Ghost Cities of the Twenty-First Century

Jeffrey Johnson is adjunct professor and the founding director of China Megacities Lab, an experimental research unit at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University. His research focuses on the radical transformations of China’s urban landscape. He is also a principal of SLAB Architecture, based in Brooklyn.
Ghost towns, newly constructed, sitting dormant and empty — have proliferated recently around the world, representing for many the unfortunate consequences of rapid urbanization and unchecked speculative development. Built for thousands, and even hundreds of thousands, entire urban areas sit eerily quiet in anticipation of the arrival of new inhabitants that never come.

Perhaps most well-known of these is the city of Kangbashi in Ordos, located in Inner Mongolia, about 350 miles west of Beijing, having been thrown into the architectural media by Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei’s collaboration on Ordos 100, which invited 100 architects from 27 countries to each design a 1,000-square- meter house to be located in their master plan.1 Fueled by over ambition and enabled by wealth from natural resources, the grand vision for a “city of the future” set in the Gobi Desert has, for now at least, resulted in a desert city of another kind.

Are these new ghost cities a glimpse of a global condition to come, fueled by increasing population, urban migration, and a boom-and-bust economy?

Ghost Towns of the Past

Typically, ghost towns were considered to be settlements that were occupied and then deserted, for a variety of reasons: financial decline, governmental decree, or disasters, whether natural or human-made. Abandoned towns were often frozen in time, left to decay, to deteriorate, and eventually, to disappear. In the United States, the ghost towns of the West were mythologized in stories from a time when the population expanded westward in the 1800s, seeking riches and wealth, only to move on when the resources were depleted.

Similarly, in the 1930s, when the Great Plains were stripped of their productivity during the Dust Bowl, more than 500,000 farmers and their families were forced to abandon their land and relocate. In the wake of this migration, many of the small towns that supported the agricultural communities were left to decay until they too were abandoned. Hundreds of these ghost towns in varying levels of decay are scattered throughout the region, serving as harsh reminders of our fragile relationship with nature.

Over the past few decades, we have witnessed in Europe and America the decay and abandonment of urban areas due to the decline of manufacturing industries. As industrial production relocated to regions of the world with lower labor costs, once- thriving cities have shrunk in population size, leaving many downtown buildings vacant and neighborhoods deserted. These “shrinking cities” — Detroit, Manchester, and Leipzig, to name just a few — cities that were once thriving industrial juggernauts and are now emptying out — have been the subject of much research and design.3

Although the Chinese ghost city has many of the characteristics of its predecessors, it is unique in that it has never been fully inhabited: it has had no hey-day, produced no memories and nurtured no community. Ghosted before they are fully populated, this condition brings a new set of issues for the current residents. Whether half-full or half empty, these ghost cities have little culture and history to be romanticized and preserved. Their partial occupation is problematic for the existing (mostly rural migrant) inhabitants and unattractive for potential future residents. Despite continuing population growth and urban migration, these cities are not becoming occupied at the predicted rate and in the predicted ways.

Build It and They Will Come?

The municipality of Ordos located in a region rich in natural resources, controlling one-sixth of China’s coal reserves.4 With prosperity comes the promise of wealth, and with wealth comes the promise of more people. In the beginning, it was a mad “coal rush,” and Ordos needed a plan.

In 2002, the local government made plans to create a new city center, the New District of Kangbashi, in response to the region’s economic boom. The plan started by looking at the projected population growth. Over the first decade of this century, the population of Ordos rose by more than 400,000 people to 1 million, and its future growth was expected to continue at a similar pace. The existing old town of Dongsheng, 25 kilometers away, was reaching its capacity. Furthermore, it had a shortage of water, lack of suitable land to for large-scales construction, and was ultimately considered ill-equipped to handle the projected urban growth. Therefore, the municipal government decided to build a brand new city.

Kangbashi was planned along the shoreline of a river with access to water and ample land to build at large scales.5 While the original plans for Kangbashi were designed to accommodate 1 million people, the current scaled-back version is designed for 300,000 people. By the end of 2015, government officials hope to have moved 150,000 rural inhabitants into Kangbashi.6 With two urban centers, Dongsheng and Kangbashi, the Ordos region plans to urbanize between the two poles. Kangbashi will accommodate the governmental administration, culture, high-tech industry, and luxury residential programs, while Dongsheng will function as the place for traditional commerce and industry.7 As the region grows, the desert between the two centers will ll in and create one urban conglomeration.

The Kangbashi master plan is concentric with a main north-south axis at its center, which abides by the typical urban planning formula in China. Along the central axis are governmental administration buildings, an entertainment area, and a financial district. The central square, called Genghis Kahn Square, is 1.6 kilometers long and 400 meters wide. The central square is highlighted by what are called “the four cultural relics”: a library, a museum, a cultural center, and an ethnic theater.

What differentiates development in China from that of others around the world is that China often anticipates growth at greater magnitudes and at higher risks. China has experienced three decades of continuous rapid urbanization
and cities are making efforts to react to projected growth with more informed responses and planning. Every five years, major cities are required to submit for review to the Central Government long-term master plans. Often, development is driven more by the directives of the municipality than by the private market because local governments bene t from leasing state-owned land to large developers. Kangbashi was built by the government acting as an entrepreneurial agent — a process obviously more technocratic than market-driven. Building occurs in anticipation of demand, not determined by immediate known demands, a strategy that runs the risk of overbuilding or impulsive development.

On one level, it can be argued that the influence and even direct participation of the government in land development can motivate and fuel future development. If the motivations are well intended and the outcomes successful, it can prove beneficial. However, one of the unfortunate consequences of this process is that often new districts are constructed for political purposes. Many of these new and monumental structures are constructed hastily and inefficiently as mere “vanity” projects to bolster the political positions of the current leadership. Even though this approach generates, at times, spectacular architecture and city buildings, it often results in the production of vast quantities of underutilized space. The buildings and districts are reduced to iconic and symbolic form, devoid of use and activity: ghosts without any substance.

While it may be too soon to determine whether Kangbashi is a success or a failure, and whether the motivations were politically driven, what is evident is, as Max D. Woodworth has written, Kangbashi is “a manifestation of urban dreams and the need felt within urban regimes to construct a space commensurate with municipal power.”8

As we witness in Kangbashi, the speed of development often outpaces demand. Kangbashi was built in a few years, not incrementally over long periods of time like many of our historical models. The rapid pace of development in China is driven fundamentally by two forces. The first, and the most obvious, is that millions of new inhabitants from the rural areas continue to ow into urban areas, placing huge burdens on the existing infrastructure and architecture. The second is that, since the development is motivated by the government, typically construction must occur during the five-year political term of politicians. For fear that the projects initiated will not be realized under the next wave of leadership, projects are rushed through to completion so that the current leaders can reap the benefits.

In addition to the sociopolitical forces that drive rapid development, there are also attractive economic gains. This is certainly the case in Kangbashi, where new developments offer opportunities to generate tax revenues that help support the new city. As part of the decentralization of government, China’s Central Government has pushed the majority of the responsibilities of revenue earning onto the local municipalities. Because there is no annual property tax, the municipal governments levy a one-time land sale tax on developers when they purchase the rights to develop land. This tax might amount to as much as 50 to 75 percent of the municipality’s annual revenue, in turn necessitating a climate of pro-development.

Cities now have more incentive to continually make new land available for development so that they have sufficient funds to support infrastructure, schools, security measures, hospitals, and cultural facilities. With the need to continually ll their coffers, municipal governments fall into a perpetual cycle of land acquisition, clearing, and new construction. Even though much of the initial development in Kangbashi was initiated and financed by the government, many opportunities now exist for private development. This of course runs the risk of speculative development, where property is bought and sold as a commodity for profit alone.

The creation of a commodity-based real estate market has played a significant role in perpetuating speculative development in China in the past 25 years. Many economists argue that the nation is in the midst of a massive real estate bubble, and Kangbashi is no exception. Due to limited sectors for investment, real estate has become a lucrative investment for the insatiable nouveau riche and has proved to be more reliable than the volatile stock market. However, the affluent are not interested in actually living in their new properties. The construction of thousands of developments are fully “sold-out” on paper, but often sit dormant and unoccupied. This not only runs the risk of a real estate bubble that could burst at any time, but also escalates property prices, which already occurs in double-digit increases in many cities. According to Tom Miller in his book, China’s Urban Billion, one of the key objectives in the new development of Kangbashi was to take advantage of the new wealth that had been generated locally and provide a source for local investment. Even though this seems to be succeeding to an extent, with the majority of homes being locally owned, only about 80 percent remain empty.9

Vacant real estate is not solely due to speculative investment in Kangbashi. The majority of officials and employees of the municipal government and state- owned enterprises that have been relocated to Kangbashi still prefer to live in the existing urban center of Dongsheng, where life is livelier, with shops, restaurants, and entertainment. They favor the 40-minute commute each way over living in desolation in Kangbashi.10 While construction was transforming Kangbashi into a city of the future, construction was also booming in Dongsheng to accommodate its own growth. Even the government-led directive to move an additional 150,000 farmers into Kangbashi by the end of 2015 may not prove enough to transform the new district into the vital urban area it was dreamed to be.

Although many of the points above describe a specifically Chinese context, the boom-to-bust to ghost town scenario can be found in other regions of the world. The global economic crisis in 2008 has had catastrophic effects on investment- dependent urban development. In the early to mid-2000s, the UAE and China were synonymous with building booms and rapid urban development. Architects from all over the world flocked to Dubai with hopes of landing a prize project. Since the global economic crisis, however, Dubai’s economy has been in a state of free fall. Tens of thousands of people have left Dubai without jobs and prospects, leaving behind empty apartments, homes, and offices. It was even reported by local newspapers that there were more than 3,000 vehicles abandoned at the airport, left behind by the fleeing expats.11 New construction has ceased, and development on many projects has halted. The much publicized artificial islands, including Palm Island, the World, and the Universe, sit barren with only a few built homes and buildings. Even the islands seem to feel the lightness of the real estate market, and are beginning to erode back into the sea.12

We have witnessed the ill-effects of the global economy in the US as well. The subprime mortgage crisis that coincided with the global recession triggered large declines in home prices, which led mortgage delinquencies and foreclosures. In 2009, over 88,000 foreclosures were led.13 In 2013, a national survey found that there were over 300,000 abandoned foreclosed “zombie” homes scattered across America.14

Ordos and the Ghosts of the Future

Over the past few years, construction in Chinese cities has visibly slowed down. The new government under Xi Jinping has been making strides in curbing overbuilding and gross speculative development. The global economic recession has also slowed China’s economy, stunting the once-torrid pace of construction.

It seems that more ghost towns, at least in China, are unlikely to be built. But what of the current ghost cities? Will they slowly populate and reach their potential and fulfill their promise? Or if they remain half full (or half empty), how can we as architects and planners engage productively with these ghost cities? While the shrinking cities research offers many possible scenarios for letting abandoned buildings return to nature, for consolidating populations, and for urban agriculture, it has become necessary to reprogram the problem, from one of shrinking over the long term to one of semi-vacant stasis in the short term. How can we temporarily create communities and neighborhoods in the meantime? What knowledge might the rural population bring to the city in order to influence its adjustment? What is the role of architects and planners when we build nothing?


1 See Keller Easterling, “Pandas: A Rehearsal,” Cornell Journal of Architecture 8 .

2 One such town was Bodie, California. After gold- mining success stories spread across the country, Bodie grew almost overnight into a thriving town of almost 10,000 people by 1879, rivaling Los Angeles and San Francisco as one of the largest towns in California. It boasted over 2,000 buildings and 200 restaurants, including many that stayed open 24/7. When the gold dried up, Bodie emptied out just as quickly as it had been built up. Preserved in a state of arrested decay, Bodie is now designated a National Historic Landmark.

3 K. Pallagst, . “Shrinking Cities in the United States of America: Three cases, Three Planning Stories,” The Future of Shrinking Cities 1 (2009): 81–88.

4 The annual GDP average had seen a 23 percent growth, and local government revenues grew sevenfold. The GDP per capita rose to US$20,000, twice that of Beijing. Tom Miller, China’s Urban Billion: The Story Behind the Biggest Migration in Human History (London/ New York: Zed Books, 2014), 119.

5 Miller, China’s Urban Billion, 120.

6 Miller, China’s Urban Billion, 120.

7 Miller, China’s Urban Billion, 120.

8 Max C. Woodworth, Frontier Boomtown Urbanism in Ordos, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, Cross-Currents 1 (December 2011), max.pdf.

9 Miller, China’s Urban Billion, 119.

10 Miller, China’s Urban Billion, 120.

11 Robert F. Worth, “Laid-Off Foreigners Flee as Dubai Spirals Down,” New York Times, February 11, 2009, http://www.nytimes. com/2009/02/12/world/middleeast/12dubai. html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 (retrieved July 13, 2015).

12 “Derelict Dubai: 7 Sandy Abandoned Wonders of the UAE,” Web Urbanist, http://weburbanist. com/2014/03/26/derelict-dubai-7-sandy- abandoned-wonders-of-the-uae/ (retrieved July 13, 2015).

13 Morgan Brennan, “2010’s Worst Cities for Foreclosures,” Forbes, 1/26/2011, http://www. worst-cities-for-foreclosures-in-2010/ (retrieved on July 13, 2015).

14 Barbara Liston, “Foreclosed ‘Zombie’ Homes Exceed 300,000 Properties: Study,” in the Huffington Post via Reuters, March 18, 2013, http://www.huf foreclosed-zombie-homes_n_2974263.html (retrieved on July 13, 2015).

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