The Overlooked Chinese Terrain Vague: On Culture, Urbanisation, and Resilience

by Jiatong Shi and Jillian Walliss


Shifting attention from the dominant Western context of 'terrain vague,' this essay explores the urban phenomenon in China. Like many Chinese cities, Chengdu has numerous spaces on its urban periphery which at first glance might resemble the empty urban wastelands associated with Solà-Morales’s idea of terrain vague. However, this phenomenon of urban wastelands is the product of very different socio-cultural, economic, and political influences to that of the Western city. As the essay will discuss, closer examination of these spaces reveals that rather than urban voids, these spaces are occupied by informal farms constructed with minimal materials and movement. These illicit actions can be considered an example of the enduring concept of ‘topophilia, -an entrenched attachment to a place (Tuan, 1990), that has been a part of the cultural history of Chengdu. Rapid urbanisation led to rural households with farming and gardening techniques rushing to the partially urbanised areas due to the ‘integration of the city and countryside’ strategy promoted by the authorities. Unvoiced agreement between the public and authorities govern these spaces, and a new form of self-agency is evident. The essay argues that the informal appropriation of these fields of ‘terrain vague’ offer a valuable resource for understanding the potential of community gardens and urban farms for constructing community engagement and social resilience in the contemporary Chinese city.

1. The Terrain Vague Near Chengdu’s Fifth Ring Road | Kailiang Shi

Informal Inhabitation: The Phenomenon

Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan province in western China, is a typical Chinese city that is expanding at an unprecedented pace. If you walk along the Fifth Ring Road of Chengdu, you will find many vacant lands that are not being officially used as residential, commercial, or public spaces. Usually planted with oilseed rape, pea, cabbage, and other common vegetables, at first glance the spaces resemble crop fields but the repetitive residential apartments in the background quickly pull your mind back to the peri-urban setting. Paths that divide the fields are arbitrarily trampled with no pavers. Some fields are enclosed by dried bamboo and vinyl banners found in dumpsites. Weeds removed by hand tools are stacked simply next to the crops and the circulation of materials seems to stagnate in this space and time. Sometimes there are poorly made bird scarers made of a stick and a piece of white plastic bag. Just like all the crop fields, these lands are seldom visited by people during the day. Despite some meandering paths people in the neighbourhood generally avoid loitering in these often-wide vast spaces.
This is land that hasn’t been sold or developed by the government. Nearby residents occupy the spaces and turn them into informal farms. If you happen to encounter an owner on the field, you will find a tangled-up expression of fear and vigilance on their face. With no 100% right to these spaces, owners lay low and try to avert attention. These spaces are modified by people with extremely low budgets. No clearing, no construction, no maintenance. Necessary equipment is made from scraps. Only seeds and vegetables are taken in and out of the lands. This temporary use reveals the cultural history and social processes of the overlooked Chinese terrain vague.

2. The Terrain Vague Surrounded by High Rise Apartments | Kailiang Shi

Nuanced Affection: The Cultural History

Understanding the cultural history is imperative to further deconstruct what is happening in Chengdu’s terrain vague. Chinese-American geographer Yi-fu Tuan coined the term ‘topophilia’ in 1974, which means a sense of attachment to the place or city (1990). The entrenched connection between Chengduers and the material environment is rooted in ethnographical perceptions. Tuan adds that the material environment is more than the resources or natural forces to interact with, but also the origin of emotional assurance, pleasure, attachment, and love (1990).

3. Dujiang Yan | Kailiang Shi

For Chengduers, farming is their expression of topophilia. This cooperation between humans and land is an important way of showing attachment to the natural environment. Known as the ‘land of plenty’ (tianfu zhi guo), Chengdu is famous for its mature agricultural industry lasting over 2000 years since the construction of Dujiang Weir (dujiang yan) around 285 BC. The hydrological infrastructure controls the flood by dividing the riverways. Moreover, it irrigates the Chengdu plain by introducing several canals. The weir brought not only safety to the downstream population but also added nutrients to the soil (Willmott, 1989). It is not surprising to find that Chengdu has a unique reputation of a laid-back mentality compared to other regions in China due to the affluence in resources (Osburg, 2020). The long-established reciprocal affinity, as well as the mutual shaping between human and land, is manifested by agriculture.

Lagged Urbanisation: The Policy

Having introduced the historical background of farming and topophilia in the Chengdu region, it is worth looking at the social processes behind the phenomenon and the people who carry on the spirit in the contemporary context. As an inland city, Chengdu has been described as a ‘conservative regional backwater’ by scholars and radical reformers in twentieth-century intellectual discourse (Wang, 2003). Beginning in the 1990s, urbanisation brought tremendous development to Chengdu, and it is now a modern metropolis of global significance (Naisbitt and Naisbitt, 2012). Urban development follows a radiating pattern from the city centre and south-north axis. Ring roads form an important index in structuring and measuring urban growth.
The lifespan of these urban voids is highly unpredictable. The land in China is nationally owned but tenure can be purchased by developers and individuals (residential use: 70 years; commercial use: 40 years; industrial, mixed, and other uses: 50 years) (Cao and Keivani, 2008). Once the land is sold to developers, construction commencement depends on various factors including design bidding; application and approval and licenses. Chengdu implemented a “traffic first” comprehensive traffic system to integrate the urban-rural development strategy described in the 12th Five-year Plan (2011-2015) (Taylor et al., 2016). With competition planned in 2023 (Tian, 2020), the Fifth Ring Road is surrounded by residential and commercial lands that are not fully activated, resulting in a myriad of vacant lands. 
Given the city that has only recently been urbanised (over the last thirty years) many people living near the Fifth Ring Road has a rural background and are familiar with farming and gardening techniques. The retired and the elders who have an especially profound connection to the land, are more likely to be the ‘owners’ of the informal fields. These vacant spaces are transformed into a utilitarian and everyday program as people take up the space and grow vegetables for their household consumption.

Unvoiced Negotiation: The Public Realm

The shaping of this terrain vague space by everyday practices reflects the confluence of compromise and agency. The authority and the public tacitly agree on the farming program. This bottom-up approach does not require any official recognition and approval. Farming involves minimal modification to the existing terrain and has a limited impact on future construction. The authorities deliberately ignore the activities on these wastelands as long as there are no conflicts of interests, creating a mutual trust between the authorities and the public. French philosopher Henri Lefebvre suggests there are two types of space, one is conceived space, which is used for social and political power practice; another one is perceived space, which is the practical basis of the perception of the world (Lefebvre and Nicholson-Smith). The terrain vague of Chengdu can be considered examples of conceived and perceived space, in a particularly Chinese characteristic these qualities co-exist.
The wasteland of the Fifth Ring Road is a spontaneous process in urbanisation. Self-governance is formed in the fields as people delineate and sometimes fence their territories. A new form of agency emerges, the illicit becomes autonomous through self-implementation. On the authoritative level, the space is inactive until the moment the construction team arrives whereas on the social level the terrain vague is always occupied and shared as a public realm for those who hold the same spirit and value. Those who are marginalised because of their social status, age, or interests can enjoy time with the land in solitude or company. In this way, terrain vague becomes an opportunity for community bonding. This is a valuable lesson for designers.

Wasteland Rejuvenation: The Community Garden

How can we recycle and reuse the terrain vague in Chinese cities to transform informal inhabitation into a platform that can benefit the community long term? An extraordinary example is offered by Clover Nature School in Shanghai, which operates grassroots community garden projects across several districts in the city. Founded in 2014, this Tongji University-based non-profit organisation endeavours to achieve city regeneration through ecological design, community building, environmental management, and educational training (Kehrer, 2020). The community gardens are more than urban gardens but places for community engagement and social responsibility. Through sustainable agriculture, habitat restoration, and nature classes, Clover Nature School wishes to bring about urban regeneration through a culture of open-source knowledge (Kehrer, 2020).

4. The Knowledge & Innovation Community Garden in Shanghai | Yuelai Liu

5. The Remnant land due to an underground pipeline before the transformation | Yuelai Liu

The Knowledge & Innovation Community Garden (KICG) in Yangpu District was the first public community garden in Shanghai. A vacant lot adjacent to residential communities was assigned to Yangpu Science and Technology Innovation Group and Shui On Land (developer) for redevelopment into an urban farming garden. Residents nearby are invited to claim one square metre of garden bed to cultivate their favourite plants. The garden has periodical activities like fruit picking, farmer markets, and seasonal festivals to enhance community bonding. KICG is recognised by local authorities as touchstone projects for ecological learning, social engagement, and community building (Kehrer, 2020).
Clover Nature School’s KICG provides a heuristic typology of community gardens that can be promoted across the country to reactivate urban wastelands. As suggested previously, Chinese people have much enthusiasm for farming. With thoughtful operation, the gardens can lead to a permanent intervention that cultivates community engagement and resilience to enrich the social fabric.

Social Implication: Resilience

In the era of COVID or post-COVID, community resilience is a topic of much discussion. The resilience and capacity rooted in everyday activities and the accumulation of capacity from individuals to the broader community can create valuable bonds that allow for quick recovery during the time of emergency. For Chinese cities, the compact idea of ‘community’ due to dense housing typologies (predominantly high rise) requires unique methodologies for designing resilience. Cai et al. observe that during the COVID-19 pandemic, volunteers in China played important roles in quarantine-related problems such as measuring body temperature, distributing food, and delivering medicine within gated residential apartment communities. The institutional voids exposed by the pandemic were filled by volunteers and social workers (Cai et al., 2021). Starting with everyday practices such as farming and gardening, neighbourhood engagement can be activated and strengthen community resilience. In a time of fluctuation and unpredictability, establishing social resilience is pressing, however, this long-term proposal can only be achieved from quotidian actions. Community gardens on terrain vague offer immense potential in bringing people together and building social resilience.

To conclude, compared to the Western context, the concept of terrain vague in China has huge differences due to the unique cultural history and social processes. The rapid growth of cities fueled by intense urban migration means that redundant urban spaces will never remain as voids. Chengdu’s Fifth Ring Road demonstrates the presence of an unvoiced agreement between the public and the authorities, along with the development of a new agency. As demonstrated by the Clover Nature School, informal farming becomes an opportunity to be transformed into community gardens and consequently become a practice of social resilience. Proceeding into an unpredictable future, social resilience is a precious value that designers and communities alike should be working to ensure.


Jiatong Shi↩ and Jillian Walliss↩


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