Around the world, hundreds of millions of people have migrated from villages to cities during the past five decades. In Latin America, Africa, Asia, Europe, and North America, the process has fed the rapid growth of hyper-dense metropolitan regions and left rural areas bereft of people and resources. While most attention has focused on the issues raised by mega-cities such as Sao Paulo, Lagos, Bangkok, London, and New York, a growing number of people are now looking at what can be done to rethink the countryside and bring it into the 21st century. An international conference, organized by the Aedes Architecture Forum & Network Campus Berlin and hosted by the government of a rural county in eastern China, examined strategies employed by that county government to bring people and economic activity back to its villages.

Part of a larger initiative by Aedes called “Regions on the Rise,” the conference brought together architects, government officials, scholars, and sociologists in the second week of November to discuss the topic of rural development and some of the specific efforts being done in SongYang, a county in Zhejiang Province about 285 miles southwest of Shanghai. It followed an exhibition this past spring at the Aedes Gallery in Berlin that focused on a series of small building projects by architect Xu Tiantian in SongYang and picked up on the positive response to the China Pavilion at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale, which looked at “Building a Future Countryside.”

“What we are seeing today are growing centers and shrinking regions,” said Eduard Kögel, a German scholar who has studied urban form in China and Europe. “This has resulted in a lack of housing in cities and a lack of infrastructure in the hinterlands.” To deal with this situation, Wang Jun, the secretary of the SongYang County Party Committee and the official most responsible for redeveloping SongYang, said, “We need to mobilize players in both the public and private sectors.”

Since completing a small bamboo pavilion rising from tea fields and an agricultural museum inserted within a set of renovated houses in 2014, Xu and her Bejing-based firm DnA_Design and Architecture have applied what she calls “architectural acupuncture” to key points in SongYang. Recent projects include a brown sugar factory, a museum to the local Hakka culture, a memorial hall honoring the 14th-century scholar Wang Jing, a tofu factory, and a wood addition to an old stone bridge. Playing a variety of roles—from planner and designer to social mobilizer and political organizer—Xu has used a “low-budget, low-tech” approach to create reasons for villagers to stay in SongYang and tourists to visit.

“Tiantian has been a catalyst for rethinking SongYang,” said Hans-Jürgen Commerell, director of the Aedes Network Campus Berlin. “She is fertilizing the future.”

The conference featured visits to many of Xu’s projects in SongYang, as well as talks by people such as Kristin Feireiss, director of the Aedes Architecture Forum; Farrokh Derakhshani, director of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture; Li Xiangning, curator of the Chinese Pavilion at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale; Nuria Costa Leonardo, head of the Mexican Women’s Network; Remy Sietchiping, leader of the Regional and Metropolitan Planning for UN-Habitat; Aric Chen, a curator-at-large for the M+ museum in Hong Kong and RECORD contributor; and architects Zhang Ke, Zhang Lei, Hitoshi Abe, and Erhard An-He Kinzelbach.

“In the past, ‘rural’ often had a negative connotation,” said Derakhshani. Changing that will require a long-term effort to leverage local know-how, engage villagers in creating new opportunities, and developing replicable models, he explained.