By Alastair Donald | 13 January 2013
Last year a historic landmark was reached, but with little fanfare. The fact that the people of China are now predominantly urban, was largely ignored by the Western media. By contrast, considerable attention focused on China’s new ‘ghost towns’ or kong cheng − cities such as Ordos in the Gobi desert and Zhengzhou New District in Henan Province which are still being built but are largely unoccupied.
By some estimates, the number of vacant homes in Chinese cities is currently around 64 million: space to accommodate, perhaps, two thirds of the current US population. However, unlike the abandoned cities of rust-belt America or the shrinking cities of Europe, China’s ghost cities seem never to have been occupied in the first place. So to what extent are these deserted places symbolic of the problems of rapid Chinese urbanisation? And what is revealed by the Western discourse about them?
Characterised by its gargantuan central Genghis Khan Plaza and vast boulevards creating open vistas to the hills of Inner Mongolia, Ordos New Town is a modern frontier city. It is located within a mineral rich region that until recently enjoyed an estimated annual economic growth rate of 40 per cent, and boasts the second highest per-capita income in China, behind only the financial capital, Shanghai.
Having decided that the existing urban centre of 1.5 million people was too crowded, it was anticipated that the planned cultural districts and satellite developments of Ordos New Town would by now accommodate half a million people rather than the 30,000 that reputedly live there.
Reports suggest that high profile architectural interventions such as the Ai Weiwei masterplan for 100 villas by 100 architects from 27 different countries have been shelved, although a few of the commissions struggle on.
It seems that expectations of raising both the region’s profile (at least in ways intended) and the aesthetic esteem of its new residents have failed to materialise. Instead, attention is focused on the vacant buildings and empty concrete shells within a cityscape devoid of traffic and largely empty of people.
Estimates suggest there’s another dozen Chinese cities with similar ghost town annexes. In the southern city of Kunming, for example, the 40-square-mile area of Chenggong is characterised by similar deserted roads, high-rises and government offices. Even in the rapidly growing metropolitan region of Shanghai, themed model towns such as Anting German Town and Thames Town have few inhabitants. In the Pearl River Delta, the New South China Mall is the world’s largest. Twice the size of the Mall of America in Minneapolis, it is another infamous example of a gui gouwu zhongxin or ‘ghost mall’.
Located within a dynamic populated region (40 million people live within 60 miles of the new Mall), it has been used in the American documentary Utopia, Part 3 to depict a modern wasteland. With only around 10 of the 2,300 retail spaces occupied, there is an unsettling emptiness here. The sense that this is a building detached from economic and social reality is accentuated by broken display dummies, slowly gliding empty escalators, and gondolas navigating sewage-infested canals. The message is that in this ‘empty temple to consumerism’ − as described by some critics − we find an inherent truth about China’s vapid future.
Pursued through the imagery of the ghost town, the commentary on stalled elements of Chinese modernity recalls the recent fascination with what has been termed ‘ruin porn’ − apocalyptic photographs of decayed industrial structures in cities such as Detroit, as in the collection The Ruins of Detroit by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffe. These too dramatise the urban landscapes but seldom seem interested in enquiring about the origins and processes underlying them.
In his popular work Collapse, Jared Diamond fantasised that one day in the future, tourists would stare at the ‘rusting hulks of New York’s skyscrapers’ explaining that human arrogance − overreaching ourselves − is at the root of why societies fail. In Requiem for Detroit, filmmaker Julian Temple too argues that to avoid the fate of the lost cities of the Maya, we must recognise the ‘man-made contagion’ in the ‘rusting hulks of abandoned car plants’. (It seems that even using a different metaphor is deemed to be too hubristic.)
In terms of the discussion about Chinese ghost cities, many impugn these places as a commentary on the folly of China’s development and its speed of modernisation. Take the Guardian’s former Asia correspondent, Jonathan Watts, who has argued that individuals and civilisations bring about their own annihilation by ‘losing touch with their roots or over-consuming’. Initial signs of success often prove to be the origin of later failures, he argues. In his view, strength is nothing more than potential weakness, and the moral of the tale is that by hitting a tipping point, civilisations will fall much more quickly than they rise.
In fact, China’s headlong rush to development means that its cities embody many extremes. For example, the city of Changsha in Hunan Province recently announced that in the space of just seven months it would build an 838 metre skyscraper creating the world’s tallest tower. Understandably, doubts exist over whether this can be achieved − the current tallest, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, took six years to build. Yet such is the outlook of a country with so much dynamic ambition, that even the seemingly impossible is not to be considered off-limits. At the other end of the scale, it was recently revealed that 30 million Chinese continue to live in caves − a reflection of under-development (not an energy efficient lifestyle choice).
In the West, a risk averse outlook means that caution is the watchword. Not only is the idea of building new cities a distant memory, but data from the US and UK betrays that geographical mobility is reducing as people elect to stay in declining towns rather than seek new opportunities elsewhere. By contrast, China is a country on the move − quite literally. In fact the landmark 50 per cent urbanisation rate was achieved some years ago, driven by a ‘floating population’ of perhaps 200 million people, whose legal status as villagers disguises the fact they have already moved to live and work in cities.
If cramming five to a room in the existing Anting town means easy access to jobs then why move to Anting German Town, accessible via only a single road, and surrounded by industrial districts and wasteland? But it is also clear that China is building for expansion. The notion of ‘predict and provide’ is so alien to Western planners these days, that they are appalled when particular Chinese authorities announce that they will build a new town with three-lane highways before people move there. How absurd, we say. Look, the roads are empty and unused. But in this debate, it is we who have lost our sense of the audacious.
When assessing the ghost cities phenomenon, it seems likely that in a country growing at the breakneck speed of China, some mistakes will be made. When bureaucratic targets and technical plans inscribed in protocols and legislation are to the fore, then not all outcomes of investment programmes such as a recent $200 billion infrastructure project will work out. And yes, ghost cities do reflect some worrying economic trends, with rising house prices and the speculative stockpiling of units so that many apartments are owned but not occupied.
But these problems need to be kept firmly in perspective. The reality is that meaningful development requires risk-taking. The ghost cities today may well prove to be viable in the longer term, as ongoing urbanisation leads to better integration with existing regions, and because by the very virtue of their creation, such areas create new opportunities that alter the existing dynamics.
This review first appeared in The Architectural Review
Alastair Donald is associate director of the Future Cities Project, and assistant curator Venice Takeaway: Ideas to Change British Architecture