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72 Hours in Shenzhen and the Pearl River Delta

Jessica Bridger
For the 2015 Global Schindler Award site in Shenzhen in Chinas Pearl River Delta, we
have gathered some impressions from a trip to the city and surrounding region.
Traveling via road, rail and sea journalist and urbanist Jessica Bridger assembled this
72-hour tour to give a general idea of the rapidly changing and complex context for the
competition.
A good way to begin a trip to Shenzhen and the Pearl River Delta is to start in Hong Kong, a
Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China and historic world city. Centuries of British rule
over Hong Kong left their mark, from Western-style planning and architecture to the
prevalence of fish and chip shops, interwoven with a distinctly Chinese character. Shenzhen
can be reached by road, by boat, or by the speedy metro system. Efficient border-crossing
points make travel between Shenzhen and Hong Kong simple, and metro trains going
between Hong Kong Central station and Shenzhen are crowded with commuters and visitors
on the hour-long trip.
Shenzhen is a city of over 10 million; population estimates vary widely due to different
methods of counting both formal and informal residents. The first major developments in
Shenzhen occurred in the early 1980s, after part of the area was declared a Special
Economic Zone (SEZ) to help open Chinas economy to foreign investment. The rapid pace of
development transformed the area quickly, swallowing villages and creating a sprawling
metropolis. It is a city of migrants; people flocked to Shenzhen for jobs as the city grew into a
productive hinterland for Hong Kong. Today the city is still rapidly changing, though growing
pressure on developable land has limited the sprawl and necessitated land-reclamation
projects. The economic base of the city is also changing as manufacturing and logistics are
joined by the services sector; in response, and in anticipation of future change, the city fabric
is shifting as well.
Traveling through Shenzhen via metro, taxi, or bus is a high-speed adventure, though travel
on foot at street level is often difficult. The city has much to offer, from services like spas and
salons, popular with touristic visitors from Hong Kong, to a large number and variety of
shopping malls and global flagship stores. Getting out of Shenzhen and traveling around the
Pearl River Delta will give you an idea of the scale of urbanization and the variety of historical
and morphological conditions.
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Monday, 9 a.m. Shennan Road


Shennan Road was effectively the spine of Shenzhens original urban development, and it still
functions as a primary road and orientation point. The city has expanded significantly and it
has also become an extensive, polycentric metropolitan region. Borrowing from a boulevard
model, Shennan road is broad and tree-lined, and it carries traffic east and west through the
city. At the junction of Shennan Road and Hongling Road is one of the most important
landmarks of the city: a billboard of Deng Xiaoping, the father of Chinas economic miracle.
Traffic moves briskly along Shennan Road: cars, buses, and trucks weave speedily over the
road surface, flashing by palms and a plethora of retail options as highways arc overhead.

Those wishing to take public transit in Shenzhen have two primary options: the extensive bus
network or the expanding metro system, which currently has 177 kilometers of track over five
lines, with eight planned for 2016 and more intended. The metro uses a variable pricing
system based on usage and distance. Opened in 2004, the wide metro cars and slick stations
have a modern feeling, reminiscent of other cities with new metro lines and projects: there is
a feeling of an anonymous vision of a metropolitan future. Access by escalator, elevator, and
stairs is generous, with clear signage throughout. Two lines link directly with Hong Kongs
metro system at Lok Ma Chau and Luohu, carrying many thousands of passengers to and
from two border crossings daily.

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Monday, 11 a.m. Civic Center


Shenzhen does triumphal and processional well: the 2004 Shenzhen Civic Center in the
Futian district has a majestically sweeping roof. The building is meant to recall historical
Chinese architecture and the spread wings of a bird. The town hall is set in a large plaza and
open space, along with the Shenzhen library and retail spaces. The scale of the structure and
plaza is massive, and the main path of the plaza is aligned to a strong north-south axis in
accordance with traditional Chinese city planning principles. The scale nearly dwarfs any
occupants of the space as the vista opens out to the city. Visible high atop the adjacent Lotus
Hill, a statue of Deng Xiaoping presides over the city.

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Monday, 12 noon Urban Village


A visit to one of Shenzhens urban villages makes Chinas complex system of land tenure
rights visible in the form of five- and six-story buildings packed into small plots of land that
were once the villages of this part of the Pearl River Delta. Towers and other forms of
development and investment driven urban typologies now surround the villages, and as a
result they seem to be islands of a vastly different urban character. Squeezed tightly together,
the buildings are known as handshake buildings some streets are narrow enough that
neighbors can shake hands from building to building. Ground-level retail includes mobilephone shops, hardware stores, cafes, and drycleaners: everything for an urban life. The
urban villages are an important waypoint for those entering the city: migrants can gain access
to housing and employment networks here, and advertisements for rooms, jobs, and services
are pasted, pinned, and taped to an astounding range of surfaces. Those without official
urban status in the Hukou registration system can take up residence in Shenzhens urban
villages. With services that accommodate long working hours, like laundry and cheap readymade meals, and affordable rents, the barrier to entry is low for those dreaming of a better
urban life. The informal development of these urban villages does not account for public
space and the air in the narrow streets is sometimes stagnant. In one of the rare open spaces
in the village, public use has sprung up, with idle lorry drivers advertising their availability, and
a smattering of cafes. For 6 yuan, you can enjoy stir fried noodles and a Coke while seated in
a plastic chair watching urban life unfold, as motorized bikes deliver bulk goods and children
wearing old-style open pants toddle freely amid the clink of mah-jongg tiles. It is hard not to
like the urban villages even if they often lack proper basic services, they ultimately serve the
under-served but less precarious situations are needed.

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Monday, 4 p.m. Electronics Market


As the economy in Shenzhen shifts from one oriented toward industrial production to one
focused on services, like Hong Kong, the reminders of Shenzhens founding development
remain. At a wholesale electronics market in the first Central Business District, warehouses
and old assembly and service plants stand next to a showroom center full of small booths of
vendors. Everything from tiny surveillance cameras to high-end studio recording equipment is
on display. Next to this is a mall where consumers can purchase the latest cameras, phones,
and other gear.

Monday, 5 p.m. Litchi Park


Shenzhen was planned so that green areas would lie between urban districts, and while
some of this planning has been superseded, the green character of the city persists. Litchi
Park is one of the most prominent public parks in the city, and people can be seen here
picnicking, flying kites, and exercising in groups. A small playground features equipment for
children and adults. Traditional red lanterns are strung in the trees, to be lit at dusk.

Monday, 6 p.m. Joining the urban fray


As your bus slaloms down the urban street with taxis streaming left and right and other buses
passing each other, the energy of the city is clear. This is a city of commerce and engines,
from the low guttural growl of a Lamborghini near the Overseas Chinese Town (OCT) district
to the hum of the omnipresent e-bikes. The road hosts all comers, and all do come. The
custom vehicles are amazingly varied: two, three, four and five wheels roll on, carrying
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people, cases of soda, scrap metal, and more. Pedestrians are not to be outdone, as pullcarts, luggage rollers, and anything with wheels is pressed into service for the grand here to
there of the city. The buses that crisscross the city so extensively are a good way to watch
this wheeled drama unfold as a participant and spectator. For 2.5 Yuan, a cross-town ride is
yours. Along the road, with long blocks aligned to the street, cranes are ever-present; many
are building luxury and middle-segment condo towers to feed Chinas booming real estate
market. While many appear empty, economic data implies that buyers should be abundant.

Monday, 7 p.m. Malls and a drink at the (temporary) top of it all


Shenzhen loves its malls and its tall towers, continually building more and higher. There is a
mall for nearly every taste and income bracket in the city, but only one is attached to a 441meter-high skyscraper. The KK Mall, known to taxi drivers, expats and the general public by
its English name, is for upscale shopping. Immediately across the street are another luxury
mall, known as MixC, and flagship stores for Gucci and Louis Vuitton. Teens and gaggles of
adults cruise the halls and shops of KK Mall, and all mull over goods at stores like Guess,
Calvin Klein, and Armani. The bottom floor is devoted to BLT, a gourmet emporium crossed
with a large co-op grocery, where tastes both foreign and local can be indulged. Two full
aisles of instant noodles later, you might be tempted to cook some up at home, though the
quality of the tap water might leave you wary of home cooking. There are better things on
offer anyhow: the restaurants of the St. Regis hotel at the top of the KK Tower. After being
whisked to the sky lobby, you can find a mean gin and tonic and snacks to suit any palate at
the hotel bar. No matter how satisfying this might be, nothing compares to the view. From the
100th floor, the city glows at dusk, seeming as small as a model. Construction sites abound,
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and you can witness the road traffic that was so recently an on-the-ground experience: buses
pass buses at high speed until everything smoothly halts at traffic lights. As in any city, there
is a pulse provided by movement, lit by headlamps and gigantic LED and neon signs. From
up here, the edge of the city is visible along the channelized Sham Chun River, with the
comparatively undeveloped Northern Territories of Hong Kong on the other side.

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Tuesday, 9 a.m. The Red Earth of Canton


Out at the construction site of Qianhai Bay, an expansion of the Special Economic Zone area
and 18-square-kilometer land reclamation project rolled into one, visitors emerge from a
pristine MTR stop into a landscape of red earth. This soil is a symbol of the region
quintessentially Cantonese. Real estate development dominates the fringe and gives a hint of
what is to come on this site of mud and pebbles. Economic incentives, such as a 15 percent
tax on corporate profits and no income taxes for skilled professionals, are measures to
encourage Qianhais development as a hub for technology, finance, and other service
industries. With a masterplan and landscape design by SWA, the area is intended to be a
paradise on the waterfront and a new testing ground for cross-border financial transactions.
With completion scheduled for 2020, the red earth is rutted and crisscrossed with the tracks
of heavy digging equipment and trucks and the smaller footprints of construction workers on
the job, some of whom live in housing units on the site.

Tuesday, 12 noon Shenzhen North Railway Station


After a quick zip along the MTR, with a stop for a pork bun in one of the ubiquitous small
bakeries that exist in the underground and a Taiwanese brand of bottled milky tea to wash it
down its time to see one of Shenzhens prime hubs for mobility: Shenzhen North Station.
Completed in 2011, the station hosts the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail
Link, the Hangzhou-Fuzhou-Shenzhen High-Speed Railway and Shenzhen MTR lines 4, 5,
and 6. It was planned as the major nexus of long-distance and local rail for the city, one of
three new stations built in the city to address rising demand and capacity needs and the
introduction of new high-speed regional train links. The undulations of the mega-scaled roof
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protect a massive station hall, where long lines of passengers wait to buy tickets and pass
security inspections, as others relax and wait. Outside the station, under the cantilevered roof,
police presence is a conspicuous assurance of safety, and there is an unmistakable pride in
the station.

Tuesday, 2 p.m. SQ
The SQ area is immediately adjacent to the border with Hong Kong. The area is defined by
the presence of many warehouses, which hint at the concentration of logistics and industry in
the area. This focus is shifting, however, as the city changes and the SEZ borders extend. A
highway and rail lines bisect SQ and this creates a separation and difference in morphology.
North of the highway, the industrial fabric is still largely intact. To the south, construction sites
abound, along with other evidence of more recent development. On the border of the site, a
large recycling and scrap depot serves the city. A wholesale food market, soon to be
relocated and demolished, stands on the edge of SQ. Showrooms, automobile lots, and retail
stores are abundant in the south. Part of a small mountain range traverses SQ, and its ridges
are studded with the high voltage electricity lines that carry power through the city. The Buji
river, an important waterway, is another natural border of the site, though it is heavily polluted
today.

Tuesday, 4 p.m. Up the Delta


As you leave Shenzhen and travel by highway up the Delta toward Dongguan and
Guangzhou, the scale of the massive urbanization becomes obvious. Large high-rise
buildings repeating into seeming infinity border the road. You pass aquaculture areas
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immediately along the Shizi Ocean, a tidal strait that runs from the confluence of the Dong
and Pearl Rivers to the South China Sea. A good stop is in the satellite city of Humen, in the
heart of Dongguans textile industry. It is home to one of Chinas most important domestic
fashion fairs, responsible in part for the citys nickname Chinese Famous Lady Fashion
Town. Humen is filled with factories, warehouses, and showrooms, and the streets bustle
with a seemingly young set, decked out in the wares they sew or sell.
Farther into Dongguan, the structure of the old city is evident at least where large-scale
urbanization has not swallowed the past. The narrow streets of the old city, with alleyways
that dead-end in residential courtyards, show signs of neglect most of the old city seems to
be decaying at the feet of newer, larger, more modern buildings. A pet market with parrots,
goldfish, and puppies is lively with color, but the heart of the city is elsewhere, in the newly
developed towers of the city center.
Wednesday, 9 a.m. Guangzhou streets
Guangzhou, also known throughout history as Canton, is the original central trading city of the
Pearl River Delta. The city is thick with history, a counterpoint to Shenzhens recent rapid
urbanization and resulting morphology. Yet at the same time, the city is unmistakably
cosmopolitan, with dense shopping centers and even some starchitecture in the form of Zaha
Hadids opera house. The streets of Guangzhou are as busy as those of New York City, as
commuters, shoppers, tourists, and all manner of city dwellers traverse tangles of old and
new roads. Highway overpasses overlay many major ground-level thoroughfares, with
pedestrian fly-overs to aid crossing. In Peoples Park, a kiosk sells incense to burn in front of
an old temple, and people practice Tai Chi with a pop music soundtrack, as a crowd gathers
to watch an open-air concert.
Wednesday, 1 p.m. Cantonese food and walking the Pearl River to Shamian Island
The streets of Guangzhou traverse an ever-changing city fabric. Walking along the Pearl
River and exploring the streets around this famous waterway, youll find everything from quiet
residential areas with hardscape public spaces to outposts of the Japanese clothing store
Uniqlo. Old-style apartment buildings, with washing strung out on barred-in balconies, abut
newer, more modern towers. At Bingsheng Seafood Restaurant, local Cantonese food is on
offer, with the ubiquitous tanks of live fish soon to be eaten. After lunch, as you progress
further along the river, Shamian Island comes into view. The island is part of the colonial
heritage of the city, and the 18th and 19th century buildings stand on wide, tree-lined streets.

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Wednesday, 6 p.m. On the Road Again, to Macau


As you travel south on the G94 highway, the scale of the urbanization of the Delta is again
apparent. The city of Zhuhai, a Special Economic Zone, lies along the border with Macau,
which belonged to Portugal until 1999. The city is still a Special Administrative Region (SAR)
and has become known as the Las Vegas of the East, as it is one of the biggest gambling
cities in the world and one of the richest. The Portuguese heritage is clear in the
architecture of the old city. The Fortaleza do Monte, built in the 16th century on a hill above
the city by Jesuits, is used as an observatory and public space today. Climbing to the top
provides a spectacular view of Macaus brightly lit, casino-filled skyline and a view of the
towers rising in Zhuhai, like a column of soldier-speculators marching into the city.
Thursday, 9 a.m. Hydrofoil to Hong Kong
The Pearl River Delta is home to all kinds of boat traffic, from the container ships transporting
the goods of the worlds production hinterland to passenger ferries and the omnipresent
dredging boats that clear the silt of the delta for passage. Hydrofoil service connects many
cities in the Delta. Until the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge opens in 2015 or 2016, the
water crossing remains the fastest connection among the SARs and SEZs of the Pearl River
Delta. The trip on a hydrofoil takes just under one hour, with small border-crossing points on
either end, completing your round-trip tour of Shenzhen and the Pearl River Delta.

Jessica Bridger travelled with the ETH Zurich and Schindler Group to Shenzhen and the Pearl River Delta in
March 2014. She has been part of the project team for the Global Schindler Award.

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