Review: Ghost Cities of China

ghost_book —  by Jin Tian —

Ghost Cities of China: The Story of Cities without People in the World’s Most Populated Country.

This book attempts to analyze the background of the emergence of ghost cities through defining basic conceptions of China’s urban context, exploring the driving forces, and offering critical evaluations based on comparison with western society. The information accessed from the research methodology of firsthand experience and direct interviews is especially of great academic and practical value.


Shepard generally describes a ghost city in China as a new development featured with imbalance between people, business and the available space. Shepard indicates the difference and similarity between the term ‘ghost city’ in western society and in China. In the west, ‘ghost city’ refers to ‘ a place has become economically defunct, a location whose population and business base drops to ineffectual numbers’, that is to say, a city has died; In contrast, ‘ghost city’ in China means ‘ new city that has yet to come to life and most of them are still in the process of being built’. Nevertheless, they all share the most important feature: lack of people and business, which lead to the redefinition of ‘ghost city’ to describe these urban phenomenon.


ghost3Shepard argues that ghost city in China is a temporary phase between construction and vitalization for new cities (Shepard, W., 2015).  As each urbanization project has its own timeline, nearly all large-scale new cities are during the mid-stage of their developing period. Although China is able to construct large-scale infrastructure with astonishing efficiency, it would definitely take long-term plans to generate a vibrant cityscape. It is forecast that over 300 million of China’s rural population will become urban in the next two decades and new cities are planned to absorb this huge migration. Infrastructure including massive housing are the necessary preparation for the coming migration. Stephen Roach, the former chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia, suggests that the typical ‘ghost city’ critique misses the fact that ‘China cannot afford to wait to build its new cities. Instead, investment and construction must be aligned with the future influx of urban dwellers (Roach, S., 2012)’.


In order to enable new urban development  to make it through the in initial ghost city phase, Shepard recommends that enough time, funds, continuous governmental involvement be engaged.  A successful example of this is Pudong that was once called a ghost town yet is now a world-renowned CBD. Even though Shepard clearly indicates that it is time for China to fill in the blanks in some of these urban developments – like the need to introduce refined urban design rather than just speedy construction – he doesn’t specifically suggest what to do. BUt that is not really his purpose.


In a city with an emerging and immature commercial base, there is a chicken and egg situation: people tend not to migrate into a commercially undeveloped city and it is difficult for local economy to grow without those local consumers. Fanny Hoffmann-Loss, one of Ordos Kangbashi’s designers, demonstrate one conventional method used by the Chinese government to break the inertia: turning university students, employees of the government or state-owned  enterprises into troops of urbanization simply by moving their campuses or offices into the new cities. In other words, forcing people to migrate. Forcing, means leaving people no options but to behave as the government wishes, which indicates something of a totalitarian political environment that ignores social mores, decency and humanity . This political tradition has historic origins that have had a far-reaching impact beyond just China’s urban design. Personal interests have to surrender to collective interests when necessary. According to Shepard’s interview with two university students in Nanhui, they expressed their unmet demand for entertainment and leisure in their campus life because they are too far away from metropolitan centre . Nevertheless, when put into practice, this kind of totalitarian endeavor seems to work. Thanks to the migration of state-owned banks, Pudong, for example, becomes one of the most powerful and vibrant CBDs in the world.


New city

The notion of the ‘city’, as an administrative term alone, has a historic link with the centralization that once ruled China  for thousands of years, supported by the well-established local administrative systems. Until now, ‘city’ preserves the original meaning as a municipal government over a given land. Thus, certain empty, undeveloped space within ‘cities’ could be referred to as ‘urban’ in China although they are definitely not urban in the western conception. Harry den Hartog, the author of Shanghai New Towns, claims that a new city might be called as a new neighborhood in Europe showing Western sities more physical, geograhical and demographic definition rather than administrative. The European definition of a ‘city’ focuses more on the physical space and consequently recognize the relation of people and space and the community created by this kind of urban space. Hence, this adds more humanity to the ‘city’ and becomes an evident distinction with China’s centralized ‘city’ .


ghost2According to Shepard, new cities comprise a commercial core, residential quarters, hospitals, schools and green spaces, which are designed with a macro-plan. They are similar to other existing cities. Several points of new cities could be summarized form Shepard’s findings and in following paragraphs these points will be discussed in details.


New cities tend to be built with monumentality in mind. Shepard comments that it is an overt tendency to overdo it. Ordos Kangbashi, for example, may be a classic example that shows urban epic scale to the masses that intends to render people in awe to the power of the city’s creators. Moreover, according to aerial or satellite images, the streets and plazas become a planned picture in its own terms as if the city was designed to be seen by the birds: so that an expressive helicopter fly-overs could be provided to impress visiting governmental officials and developers. This gargantuan urban scale design strategy implies the lack of consideration for human sense and overemphasis on authority, which is corresponds with the current social situation. The oversizing of roads and streets influences residents’ trip modes  – encourging car journeys over log distances and discourages vibrant street activities. Nonetheless, for people who enjoy driving from one place to another, this might not be a problem.


New cities are also a sign of class disparity. Shepard chooses Zhengdong as an example for a new city as the foundation for parallel migrations. He predicts that the wealthy class will choose to move from noisy, polluted and crowded old cores into quiet, less -polluted new districts with low population. Meanwhile, the rural migrants and the low-income incomers are only able to occupy the old city. As a consequence, a phenomenon is developing whereby different classes live in quite different urban environments within the same city. This can only magnify the class disparity throughout these new developments. Shepard’s speculative futures may happen in certain cases, but not all. For instance, the Shanghai Garden City Project failed to attract middle and upper class residents to migrate from central city for all kinds of reasons.


New cities offer new options for living and new types of neighborhood. Shepard’s one important interviewee in Kangbashi, Ye Qiu indicates certain representative new life orientation. For citizens like Ye Qiu who gets tired of crowds and pollution, new cities like Kangbashi may be their destination.  Ye Qiu claims Kangbashi is very small and people know each other while people do not feel enclosed even if they are squeezed in the same subway. Thanks to the low population, in spite of the epic scale of roads, streets and super-blocks, a sense of community has been generated amongst the residents. Ye Qiu’s comment could address a interesting question: what is the driving force of the formation of a community or neighborhood? Possible answers like population rate, scale of urban space are open to debate.



Shepard introduces the macro-plan of China’s urbanization as a hub-and-spoke network. Organized by the network, megacities are embraced by smaller cities, which themselves become the cores of networks of even smaller towns.  Subsequently, the singular independent functions of large cities has been transformed  into interconnected ones. When some megacities are connected, a larger megaregion occurs.


The Shanghai government proposes a ‘1-9-6-6’ plan: ‘one large central urban core surrounding by nine  decentralized medium-sized new cities, sixty towns and 600 villages.’ in order to revitalize the suburbs with lower population density and an extended metropolan reach. In fact,  the scheme uses an American-style of suburbanization as its reference point with the intention of luring the upper and middle classes who are weary of crowds, traffic jams and pollution with the promise of cleaner air, green and open space and lower population. However, this project hasn’t been ideally realised for a number of reasons deduced from the authors’ analysis.


ghost_thamesThe first reason is lack of research on occupants’ real needs and their loss of cultural identity. The Culture Town Project demonstrates a seemingly ridiculous urban phenomenon: although the colonial era has passed,  Shanghai is now building copycat towns and architecture from erstwhile colonial countries at the very time that Shanghai ought to be developing its own identity. The result turns out to be unpopular for target occupants: one Fudan University doctoral student said they educated people would not end up in such a cultural backwater (Visser, R., 2010); German employees chose to live in a modern city rather than a fake Germanic hometown; upper class people still prefer to live in the urban core and take trips to their houses on vacation to their part-time homes in Culture Town – seeing their urban environment as a trophy with high value but with a degraded function. Shepard generally mentions that wealthy Chinese are not willing to give up their top location in the city centre to exchange a quiet suburb life. The cultural reason behind this may be that during the accelerating mid-stage urbanization period, Chinese urban residents’ perception of city life remains at a primary level, for example, ‘urban life’ means ‘functional life’, in other words, in the Chinese context, people’s perceptions have not caught up with the concept of suburbanization. This CultureTown project failure exposes the ignorance of humanity in urban design theory.  According to Garden Cities of Tomorrow (Ebenezer, H., 1902), Garden Cities are not areas where rights will  be contracted, but areas of enlarged choices. Similarly, the Shanghai Garden City Project attempts to provide opportunities for people to make decision, rather than make a choice on their behalf without asking what they really want. Fanny Hoffman-Loss argues that ‘building cityscapes in surreal locations or throwing up architectural styles from the West, the East, the past and the future will eventually create an architectural mish-mash. Everybody is looking for something; it can’t be all money. You need to find something to be proud of in your culture (Shepard, W., 2015).’


Once super-block are stopped from destroying the traditional cityscape, cultural identity in terms of architectural and urban spaces can exist. Corresponding to what Shepard describes, in good city design, people hang out with their front door opens, play mah-jong on the streets, stroll or cycle to shops, play together with children in alleys. Compared with existing super-blocks showing no response to urban fabric and no respect to  human sensitivity, it is these traditional street-level settlement, vibrant neighborhood and urban life that could be regarded as the meaningful cultural identity and a source of pride.


Another reason for many of these project failures is the improper scale applied when replicating English Garden Cities. Harry den Hartog indicates that a green buffer zone plays an important role in separating the central city and garden cities. Despite the same distances, the original Garden City would finally be connected with new infil towns and settlement activities. That is to say, they will grow together rather than remain physically independent, which would run counter to Shanghai’s original intention: to delay urban sprawl.



Based on the research methodology of case studies, first-hand experience and direct interviews, the author tries to analyze the social context behind the rapid urban development phenomenon in China.  He draws political and economical conclusions, yet his exploration of the cultural aspects of urbanization seems to be only cursory.

This book review has summarized, explained and reviewed Wade Shepard’s main arguments with a certain personal interpretation of his arguments.  Through this discussion process, some original perspectives and comments on current urban design strategies in China have also been put forward with a focus on cultural, historic and human aspects for good urban design in Chinese next phase of development.



Ebenezer, H. (1902) Garden Cities of Tomorrow, London: Faber and Faber.

Roach, S. (2012) ‘China Is Okay’, Project Syndicate.

Shepard, W. (2015) Ghost Cities of China: The Story of Cities without People in the World’s Most Populated Country, Zed Books Ltd. London

Visser, R. (2010) Cities Surround the Country, Duke University Press, Durham NC.