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How to Bring China's Ghost Towns Back to Life

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.

Dawang Mountain Resort Changsha / Coop Himmelb(l)au

One of Coop Himmelb(l)au's latest competition winning designs is the Dawang Mountain Resort near Changsha, China, a combination of an entertainment ice world with an indoor ski slope, a water park and supporting restaurant and shopping facilities. Positioned directly on top of a historical cement mining quarry pit and lake, this proposal aims to combine "striking landscape with ambitious design" in a way that could redefine the idea and aesthetics of recreation for the south-central Chinese city.

Tapered House / Index Architecture

  • Architects: Index Architecture
  • Location: Shunde, Foshan, Guangdong, China
  • Designer: Anderson Lee
  • Design Team: Yung Sai Chun, Bart Kwok, Ronnie Chui
  • Area: 670.0 sqm
  • Project Year: 2012
  • Photographs: Hunga Chan

© Hunga Chan © Hunga Chan © Hunga Chan © Hunga Chan

Harbin Twin Towers Proposal / spatial practice

Designed by spatial practice, their proposal for the Harbin High Speed Railway (HSR) west train station Twin Towers. is an iconic project set to include office spaces, residential apartments, retail spaces and a hyper link to a new underground infra-structural hub. With China having the world’s longest High Speed Rail (HSR) network that connects the entire country from north to south and from east to west, the new West Train Station in Harbin will become the northern China gateway connecting to China’s major cities with daily high-speed links to Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai and Guangzhou. More images and architects' description after the break.

Xiang River Tower / RRC STUDIO

Milan-based RRC Studio's latest undertaking, the Xiang River Tower, will be an office and residential project in Changsha, a city under heavy development in China. Located near the Xiang river in a prime area of the city’s downtown, the tower will dominate the city's horizon and bear a strong presence on the skyline. 

Read on for the architects' description...

ADEPT Selected to Construct “Green Loops City” in China

Danish practice ADEPT has won an international, invited competition to master plan the 17KM2 site of Laiyan New Town and Binjian District in Hengyang, China. Their winning proposal, “Green Loops City” was lauded for developing an innovative and sustainable way to accommodate rapid urban growth while preserving Hengyang’s cultural heritage and lush surrounding landscape. 

Aidi Su from ADEPT stated: “Much of Hengyang’s cultural and natural resources are still very much intact when compared to other Chinese cities facing rapid urban development. This is an incredible opportunity for us to make a difference in Chinese cities.”

Gaga / Coordination Asia

  • Architects: Coordination Asia
  • Location: Inspection & Quarantine of the People's Republic of China, Fugang Road, Futian, Shenzhen, Guangdong, China, 518026
  • Partner: Rito Communication Group
  • Area: 290.0 sqm
  • Project Year: 2013
  • Photographs: Diephotodesigner.De

© Diephotodesigner.De © Diephotodesigner.De © Diephotodesigner.De © Diephotodesigner.De

Design Republic Design Commune / Neri&Hu Design and Research Office

  • Architects: Neri&Hu Design and Research Office
  • Location: Shanghai, China
  • Partners in Charge: Lyndon Neri & Rossana Hu
  • Associate in Charge: Cai Chun Yan
  • Design Team: Wang Yan, Fu Ying, Guo Peng, Peter Eland, Jonas Hultman, Markus Stoecklein, Christina Cho, Jeongyon Mimi Kim, Ella Ye Lu, Federico Saralvo, Zhao Lei, Xiao Lei, Darcy Tang
  • Product Team: Brian Lo, Zhao Yun, Nicolas Fardet, Chen Xiaowen
  • Graphic Team: Christine Neri, Hao Zhou, Evelyn Chiu, Siwei Ren
  • Area: 2400.0 sqm
  • Project Year: 2012
  • Photographs: Pedro Pegenaute

© Pedro Pegenaute © Pedro Pegenaute © Pedro Pegenaute © Pedro Pegenaute

Daxinganling Culture and Sports Center / Had Architects

  • Architects: Had Architects
  • Location: Jagdaqi, Da Hinggan Ling, Heilongjiang, China
  • Design Team: Tang Jiajun, Luo Peng, Ji Qiang ,Wang Conglong
  • Area: 26360.0 sqm
  • Project Year: 2013
  • Photographs: Tang Jiajun

© Tang Jiajun © Tang Jiajun © Tang Jiajun © Tang Jiajun

Heritage Park of Qin Er Shi Mausoleum / Lacime Architectural Design

  • Architects: Lacime Architectural Design
  • Location: Xi'an, Shaanxi, China
  • Design Team: Song Zhaoqing, Li Jing, Zhao Jinxin, Chen Cheng and Zhang Tengfei
  • Collaborators: Chen Cheng, Zhang Tengfei
  • Area: 7000.0 sqm
  • Project Year: 2011
  • Photographs: Yao Li

© Yao Li © Yao Li © Yao Li © Yao Li

Southwest International Ethnic Culture and Art Center Winning Proposal / Tongji Architectural Design and Research Institute

Located in the core area of Kunming Chenggong New C.B.D, the main challenge for the design of the Southwest International Ethnic Culture and Art Center was to integrate the local cultures plus various functional programs into one contemporary yet harmonious form. Designed by team members Wang Wensheng, Damian Donze and Sidney Gong of the Tongji Architectural Design and Research Institute, their winning proposal takes on an abstract path to integrate the local cultures. More images and architects’ description after the break.

Hefei 1912 Commercial Street / Lacime Architectural Design

  • Architects: Lacime Architectural Design
  • Location: Hefei, Anhui, China
  • Design Team: Song Zhaoqing, Wang Ya, Cai Jingkai, Chen Bin, Jin Guangxian, Liu Yang
  • Client: Golden Land Real Estate
  • Collaborators: Chen Bing, Jin Guangxian, Liu Yang
  • Area: 83452.0 sqm
  • Project Year: 2011
  • Photographs: Shi Jinzhong

© Shi Jinzhong © Shi Jinzhong © Shi Jinzhong © Shi Jinzhong

Mixed Use Tower Winning Proposal / DOS Architects

Invited to take part in the competition setup by the site’s promoter, GWA (Grow Wealth Assets) in March this year, DOS Architects’ proposal for the Mixed Use development in Beijing was just announced as the winner. With the challenge of producing a unique and iconic building, their ‘Cantilevering courtyard tower’ consists of 219,000 sqm of mixed-use space including a hotel, office space, retail and residential units. More images and architects’ description after the break.

Designing in Dialogue: The Architecture of von Gerkan, Marg and Partners Exhibition

gmp Architekten's touring exhibition, 'Designing in Dialogue: The Architecture of von Gerkan, Marg and Partners' is currently being hosted by the Chinese National Museum in Beijing until August 25. In this exhibition, gmp will provide an overview of their work: sketches and drawings provide an idea of the conceptual thoughts, models present designs in three dimensions and photos document the completed buildings. The exhibited gmp projects are grouped regionally by continent and in six categories which cover important fundamental, practical and theoretical aspects of gmp’s work. More information after the break.