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.