In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images
‘Reclaimed land’ from the sea
This is the sprawling metropolis that is Nanhui, and it’s a part of added land in the port city of Shanghai. That’s right, the Chinese government “reclaimed” over 80 square miles from the East China Sea to build this massive city, which is almost completely empty.
Designers of Nanhui put a lake at the center of the city, meant to make it look from a satellite like a teardrop rippled through the lake and created the city. Construction started in 2003 and is set to be completed in 2020, but for now, you can’t make out a person, or even a car, on the road.
All alone in the city
The Chinese government doesn’t always have to create new land to build a new ghost city. In the case of Ordos City, these residential apartments were built on top of a desert village. China has a world-high nearly 1.4 billion citizens, but fortunately, it has plenty of land for them.
However, things don’t always go as planned. After an investment of over $161 billion from the local government, the ghost city of Ordos only populated 10% of the city when it was completed in 2011. Real estate prices dropped 70% and construction on many of its buildings halted. The ones who stayed lead a very eerie life, in communities only halfway constructed.
They couldn’t call it “New, New York,” so the Chinese government chose to call Tianjin, “New Manhattan.” Tianjin is another city that was laid on top of “reclaimed land,” as planners constructed the city on over 60 square miles of what was once Bohai Bay.
Tianjin sparked a major debate within the Chinese government in 2013, as some started to question the wisdom of building these giant metropolises without anyone to live there first. But ultimately, China doesn’t give up on these ghost cities easily, as one Forbes writer wrote, “The way China builds an initial population in its new cities is simple: It makes people move into them.”
Yes, that’s ‘The Pentagon,’ Shanghai-style
Chinese builders are in the habit of replicating western cities such as London and Paris, and in this instance, they built a replica of The Pentagon in Washington, D.C. The replica was completed in 2009, and was supposed to become the “Shanghai Pentagonal Mart,” but instead, it’s one of the worst real estate blunders ever.
“The Pentagon Replica” is over 1.6 million square feet, and is completely uninhabited. Getty Images is not known for their funny descriptions, but they had this to say of this image: “The Shanghai Pentagonal Mart has been left behind vacant mainly because of its location and confusing inner structures that barely any person can be caught sight of in this colossal building.”
‘Build it and they will come’
When China privatized real estate in the early 1990s, a real estate boom ensued. As China has become richer on the world stage, so too have its citizens. Nearly 40 million housing units were without a separate room for a kitchen and bathroom, so there became a demand for bigger units.
This photo shows the ghost city of Pudong. Once described as a “statist monument for a dead pharaoh on the level of the pyramids,” after being left vacant for years, Pudong is now one of the most successful ghost cities in China. Today, it’s a financial hub, and there are over 1 million inhabitants.
Echo! … Echo! …
Even with 30,000 residents in the Kangbashi District, it was still considered a ghost city. That’ll happen when a city is built for 300,000, or 10 times the amount of actual residents! It’s such a sight to see that tourists will visit sites such as Kangbashi to feel the emptiness for themselves.
What you see here is actually a scaled-down version of the city, as planners had broader ambitions. They anticipated that 2 million people would live in Kangbashi by 2023, but later cut that number down to 500,000. Eventually, it was reduced to 300,000, and it still has vacancies.
Cities built backwards
One of the major reasons why Kangbashi had to be scaled down so much was a crash in the coal market. Two of the heaviest criticisms of China’s ghost cities are overinvestment and overdevelopment. While this was a barren desert landscape prior to construction, it’s not solving China’s housing crisis.
It seems so odd to build a complete city ahead of time, as for millennia, every single city on planet Earth was built according to the inhabitants’ changing needs. But there is some logic to it, and with the government controlling the population, even a ghost city has a chance of becoming an actual, thriving city.
The explosion that registered earthquakes in Tianjin
Tianjin is a municipality outside of Beijing, and it’s so massive that it was broken up into nine districts. We’ll spare you the boring names of all of them, but just know they had a lot to do with being manufacturing and industrial hubs. This meant that there were a lot — mind you, a lot — of flammable and dangerous chemicals stored in the area.
On the night of Aug. 12, 2015, a fire started in a chemical warehouse. Firefighters used water to put out the flames, which only spread the fire out. The first explosion registered a 2.3 magnitude earthquake, and a second was a 2.9. When the fire was finally controlled, 173 were dead, and nearly 800 wounded.
The explosions in Tianjin were so powerful that they shattered windows for over 1.5 miles in all directions. Tianjin has nearly 900 square miles of space, and it’s a darn good thing it wasn’t heavily inhabited during the explosion, as there are reports of damage to buildings up to 3 miles away.
Tianjin is one of the success stories of China’s ghost cities, but that will happen when a city is built on reclaimed land, and becomes a deep water port. The population of Binhai (within Tianjin) is closing in on 2.5 million, and given its location between Beijing and the sea, it is a major center of Chinese commerce.
The only friend within earshot
Does anyone remember that Will Smith movie, I Am Legend? His character lives in a postapocalyptic Manhattan, and by day he travels the streets as fast as he likes, goes into whatever store he wants, and is all alone when he does it. At night, zombies come out, but let’s stick with the daytime comparison.
Here we have the Kangbashi housing district in the background, and we appear to have a street sweeper with nothing to sweep. It’s pretty easy: no humans, no trash. We’re just glad this man has cell phone reception, because amid the silence (maybe some construction noises), who else would he talk to?
Thames Town, China
The River Thames runs through London and Oxford in England, and some Chinese designers were so in love with the architecture there that they decided to create an English city of their own. Yes, those streets are cobbled, and if you look close enough, there’s even a red telephone box.
Conflicting reports have emerged as to whether Thames Town is an actual ghost town. Well, truth be told, it is, and the reason is wealthy Chinese people bought up all the housing and use them as vacation homes. There are very few permanent residents there, so at times you might not be able to find a parking spot, and at others, there’s not a soul in sight.
Space, and not the outer kind
In 2010, Kangbashi, with an area of roughly 230 square miles, had a population density of 665 people per square mile. To put that into perspective, Manhattan, in New York City, is only 22 square miles, but has a population density of nearly 26,500 people per square mile. That is some serious space.
These cities are so new and raw that workers have to constantly fight off the indigenous desert plants. As for in the city, imagine entire floors to yourself, and no one to dodge as you walk down the sidewalk. There aren’t any lines anywhere, and the distance between open shops could be blocks.
Sky City, China
Officially known as Tianducheng, at the city center one can find the words “Sky City” laid out on the circular lawn. And in the center of that park rises a replica of the Eiffel Tower. At 355 feet tall, it’s about one-third the size of the actual Eiffel Tower, and the surrounding city is a carbon copy of some of Paris, France’s most famous features.
Parisian architecture makes up the housing buildings, and Xiangxie Road, as it’s formally known, is referred to as the “Champs-Élysées.” Six years into construction, there were only 2,000 residents. That number has moved above 30,000 — to put that in perspective, that gives it the same population density as Alpharetta, Georgia. That’s hardly Paris.
I walk alone
Do you think this man hears the lyrics to Green Day’s 2004 hit, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” every time he walks? Let’s see:
“I walk a lonely road,
The only one that I have ever known.
Don’t know where it goes,
But it’s home to me, and I walk alone.”
Many of the housing units that are owned by Chinese citizens aren’t actually lived in. That’ll happen when things like bus lines, markets, and municipal buildings aren’t even in your area. That sort of thing will eventually lead to Kangbashi being populated, but for now, if you want big city living, but also land in the country, maybe you can have both here.
Of course, to allow access to these behemoth cities, builders have to construct highways to get people there, and they move heaven and Earth to do it. Perhaps one day this will be a busy highway, rich with traffic jams and honking horns, but for now, a sight like this — lonely folks traveling the long road — is very rare.
China is attempting to get ahead of the housing problem that most developed nations are facing. For now, the Chinese government is content leaving these cities empty, if they have to, in order to disperse their population over a long period of time. This highway to the Kangbashi District will eventually be a road traveled by the upper class in China.
One of the central tenets of a Communist state is full employment, and if everyone is paid the same, then this man officially has the easiest job in the world. In reality, China’s class system is more complicated than a traditional socialist state, but either way, this street sweeper has nothing to sweep but dust on sidewalks.
It’s common to find high-rises, like the ones in the background of this photo of Kangbashi, unfinished and seemingly always under construction. The projects are based so much on speculation, and take so long, that the economic winds change, and money runs out. Then, empty buildings become the cities’ decor.
The ghost art park
It’s one thing to have empty buildings, but to have empty parks, especially ones full of sculptures, is almost tragic. This is a photo of the Asia Statuary Art Theme Park in Kangbashi, and it shows that it is absolutely empty. And that’s too bad, because it has some very cool attractions.
There’s a lake in the middle of the park, with giant fountains that are reminiscent of the kind found in front of the Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. In the winter, it gets so cold (an average low of 8 degrees in January) that the lake freezes over, and Chinese residents and tourists can be seen braving the slippery ice.
The US Capitol … in China
No, this isn’t a postapocalyptic version of the nation’s capital, nor a dilapidated version of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. This is a replica of the house of Congress, and it was supposed to be a luxury hotel. Instead, it’s empty, ugly, and much smaller than the actual U.S. Capitol Building.
Built in 2007 and located in the city of Wuhan, today, it still has yet to have any guests. This is another example of funds drying up before the project was completed, and now it’s just an incomplete relic of a bad idea. Local residents have managed to find a use for it, though, as many use the rich soil to plant vegetable gardens.
‘Ghost Cities of China’
It wasn’t until 2006 that the western world became aware of Chinese ghost cities, and that’s thanks in large part to Forbes writer Wade Shepard. In that year, after traveling to China many times to cover stories, he published the book, Ghost Cities of China.
Shepard’s photographs alerted the world to this phenomenon happening in the most populated country in the world. Suddenly Al Jazeera, the BBC, and other international outlets picked up on the news. Sites such as the beautiful Taida Resident Cultural Square were among the discoveries, but the square has since been finished and is rich with culture, just not so many visitors.
China’s Los Angeles
This photo of Binhai shows just how sprawling and massive these Chinese ghost cities are, almost like a Chinese Los Angeles (as opposed to Chinatown in Los Angeles). If you look closely, there are at least six lanes on that highway, but only a sprinkling of cars. Traffic jams aren’t even a possibility in this new area, which is about as opposite of Los Angeles as a city can get.
One thing that Binhai has that is similar to Los Angeles is a large coastline. Binhai has over 95 miles of coastal water and beaches, which is a good 20 miles more than Los Angeles. In a few years, you’ll probably see names for these beaches come up as “Huntington,” “Malibu,” and “Santa Monica.”
Coal and carbon
In March 2010, Tsinghua University and the local government of Ordos City, in the Kangbashi District, announced the development of the Low-Carbon Valley Research Institution. Since the region was heavily dependent on coal for energy, at the time it made sense to put money into an effort to curb carbon emissions while burning fossil fuels.
Unfortunately for students who would’ve enjoyed this building, in early 2017, funding for the institute ran dry, and the beautifully designed building was never finished. It almost resembles the Pantheon in Rome, with the open dome at the top, and the modern addition of support structures and windows.
The loneliest job on Earth
This photo was taken in the streets of Tianducheng, or as it’s more commonly known, Sky City. The Eiffel Tower replica looms in the background of nearly every photo, since it’s the tallest structure in the city, and located in the heart of the city.
This gentleman looks like he just came from the countryside, or perhaps even a soldier, but he’s actually a street sweeper. Street sweeping in the ghost city of Sky City must be one of the loneliest jobs on planet Earth. He seems unconcerned that he’s headed into a traffic lane that has a green light, but that’ll happen when there are no cars driving on the road.
Unfinished Ordos Museum
When the Chinese government is ready to move people into a district, they set up administration buildings first, but they also seem to never skimp on the culture. Take, for example, the Ordos Museum in Kangbashi, whose design comes from an American architect, and is influenced by the nearby Gobi Desert.
The six-floor, 41,000-square-foot museum was nearly completed, but then sat unfinished for almost a decade. It appears that since the population is starting to increase in Kangbashi, the museum is starting to see some traffic. But until the population really increases, looks like boarders, bicyclists, and Razor scooters rule the day.
Rome wasn’t built in a day
By the time Kangbashi took most of its shape — with large buildings completed and roads to connect them — some businesses moved in. This didn’t quite compel people to move there, so most folks commuted in from nearby Dongsheng in Inner Mongolia.
Chinese officials have managed to move more people in, after they constructed and placed in the community a number of necessary services for the residents. When schools and hospitals were put in place, the tide started to turn a bit for Kangbashi; but even today, people are just not leaving nearby Dongsheng as much as officials would like.
Again, Kangbashi was supposed to have 2 million residents, but was scaled back to 300,000 due to a fall in coal prices. As of 2016, Forbes reported that the new area of the city has a daytime population of 100,000. However, 20,000 of those folks leave every day to commute back to Dongsheng.
With the city less than a third full, scenes like this in front of the Ordos Library are common. The library itself is an architectural marvel, as it looks like stacked books on a shelf, maybe even falling like dominoes. Either way, there’s barely anybody there, but it has more people than the next building featured.
Dead of winter
Chinese officials really don’t like the term “ghost city,” and in fairness, they’ve managed to turn many ghost cities into actual cities — but that’s not always the case. Completed housing projects with no tenants inside are probably the most eerie of sights in Kangbashi, but unfinished buildings are a very common sight, too.
According to sources, these buildings were still unfinished as of 2018, despite the fact that they broke ground seven years earlier! That is a whole lot of concrete, and a whole lot of wasted resources, and when the leaves have fallen from the trees in winter, it makes the landscape look as barren as Kansas during the Dust Bowl.
Round sky and square Earth
Fortunately, this giant Chinese sculpture in the middle of Ordos City, in a place called Tianyuan Square, was actually completed. But again, this symbol of Chinese culture, this beautiful piece of engineering wonderment, is hardly appreciated, and very rarely visited.
The Chinese have an ancient philosophy relating to a round sky and square Earth, and this monument is an ode to this thinking. You can bet that there’s a square surrounding this circular piece, which must be quite a sight at night, when the moon is at its zenith, and from the middle of the sculpture you look up to find the stars and moon moving through the sky.
Culture center oddity
It seems rather odd to build a cultural center before there’s even the possibility of having a visitor. This, along with so many other incomplete construction projects, is another example of the fact that serious cash is being thrown around the Chinese commercial real estate market.
The reason it seems so odd is what a blow it would be to the culture it’s trying to celebrate. This is a cultural center, meant to honor the traditions and history of the area, and perhaps, the glory of China. Letting a building devoted to that aim become decrepit, and abandoning it altogether, is something that is hard to understand.
Wulanmulun Lake Square
Looking at this huge expanse of concrete jungle, you can imagine how this land was once nothing but a barren desert. At least the waterway that dissects Kangbashi breaks it up nicely, but all the open space is taken advantage of by some crafty local vendors.
This man is fueling up, and getting ready his collection of fun toy cars for tourists to ride at the Wulanmulun Lake Square. The toys, that look like miniature rail cars, can be rented by several tourists to take a tour of the city, or perhaps even smash into each other like bumper cars.
Chinese monuments are used to spending a lot of time alone, even underneath the ground (such as the famous Terracotta Warriors, which weren’t discovered until 2,000 years after they were crafted). These statues probably won’t be lonely for long, but for now, getting a visitor, even one, is a rarity.
The psychological impact of always seeing cranes on buildings must take its toll, but then again, perhaps folks just put their head down, and don’t think about it too much. But the folks attracted to living in these ghost towns are not family types, from lack of resources, so it’s likely single people, who become even more isolated.
This mass of a concrete structure is almost a sculpture, too, like a play on a building, instead of being an actual building. It’s a wonder what squatters’ rights there are for the Chinese people, because if this was the United States of America, perhaps the homeless problem would be solved.
It would seem that even discarded buildings would be enough to attract those without a roof over their heads, but these ghost cities, in many places, remain empty. With the government so heavily involved in people’s lives in China, there aren’t too many homeless. These cities are meant to disperse the Chinese population, and still have a long way to go.