Ghost cities…

I’ve seen a lot of new suburbs built, during my time in China.

Before the Olympics, I watched highrise upon highrise shoot up along the Qingdao waterfront  where they had the Olympic water-sports.) In Tianjin a decade ago I wondered who would want to live in the sprawling suburb where my apartment was allocated – no corner stores, no nearby markets – nothing of the essentials for daily living in China.The Shanghai to Nanjing railway line is a choc-a-bloc metropolis of skyscrapers, when once… not so long back… maybe only only a decade ago… it was all rice-fields.

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Construction still ongoing in Qingdao.The waterfront buildings built before the Olympic are all thriving urban living areas now.

.I’ve seen empty buildings, wondering if they’d ever sell. I’ve also seen those newspaper reports and TV shows  ( like one on Australia’s Dateline) that talk about “ghost cities” – huge metropolises ( what is the plural of metropolis, anyhow?) – where no-one lives.

Shamefully, I bought the line the western media was selling until I had the privilege of hearing Wade Shepard speak a few weeks ago.IMG_2568

Wade was commissioned by Zed books Asia Imprint series to write this book. He talks about the difference between ‘ghost cities’ in the Wild West of the USA – towns which once where thriving, and now are populated, perhaps, only by ghosts. China’s new cities are not that, Wade says. The difference is, they are not dead and dying cities, but new cities, still in the first phase of birth.

Here’s some interesting points Wade Shepard raises – the following is either direct quotes or paraphrases:

“Over the next 20 years, China will build hundreds of new cities, thousands of new towns, erect over 50,000 new skyscrapers, wipe untold villages off the map, and relocate hundreds of millions of people in a development that’s incomparable in scale to anything we have ever seen. No civilization has ever built so much so quickly.”

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New building in Ordos, the town where the “ghost cities” story first broke in the New York Times.

The new city surrounding in Ordos, far from being a failed ghost town, was planned due to a thriving economy ( estimated 40% growth, second only to Shanghai) and an over-populated ( at over 1.4 million) old town.

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The fast-speed train, that connects most major Chinese cities and cuts travelling time by a third.

“These new cities and new expansions are not just being built off the grid. Rather, all of this urbanisation is expanding within a tight frame of an expansive new transportation network.’

“By 2020 40 Chinese cities will have subways systems. totally 7,000 kilometres of track – over 5 times the total in the USA”

Like all new things, some are pro, some are against. Wade interviews all kinds of people for his book, from property developers to displaced peasants. Most Chinese, he discovers, buy apartments in these new cities as investment for the future. They know that within 10 years, the place will be booming. They buy to move out to more ‘rural’ locations, they purchase property for their children to use – they are thinking in the long term.

Certainly in the last decade the town of Suzhou has expanded enormously. A decade ago it was the old, ancient town, with rice-fields outside the city moat. Now there are two new city centres on either side of the old town. The SIP – Suzhou Industrial Park – built with Singaporean companies – was a cluster of “ghost town” buildings, not so long back.  Empty highrise dotted the wide boulevards in the outskirts of the SIP, surrounded by still unfilled ponds and run-off from the ever present lakes and rivers that characterise this part of China.

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Apartment complexes in the new district of Suzhou. Greenery still exists to filter the ever present car-exhaust fumes.

Two years later, the apartment blocks are full, busy shopping centres line the streets, French supermarket giant Aushan has opened a new store, there’s medical clinics, dentists – and even a Starbucks or two.

The “ghost cities” of Western media – that were used to predict the downfall of the Chinese economy – are nothing but. They are not dead cities populated by the remembrance of former glory – they are new cities, waiting to come alive.

The environmental and visual pollution from so much highrise that  has replaced the farming land is another thing.

Wade ‘Shepard’s conclusion to his book is this:

“The question is no longer whether China can pull off it’s new city movement. It has already been achieved.”