The growth of Chinese cities is indicative of what is happening all over the developing world. Globalisation has dramatically shaped urban spaces in the Global South with a particular adverse outcome – the accelerating decline of indigenously developed urban spaces. In Guangzhou, the third largest city in China, an example is the phenomenon ‘urban village’. Rampant in cities across the south of China, these areas are historic rural villages engulfed in urban expansion and are developed by individual villagers in an informal, unplanned manner. Their history and current existence are inseparable from local, indigenous traditions and techniques and they create unique landscapes of urban heritage. However, these areas are in the process of deterioration.
This paper brings together theoretical discussions on Authorized Heritage Discourses and a fieldwork research in Guangzhou’s Xiaozhou Village to investigate the role of defining ‘heritage’ in the conservation of urban villages. By studying the local actions, or lack of actions, from city authorities, indigenous villagers and resident migrants, the paper studies the underlying assumptions about built heritage, especially its assumed definition as static, visual and exclusive. Based on historical data, first-hand interviews and surveying, spatial maps are constructed and used to study the consequences, over time, of these definitions on the conservation of the urban area. The paper suggests that ‘heritage’ in relation to the urban village context, need to be redefined to one that is living, changing and open. In the creation of the notion of ‘heritage’ in the urban village, the paper points to the importance of an inclusive process, especially in involving new migrant communities to continuously reoccupy and renew buildings in the urban village, hence enabling them to participate in building ‘heritage’. The paper concludes with some potential design interventions that could point to using this new agenda of conservation to reverse the processes of deterioration of urban villages and create an alternative, bottom-up urban space.