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April 19, 2015

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Haunting image of development

IN 2006-07, while studying Chinese at Zhejiang University, American Wade Shepard made a trip to Tiantai Mountain — a hermitage said to be the birthplace of the Buddhist Tiantai Sect and the Taoist Nanzong masters.

But a wrong turning at Tiantai bus station meant that instead of finding ancient temples and quiet woods he stumbled into a “ghost city” — an ideal retreat for modern-day hermits. Surrounded by row upon row of identical grey-tile 5-story buildings, Shepard got lost. And the silence and realization that he was the only person there appalled him.

“It took me over an hour of walking through this barren maze of buildings before I realized that the inhabited part of the city lay a couple of kilometers down the road, and I was in the new part of town that was built but not inhabited,” Shepard writes in “Ghost Cities of China: The Story of Cities Without People In The World’s Most Populated Country.”

Shepard grew up in the Great Lakes region of the USA, between Buffalo and Rochester in New York state, an area with its own ghost cities due to the decline of traditional industries.

Everything is born and everything dies — even cities, the writer says.

In his early 20s, he would spend his weekends going out to the abandoned factory towns, Shepard tells Shanghai Daily. He would walk through deserted neighborhoods of Lackawanna, south of Buffalo, and break into decommissioned mills that line Buffalo’s waterfront.

“The intrigue was the stimulation of dreaming about how once great and prosperous places had descended into ruin,” Shepard explains.

But in China, the ghost city scenario he encountered was quite different.

“In this new part of Tiantai, my fascination was framed in another grammatical tense: what is going to happen and what will be?”

In the years that followed, Shepard pounded the streets — or sometimes just dirt paths — of half-built new cities around China, talking to builders, interviewing designers, interrogating investors and meeting residents; visiting each ghost city five or six times.

The result is “Ghost Cities of China,” which examines the country’s new city movement in recent years. It considers how sites are selected for development; how policies have been created to bring cities to the countryside; how flaws in China’s fiscal system make excessive overdevelopment an inevitability; and why — as the book’s subtitle posits — in the world’s most populated country, there are entire cities without people.

Shepard concludes that “China’s ghost cities are ... waiting to be plugged in and awakened. Each new urban center in China has the potential to boom.”

But he adds that “excessive drive for local governments to generate revenue from land sales and new infrastructure projects has led to the construction of urban areas that extend beyond the bounds of immediate demand.”

Here Shepard talks about his book.

Why did you decide to write about ghost cities?

In 2009, through a report by Al Jazeera’s Melissa Chan, the world was introduced to China’s ghost cities. Many see this as clear evidence that China has been rigging the books on its remarkable GDP growth. But having been tracking down new cities across China, I found this too simple. These new cities are not just being built at random to boost GDP.

What factors should the government consider when making redevelopment or relocation decisions?

To keep the cultural heritage of the original place when they tear down the old; and to keep traditional communities together when relocated. I know cities in China want to brand themselves as “new and modern,” but the trend now is to look “old”. Where tradition was once bad and cheap, it’s now chic and expensive.

You address “Western-themed towns.” What are the challenges for a city built on a false identity?

It will lead to a rootless subculture of wealth. In general, these properties sell quickly, but usually to buyers who treat them as investments to resell or novelties to show off to friends, rather than as actual homes. They are built just to fall into ruin, because there is no culture. It’s just a fake.

What are your hopes for China’s ghost cities? And what are your suggestions for sustainable land development in the future?

I hope they last, especially the large ones. Cities make money. But it all comes at a cost. The toll of rapid urbanization is being paid for by the country’s environment. The only sustainable way of land development is to stop building cities, or put a limit; the sooner the better.


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