On glancing at the title one would wonder that this article is about haunted cities, but, it surely is not. This article is more about economics than eerie empty cities, cities with marvelous architecture but no residents. How did something like this happen? Let’s discuss.
How does a city come into being? First and foremost is the presence of a large human settlement which can only be brought about if there is some form of business happening which can employ people, due to which people permanently settle in that area. Along with a large settlement comes housing needs combined with sanitation and food facilities. Lastly, comes the establishment of administrative bodies governing according to the local law. Thus, in simple words, first comes the job, then the humans and finally the demand for various amenities. So what happens if one creates the amenities before everything else?
The answer to the above questions is visible when one “googles” the Chinese city Ordos, or more specifically Kangbashi, and looks at its images. The images show a hi-tech city with many high rises and wide roads. But a cursory glance shows a puzzling absence of its inhabitants. There are many cities like Kangbashi in China which were built to tackle the migration of citizens from rural to urban areas.
Why so lonely?
China had observed that there was a drastic increase in the population of people moving from villages to the cities. The percentage had significantly increased from the 1990s to the early 2000s. So the government came up with the idea of building cities to house these new migrants as the initial cities Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou etcetera were becoming overpopulated. Hence, around 2003 it commissioned the commencement of the construction of these new cities. However, on near completion, it realized that sometimes good infrastructure just isn’t enough to start a city; the willingness of people is the most important. When asked to relocate to the cities, the people from rural areas didn’t want to move to a “dead” city or in other words some cities lacked the basic commerce in the form of shops and jobs required to make a daily living. However, in Kangbashi, the government shifted certain schools and administrative buildings, to urge the people to move to the city. But this resulted in an insubstantial success. Kangbashi was built to harbor 500,000 people, but this move could convince only 100,000 people to move into the city.
Is China the only one?
No, China isn’t the only country with ghost cities. There are many countries with ghost cities but the two countries I will cite have a similar background as to why they are unpopulated. I got to know about these two cities from a TV show called “Top Gear” where they covered these ghost cities and conveyed the eeriness that one would feel if they traveled to these cities.
Myanmar’s newly built capital Naypyidaw is the only capital in the world that can be considered a ghost city. It also has world-class infrastructure, wide roads, wifi access, golf course and reliable electricity to accommodate many; but hosts only a few. However, the reason for its emptiness is a mix of political and economic reasons. In a relatively economically backward country, building a city like this was a triumph for the government. But due to its history of an authoritarian government, there are certain trust issues amongst the citizens. Although the reforms after 2011 have been to make Myanmar a democracy and give more power to its people, the residents of the country still feel the government is the same (authoritarian). People travel to the capital daily by road or air or even stay a few nights in the city only to go back to their villages by the end of the day or week. The citizens complain that they are not happy to stay there and hence go back. The reason for their being dubious can be because the city was built quickly and secretively by uprooting all the surrounding villages and now forcing people to move is not helping the capitals image in any way.
Spain is the next country. There are many cities in Spain that are partially built or are just abandoned structures. Spain witnessed a boom in the economy around the 2000s; hence, it gave a boost to its infrastructure development with a plan of developing many cities and around eight new airports. But then due to the euro zone crisis in 2008, the whole economy went into a slump. This made it impossible for people to afford new housing even though the prices fell by 50%. Since the infrastructure companies could not complete the construction with such low prices most of the projects had to be abandoned. Due to this, Spain was left with ghost cities and abandoned airports. This was visible in the Top Gear episode where the show hosts drove through these cities, staying in empty houses of these empty cities and drag racing on the runway of the closed airports. However, Spain is on its way to a speedy economic recovery and will not repeat a Greek economic crisis.
What will be its impact?
China built these ghost cities during its economic boom but to no avail. The cities used up a lot of funding from the government and still remain mostly empty. Now that its economy is slowing down one might wonder what the fate of these cities will be. In the long run, maybe 15 years down, we can roughly predict that some places will close down, most will be occupied but the chances of more projects being undertaken are lean.
The builder stands to lose the most in this grand infrastructure obsolescence. They will hope to at least earn some amounts of profit by not letting the prices fall further. This might be possible as it is predicted that movement of population from villages to the cities is still going to happen and the builders will be hoping to capitalize on this trend.
But looking at how easy it is in China to build cities one can ponder about how quickly the government can displace people from their villages by force to build whatever they want. This is one thing that the Chinese government must have learned from the Myanmar example; force does not make people move to a bigger city. It comes from their own willingness and how they perceive the city and the government to be.
Spain is on track to its recovery and hence will be able to convert these ghost towns to a lively bunch. China, in the long run, will be able to somehow make the people move due to its development. But the fate of Naypyidaw is still murky due to the lack of trust of people in the government and shows that listening to people’s demands is more important to building them a city.
India should also learn from these examples in order to implement their new Smart City Mission in a more people friendly manner, keeping in mind the interests of the residents in and around the city. Developing a city without force and making sure of the economic factors is the only way a city can succeed. There are no shortcuts.