Written by Aaron Su.
Image credit: DSC_0057 by 沙子(eddy) hsu/ Flickr, license: CC BY 2.0.
In March 2023, yet another round of protests broke out in response to development plans on Taipei’s Shezidao, a flood-prone peninsula on the outer edges of the city home to over 11,000 residents. Spanning multiple mayoral regimes, the Taipei government’s plans to construct on the currently development-restricted Shezidao has been met with dissatisfaction time and again from its residents, who worry about how seemingly optimistic promises of uplift and revitalization spell evictions and other drastic changes to their existing economies, social networks, and modes of life.
For many, these protests represent the continuation of an already familiar conflict with no seeming end in sight. Although the recent history of this struggle is well-known: in 2016, the government convened an i-Voting forum, allowing residents to vote on three development options for the island, while an “Ecological Shezidao” (生態社子島) plan was ultimately selected, residents have continued to express that even this seemingly participatory process did not fully represent their wishes. To different degrees, all recent conflict in Shezidao has revolved around the fundamental tension between government plans and citizens’ desires: how might we overcome this impasse?
Stepping outside the technocratic gaze, what becomes apparent in the Taipei government’s tenacious plans is its inability to engage with the existent forms of livelihood-sustaining economies and mediating environmental crises on the peninsula. As NTU urban design professor Min Jay Kang 康旻杰 said to me, “There are industries… there is an economic base… there is a fabric, community, and landscape in Shezidao. But the government thinks of it as something void: a blank sheet of paper to draw lines on.” Evocative of the concept of terra nullius—the philosophical and legal concept used by many European colonial regimes to claim supposedly “empty” territories across the globe—this “blank slate” reasoning has enabled breakneck-speed planning without any consideration of its local consequences.
Perhaps the task at hand is to make visible the critical lifeworlds that already exist on Shezidao, allowing the outside world to witness the depth of the social networks, infrastructures, and economies already on the peninsula.
To do so, I interviewed Professor Kang along with National Taipei University professor of urban planning Liao Kuei-Hsien 廖桂賢, both of whom work closely with communities on Shezidao and urge the public to make visible the vulnerable lifeworlds that have been shuttered out of government attention. Their work with locals on Shezidao suggests that solutions can be imagined beyond the destructive vision of “starting fresh.”
Thinking about the present, not an imagined future: challenging the “blank slate.”
For Professor Min Jay Kang, who researches urban design, conservation, and regeneration, much of the Taipei government’s ignorance toward current conditions on the island stems from an approach that prioritizes dramatic, utopian change over practical and locally-based solutions: “They propose a 20-year plan that will wipe the existing Shezidao away. But the real problems—Shezidao’s inadequate infrastructure, poor housing conditions, and polluted irrigation—these are issues that can actually be addressed through smaller steps in the next five years.”
Instead, Kang suggests, we might look to the concept of “liminal” or “transitional” development on the land: working with existing conditions and infrastructures on the peninsula to brainstorm sustainable futures with, by, and for those already on Shezidao, rather than destroying their lifestyles to advance a set of abstract developmental ideals.
Part of this faulty mode of reasoning lies in the way Shezidao residents are portrayed in the first place: early on in our meeting, Kang cautioned me about the government’s use of the term “informal settlements” to characterize communities on the peninsula as this portrayal justifies the socially-unconscious unsettling and remaking of life on the island. “Can you believe that one of Taipei’s very earliest cinema houses was actually built on Shezidao?” he asked. “That entails significant wealth and leisure time that people could spend on the movies! I mention this particular example because there is a stereotype of Shezidao as a poor village—but the more I get to know Shezidao, the more I grow conscious about the use of ‘informal’ to characterize life on the island.”
Kang elaborated further on the multifaceted lifestyles of the Shezidao population that development schemes might wash away. Some residential clusters date back to the Qing Dynasty, with distinct religious practices, social networks, political ties, and specific surnames. And besides farmers—which constitute the largest community in Shezidao—there are also many factories, built especially after the 1960s. In addition, many residents from central and southern Taiwan have flocked in over the past 50 years to establish firms of all sorts—from furniture to paperback books—and these operations conjoin upstream and downstream to form a complex supply chain across the peninsula. “It’s not just about living there; it’s about having a job, a mode of production, a means of subsistence. These institutions combine from factories to grocery stores and vermicelli soup shops into a larger complex whole.”
“Ecological Shezidao is an attractive title for the government’s plan,” Kang said to me, “but when we think about existing ecologies, it’s not just about the natural world. It’s also about the social and cultural ecology of the locals, which are very rich!” Making lifeworlds visible, then, clearly involves transforming the language we use to talk about the communities at hand: they are much more complex than what the term “informal settlement” portrays.
Seen from this perspective, zone expropriation (區段徵收)—a system in Taiwan for seizing large swaths of private land for development—begins to seem like “an infringement of human rights to a certain degree,” Kang warns. “If you take these farmers or factory workers and transport them from their existing settings to condominiums and flats while destroying the economic opportunities they are trained for, will they be comfortable? Can they even make a living?”
Spending time conducting fieldwork with local communities has urged Kang to think about development rights and housing rights. By staying committed to the present—and those who constitute it—a different orientation to the future of Shezidao emerges: less abstract or utopian, but perhaps more locally attuned and people-centred (arguably the purpose of urban design in the first place).
Beyond flood control: exploring community-based paradigms.
Professor Liao Kuei-Hsien—an expert on flood resilience and resilience thinking—further offers advice on how the current Ecological Shezidao plan, even if at face value concerned with the environment, continues to reproduce an impractical plan for urban development at odds with public needs.
Liao’s work is critical of the “flood control paradigm”—used in projects like the Ecological Shezidao development plan. As she notes, the government intends to raise the “protection standard” of the flood-prone peninsula through, for example, upgrading and raising levees to defend against the likelihood of a flood once every two hundred years, just like the rest of Taipei City. But such a technocratic fix, in Liao’s opinion, is unsustainable: “By raising the protection standard and using taller levees, they actually want to bring more people onto the island, which is not only unsustainable but unethical.”
Liao elaborated on the government’s intents to increase Shezidao’s population from 10,000 to 30,000 residents through “ecological development”: “Is this forecast even likely, given current demographic trends in Taipei?” she probed. During Ko Wen-je’s mayoral term, after all, Taipei’s population was on the decline, and regardless of any post-pandemic resurgence, experts forecast further reductions in the long-term future. “All of this means that they will force people out of their own homes and drastically alter their lifestyles for a development goal that does not necessarily make sense. This is why, not only from an ethical but also from a professional perspective,” Liao states, “I am against this plan.”
It is worth mentioning, too, that locals have already developed a complex set of knowledges and practices that have allowed them to adapt to conditions on the peninsula and its environmental threats—and possibly even benefit from them resourcefully, as Liao observes. “Shezidao locals are incredibly alert, knowing when to temporarily evacuate, where there will be flooding, and how to pay attention to the dynamic river flows.”
Given this amassment of local knowledge—for instance, before typhoons are predicted, many of them will rush to the river bank to observe the flow—Liao suggests that there are a variety of more locally-attuned adaptation measures that we can imagine in dialogue with Shezidao communities. In this sense, her insights echo those of Kang in urging the government not to imagine faraway utopias but workable solutions to benefit the people who steer this land. “For example, designing buildings on stilts, or designing open spaces that are capable of being what I call ‘floodable’—able to handle floods and coexist with them without incurring any damage—these should be the developmental targets of a Shezidao designed for the local community.”
“These core ideas of flood resilience are already there among the local community,” Liao notes. However, to develop responsibly and respectfully amidst these complex knowledge systems, cultures, and economies already on the peninsula will require the government to take these existing lifeworlds seriously.
This article’s contents are derived from two sets of video interviews with Professor Min Jay Kang and Professor Liao Kui-Hsien conducted on March 17, 2023, and March 24, 2024, respectively. Professor Min Jay Kang is an Associate Professor at the Graduate Institute of Building and Planning at National Taiwan University, and Professor Liao Kuei-Hsien is a Professor at the Graduate Institute of Planning at National Taipei University.
If you are interested in this topic, please also read the author’s other article in New Bloom Magazine—Shezidao as a Limit Case for Democracy in Taiwan? Perspectives on Design with Jeffrey Hou.
Aaron Su is a PhD candidate in Anthropology at Princeton whose research investigates the political consequences of new experimental design movements in Taiwan, which are calling for the participation of elderly, rural, and Indigenous communities in the making of new technologies. His research can be found at aaronsu.net.