Rise of the Chinese Ghost Town

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In Chenggong, there are more than a hundred-thousand new apartments with no occupants, lush tree-lined streets with no cars, enormous office buildings with no workers, and billboards advertising cold medicine and real estate services – with no one to see them.

As my colleagues and I wandered, on–foot, down the center of Chenggong’s empty 8-lane boulevards and dedicated bus lanes, never seeing a single person, we marveled about the fiscal and political conditions that would have to exist to create something like this.  

In February this year, Geoff Dyer wrote an article for the Financial Times, “China: No One Home”, in which he chronicled the eerie emptiness of this new town development near the city of Kunming, in southwestern China. He wrote:

“Construction started in 2003 and the results are now apparent in 13 immaculate local government buildings, each clad in marble tiles. A high school boasts an impressive indoor swimming pool and several of the region’s main universities have built large campuses. Pristine high-rise apartment blocks stand in rows, their new windows glinting in the subtropical sun.

The one drawback: at the moment, Chenggong is almost completely empty. Its wide streets are all but bereft of traffic, a bank branch has no customers and leaves collect in the foyers of the municipal offices.”

In June, I accompanied a World Bank mission to Kunming, where the Bank is supporting the development of a new light rail system. Upon learning that two stations had already been built in Chenggong, my colleagues and I just had to go see for ourselves -- just what does a modern Chinese ghost town really look like? Well, here it is.


Dedicated bus lanes without routes assigned to them – stations without purpose


Lush park with no vistors, taxi stand with no taxis


One of many impressive, yet unoccupied, government buildings

Chenggong springs from a typical development pattern seen throughout the country – cities that are rapidly growing in population and becoming increasingly congested develop satellite towns far from the urban core, relocating university, government, or other uses to kick-start the new town’s development. It is hoped that these new towns will, in addition to alleviate urban congestion, spark further in-fill development in the expanse of farmland that sets the new town apart from the city center – a kind of pre-planned suburban sprawl. Funding for these new towns comes from the difference paid to compensate farmers to relocate (a calculation based on potential agricultural yields) and the substantially higher revenue generated from leasing the same land to developers.

So, while the development pattern is typical, the unusual feature about Chenggong is the stalled occupation. It seems, according to one local, Kunming government officials, surprisingly, do not actually want to relocate to this empty suburban town, and there are rumors that the multiple blocks that comprise the new government center will be scrapped and sold to private entities. But these are just rumors. In reality and in all likelihood, after the light rail lines are completed, it will not be long before Chenggong bursts into life, giving this ghost town its chance to live.  

Chenggong’s interesting planning history and future aside, since this is a transport blog, let’s take a look at what has been built here and imagine, if the town were ever populated, what it would be like to get around. First, let’s take a look at these satellite images (taken more than a year ago) of the Chenggong government center (above) and a housing complex to the west of the center (below).



The landscape is characterized by long, 450-meter blocks, gated communities with limited access points, expansive intersections that may be challenging to cross on foot, and a segregation of uses that may require residents to travel great distances to work, buy rice, and to go out for romantic dinners – and compete with other residents for road-space, since the mega-block urban design requires everyone to funnel into the exact same roads. My gut tells me this is a worrisome pattern -- though, I haven't seen traffic forecasts or density plans, so I cannot say for certain what will come to be.
What you cannot see in these images are the new light rail stations (not supported by the Bank) that seem to be placed at a distance from development, in the center of an eight-lane boulevard that can only be safely crossed by bridge.  I undestand the stations will not accomodate substantial scooter or bicycle parking, which means they would only be accessible by bus --  I hope this is not the case, where every light rail trip will require at least one transfer…we will see what happens.
The idea of Chenggong is in many ways a planner's dream -- here is a place where the local government had full development rights over a tremendous expanse of land and a seemingly limitless budget. They had the resources to build multiple light rail station connections and the power to move tens of thousands of government workers to this far-flung satellite. And the result....the result could be best characterized as a beautiful monument -- lush, imposing, impressive. Can this be a good foundation upon which to build a vibrant urban fabric? To give this ghost town a chance to live? Only time will tell. 

 (photographs: Holly Krambeck; satellite images: Google Earth)


Holly Krambeck

Senior Transport Economist

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