International Development Planning Review 41.3 Featured Article

The editors of International Development Planning Review have selected ‘An introduction to planning China’s communities: between people and place’ by Nick R. Smith, Daniel B. Abramson, and Mi Shih as the Featured Article for IDPR 41.3.

The paper will be free to access for a limited time here.

When asked to describe the paper and highlight its importance, the authors stated the following:

This paper, which serves as the introduction to the special issue on Community Development and Planning in Contemporary China, represents the culmination of a series of conversations at the annual meetings of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning in 2015 and 2016, followed by a workshop convened at Yale-NUS College in Singapore in 2017. In response to a recent period of self-reflection and re-invention within China’s urban planning profession, which has encountered both accelerating political retrenchment and decelerating economic growth over the last decade, these conversations began as an effort to revisit the interpretive assumptions of existing scholarship on Chinese urban planning and to explore new directions for the development of planning theory and practice—in short, to renew our understanding of Chinese planning and its lessons for the world. In the ensuing dialogue, which involved nearly thirty leading experts on Chinese urbanisation and planning (including many of the authors in this special issue), it became clear that the most critical issues confronting China’s urban planners and policy makers are being worked out through the ongoing transformation of the nation’s communities. Community development and planning thus emerged as a particularly dynamic arena for both experimentation in planning practice and discovery in planning research.

In the paper, we outline the contours of this ‘community turn’ in the nation’s urban planning and policy, tracing the historical roots and contemporary debates of community development and planning in China. In particular, we focus on the party-state’s mobilisation of community as part of its ‘community building’ initiative, which began in the late 1990s as a means to replace socialist-era work units as instruments of grassroots governance. Most recently, this has been expressed in a series of plans for expanding China’s community service system, providing national-level guidance and policy support for community development and planning in both urban and rural areas. We problematise these efforts through an exploration of the social and spatial constitution of Chinese communities: how are people interpellated and engaged in community planning and development processes and how is the specificity of place dealt with in China’s predominantly top-down system of governance? These three problematics—community, people, and place—provide a conceptual framework to guide readers’ engagement with the special issue and to orient an agenda for future research and debate.

In many respects, China’s community turn echoes the emergence of new practices of community development and planning in Europe and America during the 1960s and 1970s. That earlier moment was part of a radical transformation in planning theory and practice, with communities serving as incubators for a renewed concern with democratic participation and social justice in the wake of strongly government-led and capital-construction-intensive urban development. China’s cultural and institutional specificity means that the outcomes will be different—like China’s reform era more generally, the transformation of China’s communities cannot be characterised as a teleological transition toward a predetermined endpoint. But China’s community turn may be part of a similarly dramatic realignment in planning practice, with similarly large theoretical implications, through which state-society relations are recalibrated in new and unforeseen ways. China’s communities therefore deserve our continued attention, as the current efflorescence of experiments in community development and planning point toward a multitude of possible futures.