How to Bring China’s Ghost Towns Back to Life

The empty development of Kangbashi/Ordos in Inner Mongolia (). Image © Tim Franco, Flickr User shanghaisoundbites

In this article, originally published in Metropolis Magazine’s Point of View blog as “The Real Problem with China’s Ghost Towns” , author Peter Calthorpe explains the problems of these cities, predicts their grim future, and explores how the thoughtful planning behind the city of Chenggong could provide a more sustainable alternative. 

 We’ve all seen the reports on “ghost town” developments in China, showing acres of empty high-rise apartments and vacant shopping malls. These barren towns seem particularly ironic in a country planning to move 250 million people from the countryside to cities in the next 20 years. But this massive, unprecedented demand has been distorted by a number of factors unique to China. Flawed financial incentives for cities and developers, along with the poor phasing of services, amenities, and jobs create most of the problems. In addition, China’s emerging middle class is very comfortable (perhaps too comfortable) investing in real estate, so people often buy apartments in incomplete communities but don’t move in, expecting that values will rise, or that they will live there someday. The result is a string of large, empty developments that remain speculative investments rather than real homes and communities. [See-through buildings are the worry now, but the real problems may come when they are full.]

While it’s hard to get data on vacancy levels in China, there are certainly many anecdotal examples across the country. An all-too-typical example is Chenggong, the new town planned for 1.5 million just outside of Kunming in the west. This freshly minted city boasts the growing Yunnan University, currently with 170,000 students and faculty; a new government center; and an emerging light industrial area. Under construction are the city’s new high-speed rail station and two metro lines connecting the historic city center.

Chenggong, a city in Yunnan Province, has grown rapidly in the past seven years but is still lacking in residents. Image © Remko Tanis, Flickr User remkotanis

The town has been growing at a robust 6% a year. There seems to be lots of activity to prime the pump, but even here there are scores of vacant buildings. Why? Foremost is Chinese tax policy: there are no local property taxes so cities derive most of their income from developing land. The incentive is to lease large tracts of land (land sales are illegal in China), even if the market and complementary services aren’t ready. Without an ongoing property tax, the long-term viability of the towns is a secondary consideration. Compounding this, the average Chinese worker, with their high savings rate, needs investment options. Lacking a transparent stock market, most workers prefer to own real estate if they can, both as an investment and as future home for a child. They often buy with cash, and with no debt and no property tax it’s easy to hold empty apartments. Additionally, the country has yet to see a drop in real estate values so the properties seem safe. (Sound familiar?)

In addition to these buy-now financial incentives, the transit in Chenggong isn’t complete, and many of the town’s services and schools are yet to come. Consequently, many people purchase apartments but stay in their old homes until the new community is complete or their child marries. The good news here: these tax, investment, and development policies can be easily corrected, and in fact the central government is considering new property taxes, limits to second home speculation, and a more strategic phasing of infrastructure.

Perhaps more significant than these market irregularities and flawed policies is the long-term viability and health of the new towns. Most development in China takes the form of superblocks with towers in the park-style gated communities.  At up to a quarter of a mile to an intersection and often eight lanes of automobile traffic across the street, walking and biking in these districts is difficult and dangerous. Driving then skyrockets worsening congestion, air pollution, carbon emissions, and household costs. In Jinan, a study showed a quadrupling of auto travel in the newer superblock developments.

In addition to these growing economic and environmental issues, these developments—some containing more than 5,000 dwellings—hold the seeds of rapid social decay. As we experienced in the West, this urban pattern isolates people in huge impersonal landscapes that lack identity, safety (no “eyes on the street”), community, and a human scale. We demolished a generation of social housing built on this model, and I believe the Chinese eventually will too.

Courtesy of Peter Calthorpe

Fortunately, Chenggong is experimenting with a new model of . With support from the national government and planning by the China Sustainable Transportation Center, our firm is redesigning 2,500 acres in the central district of the new town. The superblocks have been broken down to human-scale, traditional courtyard blocks.  The streets are smaller and more frequent—and many are auto free or dedicated for transit.  Parks are smaller but closer and safer with housing overlooking each.  Mixed-use buildings with sidewalk oriented shops and cafes rebuild the street-life that was once a hallmark of older Chinese communities. And ultimately jobs will balance with housing, avoiding the “bedroom community” disease that eroded suburbs all over the world.

Courtesy of Peter Calthorpe

This new pattern is in its “pilot” phase with government officials studying the results and policy implications. But there is every reason to believe timely corrections can be made, both in the incentives that distort the market and, perhaps most important, in China’s new cities. Creating the appropriate design DNA as well as the proper economic incentives will profoundly impact the long-term social, economic and environmental viability of urban centers that will be the largest and fastest growing in the history of mankind. For all of our sakes, let’s hope China gets it right.

Peter Calthorpe, a Berkeley-based architect and planner, heads up Calthorpe Associates. He is a founding member of the Congress for the New Urbanism and the author of several books, including his latest, Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change.

Featured Image by Tim Franco. Visit his site at timfranco.com.

Cite: Peter Calthorpe. "How to Bring China’s Ghost Towns Back to Life" 06 Sep 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 03 Sep 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=425651>

16 comments

  1. Thumb up Thumb down +2

    Same horrible “mistakes” as in western countries.
    And this AFTER we know ALREADY this will be a disaster…..

    Just a coincidence ?

    What if it’s not a coincidence ?

      • Thumb up Thumb down +1

        That kind of “urban development” turned out to be a disaster in the west which is VERY hard to correct. Many cities will need many decades just to soften the problems, not ot talk about of solving them.

    • Thumb up Thumb down -1

      If there units are bought and paid for with cash, then the issues are mute. The main difference between what is happening here and what happened in “western” countries is that the monies the units were purchased with in the western countries was borrowed. The units here in China were paid for with cash, typically up front. There will be no meltdown here as there was in the US because these units are owned outright… unlike the States when the population got in way over its head with debt loads and low interest rates.

  2. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    the author is using very outdated data. Land sales *are* legal in china. In fact, there was a news article in Bloomberg just yesterday that talked about land in the northeast section of the city going for a record 73000 yuan per m2 – more than US$6800 per square foot just for the land.

    • Thumb up Thumb down 0

      Roberto, your love of Bloomberg doesn’t change the fact that ALL land in China is owned wholly by the State and can only be leased for a number of decades. Your figure is likely the cost of the 70 year maximum residential use lease period.

  3. Thumb up Thumb down +1

    Peter, you might want to read the article from The Atlantic titled “Ordos: A Ghost Town That Isn’t”.

  4. Thumb up Thumb down -1

    Ghost city is a problem highly depends on situation. It is like after your visiting to Detroit city, then you simply conclude the US crewed out totally.

  5. Thumb up Thumb down -1

    “How to Bring China’s Ghost Towns Back to Life” hilarious title…how about getting rid of communism.

    • Thumb up Thumb down +6

      Triphernan44,

      I believe these are professional blogs and I myself do not like the types of “SMACK” talks out of ignorant people. We should be professional in our writings and put some thoughts and professionalism to our postings. I hope you agree. The chinese system now is a hybrid that is probably more akin to the free enterprise system than the USA system. It has evolved into a hybrid. I hope the members blogging here can keep some semblance of educated professionalism in their posting. I hope you all agree with me here. Thanks.

  6. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    It isn’t about urban planning, there is nothing an architectural intervention can do. The real problem is in the cheap loans that pumped up the housing bubble and filled it with speculators instead of people who actually need houses. This whole problem will solve itself out when the bubble pops and houses take on their real value

  7. Thumb up Thumb down +2

    Lebbeus Woods questioned Ordos one time.

    I made the same argument. Where is the architects social responsibility? where are the social and individual ethics? This one in the image and many others where just “throwing sand to the westerns eyes”, real estate marketing and props for the all Communist china. The world turns their back to politics, and better still, the Architects … turned their back to their social role in history. When the Chinese government invited 1000 architects to Ordos, all of them drooled with the possibility of “starchitecture” and design a beautifully modelled houses with no costumer reference, except a real estate agency, I mean … all of them wanted to make a work of architecture that boosted their ego’s …. and in the midst of this only 2 architects refused to work in such terms and with such government standards …. guess who?

    - Lebbeus Woods
    - Peter Zumthor.

  8. Thumb up Thumb down +2

    While the author’s attempt to reconfigure this city is surely very admirable, perhaps we should question our somewhat imperialist judgement of Chinese cities. 1) I am the last person to say the market is always right, but in this case perhaps this is what the Chinese want. They are certainly more culturally attuned to high density living, and this is a more sustainable alternative to low-density Western style suburbs. 2) While architects are inherently disgusted by the idea of empty, unused buildings, it seems fairly insightful to build in excess in this way. Compare this with Britain, where a chronic housing shortage is what pushes property prices up. As the article indicates, investment apartments are sometimes bought (or rented) by the Chinese for the future children. Further, as one commenter has pointed out, at least they are not bought on enormous mortgages which may never be repayed (which would be standard in a Western country. 3) This city seems hardly much less generic than the vast majority of Western ones. Please, have a little self-awareness and try not to be to critical of the Chinese. They are raising the average person’s standard of living in their country much faster than any country before them, and on an unprecedented scale. Perhaps in 3 generations or so they will realise they’ve destroyed most of their culture and history in the process, but that is for them to evaluate themselves.

    • Thumb up Thumb down 0

      I am in agreement with Rotterdam-Architect. While the author presented a very nicely paper concerning the planning of China’s Ghost Towns, he has done so using the “Rose Colored” lens of a western trained and western experienced and therefore a very western culture leaning view of the chinese plans. I myself am western trained and experienced, so I do not fault his presentation. However, I would advocate westerners who are viewed as the “experts” in planning and architecture currently begin to learn from the chinese themselves. Theirs is a Development and Growth model that the world have not seen before now. It is indeed a phenomena and while it is not perfect in comparing to western values and statistics, the chinese experience is mostly from within driven by forces and culture much different from what the author or you and I studied and therefore considered the “Bible” of concepts and values. This growth is “Organic” from within with influences of course from foreign cultures. You and I can see this same “Experimental Model” permeating in the chinese day to day politics as well as “World Politics”. The chinese governmental and political system has evolved into a hybrid that have not been seen previously in history of mankind. The systems of planning, development, architecture is also evolving to keep pace. This entire society including its politics, government, manufacturing, banking, business, research/devlopment, pride, culture is an experimental hybrid and is still ongoing and will continue well into the 21st century before it will abate somewhat. Their system will become if not already to be copied and emulated by many of the undeveloped and developing countires. I advocate any westerner wanting to be a part of this phenomenal growth go and travel and study in China and instill some chinese culture and understanding. This will go a long way to help the country develop their own brand of planning, development and architecture. But my kudos and admiration to the author who did a very comprehensive presentation on this subject.

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