New Hope for Slums - A Spark in the Dark

by Jiawen Fang (ELP 2014), China

Although nearly one year has passed, the memory of participating in the Environmental Leadership Program (ELP) in 2014 is still vivid and strong in my mind. For me, the program opened up a new world in my academic life - urban planning. From this program, I saw light in what I thought might be eternally dark in the past.

I was really enthused and excited after Prof. Ananya Roy’s lecture on Urban Planning for Sustainable Development. The ideas of regarding slums as regions with a strong socio-economic dynamic immediately resonated with me, and helped me deepen my thoughts on this issue.

Conflicts and interdependence between world-class cities and slums

Rethinking slums as a new economic center - Further research back in China
The relationship between the elite people who enjoy the benefits of the world-class city and the poor people who live in its slums is very complicated, rife with both conflicts and interdependence. On the one hand, these two groups share informality/illegality. Extravagant resorts or golf courses sprawl often to the rural areas, occupying farm lands illegally. Hence, farmers are forced to be packed in a small space without any infrastructure and public service. One the other hand, the elite people in the world class city want to clear out the slums but actually, the city is built by poor people in slums. There is a great example in Beijing which I have done research in. There are many golf courses located in the northwest region of Beijing. These golf courses illegally occupy a large area of land and resources, pushing farmers packed in slums (See in Fig.1.) The owners of the golf courses tried to clear the nearby slums, but the construction of the courses relied on the cheap labor living in slums. The paradox there shows both the inequity and interdependence between the poor and the rich. Unfortunately, our planning is always from the perspective of elite people, and our concern about the poor focuses on inability, neglecting its potential dynamic.

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Back in Beijing, I started to do research in slums (the village in city) in a new perspective - its potential socio-economic dynamic. In fact, I discovered that the slum can be a place with wisdom and creativity. People living in slums build houses all on their own. The design of the houses and the wisdom of making spaces with full uses are just amazing. The following two examples are what my further research is based on.

1) Watermill Community in Beijing: Innovative design in architecture

To our surprise, people in the slum, or to be accurate, the village in city, do not only just make a living, but they enjoy life! For example, the porch is covered with fur, like a bear, as a shelter. The yard is decorated in a mixed Chinese and Greek style. In areas with narrow roads and high buildings, there are bridges connecting the two sides. (see Fig.2) These elements actually provide us with great inspiration in design for the optimum utilization of space, especially vertical space.

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2) Dafen Village in Shenzhen: Cultural dynamic in economy

Dafen Village is revitalized to be an art village specializing in oil paintings, including replicated and original ones. After over 30 years of development, the village has become a haven for poor and young artists, where they can earn money, learn from others, and try out new ideas (see Fig.3). The success of Dafen Art Village shows the possibility of revitalizing slums as a dynamic economic center. Often, slums start their own community-based economy with art because the atmosphere of slums often attract people who are artistic and sensitive to the creativity in life.

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Looking Ahead—Expectations for ELP in the future

I was very honored to be one of the 8 university students in ELP-2014, and all of us found it really helpful and provoking. Courses about various fields and communication with global leaders definitely broadened our horizons and I am sure that they will have a long-lasting impact on our future studies and work. Leadership is not only for so-called leaders, but also for all people, especially young people with a passion to make a difference in this world. In this way, I really hope there will be more and more young university students joining the ELP. I also believe giving them a chance to design some aspect of the curriculum in the ELP and enabling them to investigate environmental issues during the program will be useful. I think students can experience how to balance creativity and reality in the process of self-organizing, and that balance, in fact, is what all leaders should obtain.