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Play Da Lang

City of Shen Zhen

Citizen engagement for Shenzhen's Urban Transformation


Shen Zhen, China

Partners: INTI and Shenzhen Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism Architecture

4 Sessions with 250 Participants

Play Shenzhen

Urban Challenge

Shenzhen’s Da Lang neighborhood is a migrant community. More than 50 percent of these migrants are between 20 and 29 years old. Play Da Lang poses a simple question: What if we use their enormous amount of energy for city-making? Even a small percentage of 500,000 in the so-called floating population would be enough to make a real change in the area’s development. A truly engaged community could be the key to a more diverse, stable, and enjoyable Da Lang.

Play Da Lang is built to start a conversation between Shenzhen’s floating population, the local government, city experts, and local businesses, and to generate collaborative visions that resolve contested development interests. In the game, the degree to which migrant workers join other involved stakeholders in negotiations concerning the city’s zoning plan for Fashion Valley is exceptional. Players compete and collaborate to achieve both individual and collective goals. In this case, the game space simulates a new town transitioning its economy to innovative industry and fashion design. To no surprise, stakes are high for this debated site in Da Lang’s Fashion Valley, for landowning villagers, the local government, innovative textile businesses and commercial developers, each with their own aspirations for the site’s development.


We ran the Play Da Lang game at the Shenzhen Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture in two sessions — on the 6th and 7th of December 2015. Sessions brought real stakeholders together around the game table, from young workers, companies, and small business owners from Fashion Valley, to villagers, NGOs from the adjacent Shi Ao village, and representatives of Da Lang Government’s cultural and planning departments. Together, they shared their future plans and exchanged ideas for Fashion Valley in the Da Lang neighborhood.

29 migrant workers, NGOs focusing on workers, and small business owners were divided into 11 teams for the first game session. Each group was given an equal amount of resources (building units for public space and ground floors) to visualize their individual dreams. For example, one girl working as a receptionist for a garment company composed an urban centre by building an office tower combined with a mid-rise apartment block, karaoke lounge, and beauty salon. A branch-managing liaison wanted to develop real estate like the famous Hong Kong property developer Li Ka-shing, because he believed most people who work hard in Fashion Valley would sooner or later need to buy a house to settle down in the vicinity. Another group consisting of migrants and NGO workers hoped to establish a self-sustaining neighborhood, where a tearoom meets the entertainment needs of residents and a vocational school provides training to improve the ability of self-governance.

After the groups had visualized their design ideas through building units, they took turns explaining their plans, interests, and actions to the rest of the group. It’s an engaging phase, where players discussed the development prospects of various locations on the play area. Advisor Wei Wen Huang, founder of the Shenzhen Centre for Design, played the role of spatial expert and commented on the viability of proposals, recommending adjustments where necessary. He observed how migrants, based on their experience and intuition, generally applied the principle of commercial real estate development in the game. Also referred to as Golden Horn and Silver Edge, the principle refers to generating highly valuable property development at the intersections of main traffic arteries.

During the following round, players were asked to develop a network of public spaces. Collaborations emerged quickly among some groups, but others chose to develop their own corners privately. Four groups gathered all of their resources to introduce a city park adjacent to a nature reserve. The main purpose here was to provide recreation space for surrounding residents. Two groups built a three-level stereo garage in the midst of a residential development to respond to the parking question of the whole site. But Mr. Huang noted that there may be some challenges with setting up a city park on the edge of the hard-to-reach area. Critical players raised concerns about the ‘stereo garage’ being close to the main road and surrounded by residential buildings. This could lead to traffic jams, pollution problems, and unhappy citizens. After further negotiation, a majority of players voted to remove the garage, which made room for a city park in the central zone, and dispersed parking in surrounding commercial and residential areas.

In the second session on the following day, five migrant workers from the first session joined villagers, local architects, developers, and representatives of cultural and planning departments of Da Lang. Unlike the first session, where all workers had access to the same amount of resources, the second session assigned players varying amounts of square meters, which corresponded to their relative agencies in reality. Together, the two game sessions remained loyal to the population as foreseen by the statutory plan. Practically, this meant that the second session introduced many high-rise housing blocks and public facilities within the land’s limited space. This led to intense coordination and cooperation between various unexpected stakeholders. Gameplay revealed differing perceptions of an ideal neighborhood amongst the existing players: migrant workers were longing for an environment with leisure and entertainment, community interactions, and shopping space; villagers were after low-rise development accompanied by dispersed high-density housing projects for rent; developers pursued profit maximization by means of building high-density residences and intensive public facilities; and the cultural department’s representatives encouraged constructing more public facilities and establishing mixed-use cities.

According to the statutory plan, supporting facilities like a bus station, a hospital, a school, and a market needed to be built in close proximity to a housing development. When local government proposed a primary school complex, a heated debate ensued. Representatives of the planning department arranged the nine-year school in the centre of the site, which was backed by the developers and migrants for different reasons. Developers believed that building in a ‘school district’ raises property prices, while migrants were interested in having a local school that their children could hopefully attend. Advisor Mr. Wang reminded other players of the possibility to locate the school on the side of a road to serve a soundproofing function for apartments, but players kept the school central.

After each player took their turn, a high-density, mixed-use development supported by intensive public facilities took shape. Although everyone agreed that environmental impacts should be minimized as far as possible, an existing green zone was converted into a construction site. It was remarkable to see the position of migrant workers and NGO representatives arguing against the statutory plan because it distributed public services instead of zoning them at the development fringe. The main concern behind this choice was the accessibility of leisure and cultural facilities for low-income groups, which were predominantly located on the outskirts.

Project Results

A First in Shenzhen’s Planning

As a city, Shenzhen mainly thinks in top-down strategies and simply adds new hardware to this — infrastructure, buildings, and industries — in order to encourage urban development as a driver for economic growth. What remains unaddressed is the question of which existing social dynamics need to be accepted or improved on in order to strengthen the city’s potential, as well as the socioeconomic conditions that are necessary to successfully regenerate an existing neighborhood, or to sustainably expand the city. Still, Shenzhen is a city where informal activities flourish, and where many changes happen without strict planning processes or approvals. When we look beyond the general characteristics of a top-down regulated city, relations between the Shenzhen government and society are much more closely intertwined. In Da Lang, this is clearly also the case.

Da Lang can be considered to have an open and dynamic culture due to its diverse and continually changing mix of people. This is largely a product of its status as a magnet for the floating population, with a very young society, and a distant but cooperative local government. Serving the dynamic needs of the migrant worker community, in terms of city development, is asking for a conscious approach towards integrating the desires of a now-silent big majority. In this respect, Play Da Lang represents a first in the planning of Shenzhen. Inviting hundreds of migrant workers to think alongside professionals proved to be possible in these two initial game sessions. Seeing the impact of this process, Shenzhen’s local government decided to support extra sessions. To handle these sessions we trained a local game master, Fu Na from Shenzhen Design Centre, who had also helped our team during the game’s development. To reach out to more workers and acquire more systemic data, local government extended Play Da Lang for an additional year – this time, to be situated locally in Da Lang itself and run by local game masters.

Play to Confront, Disrupt Obedience and Shyness

The contrast in gameplay between the two sessions was remarkable. The first took place in the rather relaxed and explorative mood embodied by the young workers. The second was marked by conflict and contestation, resolved through intense negotiation between developers, architects, local government, and villagers. Meanwhile, migrants were retaining the network of public and cultural spaces they had generated the day before. Entrenched social dynamics confer respect and obedience among migrant workers towards those in authority, precluding them from challenging professionals in the game. We were surprised to observe how the physical game board and game units empowered shy workers. While these players were still reserved and avoided direct confrontation, they definitely showed their own perspectives and desires using the game props in the time allocated to their team.

Individual Desires Meet Professional Standards

The two game sessions reflected the current conflicts around land development in China; namely, the tension between the regulations and statutory plan, and the demands of various social groups. In the game, players struggled with this very aspect. While the plot ratio and land use of the statutory plan still did threaten migrants’ expectations, the villagers’ fierce property exploitations were smoothed out, and developers were forced to think further about the public space network they would generate. In reality, the Shi Ao collective company signed a joint development contract with a real estate company three years ago. 

However, local government rejected this proposal and the planning department did not designate the area for urban renewal. During that time, persuading government to follow their statutory plan, or persuading villagers to comply with regulations, was a difficult and at times insurmountable task. Would further gameplay help partners begin to explore revisions for regulations and the statutory plan, adjust villagers’ land profit expectations, and strengthen the migrant community’s power and will to demand more intricate public places that are responsive to local needs? With extended play planned, only the future will show - watch this space!

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