedmann, 1987; Khakee, 1996; Mandelbaum et al., 1996; Sandercock, 1998; Taylor, 1998), there are relatively fewer scholars who have researched urban planning in socialist transitional economies facing progressive globalisation. Some scholars have researched urban planning in changing Central and Eastern European countries (Nedovic-Budic, 2001; Thomas, 1998). However, the different contexts in Central and Eastern Europe have made the theorisation less transferable when we try to understand urban planning in the evolving contexts of post-reform China. Compared with the literature that contributes to a better understanding of economic and urban development in China (Logan, 2002; Ma, 2002; Nee, 1992; Smart and Smart, 2001; Tang, 1997; 1998; Wu, 1997; 2002; Xie et al., 2002; Zhang, 2001; Zhang, T. 2000; Zhu, 1999), there are relatively fewer scholars who have focused on diagnosing the country's urban planning practice (Leaf, 1998; Ng and Tang, 1999a; 1999b; 2002; Ng and Xu, 2000; Tang, 2000; Xu and Ng, 1998; Yeh and Wu, 1998; Zhang, 2002). To contribute to this under-researched area, this paper attempts to make a preliminary step in theorising urban planning in China's transitional economy through a detailed case study of Shenzhen, China's first Special Economic Zone (SEZ) set up in 1980.

While Zhu (1996a) and Leaf (1996) had debated whether Shenzhen should be regarded as an 'exception or exemplar', somehow the arguments have been overtaken by historical events. Once a privileged SEZ groomed by exclusive policies from the central government, Shenzhen is now not much different from other large cities within the open and competitive Pearl River Delta region. Shenzhen is no longer an 'exception' and, to survive in an increasingly competitive environment especially when China has gained accession to the World Trade Organisation (WTO), it has no choice but to strive to be an 'exemplar'. This paper attempts to gain a greater understanding of the relationship between this transition and the evolving urban planning practice in Shenzhen. The following section outlines the major conceptual considerations in theorising urban planning in China's transitional economy. Borrowing the rhetoric of theories in, of and for planning, it is argued that (theories of planning approach and practice and (theories for) planning rationale are closely related to (theories in) the planning contexts. In other words, the political economy of a place will shape the role of urban planning in its development trajectory (Ng, 1999, 8). …

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