Economic Geography of Unplanned Commercial Establishments: An Investigation of Shenzhen's Urban Villages

Project: Research project

Project Details


The built environment of modern cities is largely shaped by urban planning rather than spontaneous development. While whether planned urban space adequately accommodates human needs remains heatedly debated, the increasing complexity of urban development continues to challenge the competence of planners and policy makers. In Chinese cities, given the rigid control of land use and development, planning generally goes undisputed. However, the distribution of urban activities is increasingly redirected by market forces, leading to unplanned development. Most commonly seen are various commercial establishments that have emerged spontaneously within and around the planned fabric of the urban environment, such as a convenience store popping up at the corner façade, a hair salon opened in the roadside garage and a studio concealed in an apartment building. Despite the downsides of these establishments, they not only meet market demand that is unheeded in city plans, but they also facilitate entrepreneurial endeavors for individuals who cannot afford regular premises.

In general, unplanned commercial establishments are distributed sporadically. However, such establishments prevail in urban villages, which are migrant settlements that have been transformed from rural villages engulfed by urban expansion. In a state of quasi- urban jurisdiction where rural collective land ownership remains, the construction and utilization of buildings are beyond the control of planning or building codes. The high level of autonomy allows for excess commercial establishments to emerge in residential buildings and non-residential buildings. Given the large population of migrant tenants in urban villages, the proliferation of various commercial establishments reflects the local demand for cheap and accessible goods and services unavailable in the surrounding planned environment. Urban villages, existing as havens for unplanned commercial establishments, enable us to investigate unplanned commercial establishments in great quantity and diversity.

This research will conduct surveys in Shenzhen’s widespread urban villages to examine the spatiality of unplanned commercial establishments. Spatial econometric analytics based on rich building and socioeconomic data will be used to understand the configuration and distribution of unbridled commercial development. The focus on unplanned establishments will offer new insight into retail location studies. In practice, the findings will contribute to urban planning and policy making, in coping with the current state and future development of unregulated commercial activities, and in the effective allocation of commercial facilities. In addition, the analytical methodology developed using highly diverse data will be applicable to suitability analysis of urban development plans and to retail location studies in various settings.
Effective start/end date1/01/1630/06/18

UN Sustainable Development Goals

In 2015, UN member states agreed to 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all. This project contributes towards the following SDG(s):

  • SDG 11 - Sustainable Cities and Communities
  • SDG 15 - Life on Land


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