Why Brand New Cities Across The World Are Still Empty

Songdo City from Dongho Kim via Flickr.

Some of the most gorgeous and vibrant places on Earth are century-old cities, which have been modernized little by little to reflect layers of history.

On the other hand, there are brand new cities, subject to a very different type of wonder. Though sparkling with promise, they can be quick to build but slow to populate; devoid of culture and more importantly, people.

Cities solving problems

With urban populations expected to nearly double by 2050, urban planners are expanding existing cities sideways and upwards, and attempting to mitigate environmental detriment all the while. Elsewhere, cities are being built from scratch to achieve the same results: smart, eco-friendly urban space. 

From-scratch, 21st century cities are often designed with utopia in mind, utilizing green energy and technology for cleaner, low-impact living.

The UAE's smart city Masdar, from arwcheek via Flickr
The UAE’s smart city Masdar, from arwcheek via Flickr

This is fantastic in theory, but in practice a bit more complicated. There are many variables that determine a city’s success, beyond design, and it’s these that don’t always materialize as envisioned.

Overnight cities

[contextly_auto_sidebar id=”gWp9jq73Fy1EGCY7aMUDVtPc0hfUqtzU”]There’s no better example of brand new cities than China’s new “overnight” metropolises, which have been popping up like daisies in recent decades to accommodate an influx of city-bound migrants.

China’s building boom has produced 600 new cities since 1949, most of which were built since the 80s (building kicked into even higher gear in the 2000s). The result is what many refer to as “ghost cities,” as hundreds of newly-built regions remain vacant and underpopulated.

As it turns out, convincing people to move to new cities is not as easy as building them; populations need time to grow and flourish. With cities still anticipating population and economic growth as fuel, their quiet roads and spotless steel resemble something out of a dystopian fantasy.

Not just China

There are plenty of other countries building brand new cities for various reasons, and to different levels of success. For example:

  • Egypt has announced it is building a new capital to reduce congestion in Cairo. The country’s “New Cairo,” built for similar reasons, remains largely unpopulated.
  • India’s Lavasa is an in-process, high-tech city built with corporate interests. Besides being underpopulated, construction has been stalled over controversies. (Prime Minister Modi wants 100 smart cities installed across the country)
  • Qatar, already home to largely unoccupied artificial island and smart city the Pearl-Qatar, plans to build another from-scratch city called Lusail for the World Cup by 2020
  • Portugal’s PlanIT Valley, an in-process sustainable smart city embedded fully with sensors, has had construction halted due to economic troubles
  • United Arab Emirates’ Masdar, a carbon-neutral, entrepreneur-fueled city, was virtually empty as of 2014  
  • Kenya’s Konza Techno City, a “silicon savannah” planned to be completed by 2019, hopes to be a job oasis and technology hub despite local concerns
  • South Korea’s Songdo is perhaps the most successful example of a smart city yet. With its population of 70,000 expected to triple by 2018, the city is still a quiet, blank slate expected to incrementally evolve into “the city of the future

Waiting for culture

These idealistic brand new cities of the future share common challenges that only time may overcome, if they can be overcome at all.

One of these factors is cost, as new cities are expensive investments not all countries can afford. Even when complete, they often drive up the cost of living, and are therefore less attractive to potential residents. Not to mention, they are completely unaffordable to those nearing poverty who suffer most from the problems these cities aim to solve.

PlanIt Valley, Portugal, from Amber Case via Flickr
PlanIt Valley, Portugal, from Amber Case via Flickr

The artificial look and feel of brand new cities, and the way they are planned, can make them not only undesirable, but less adaptable than cities with more history. According to the BBC:

“The truly great cities that have thrived over centuries and even millennia – Rome, London, Shanghai among them – have done so because they have developed largely organically and with all strands of their complex lives woven together, if not ideally then intimately and humanely.”

It’s due to the inorganic, stylized origins that brand new cities suffer initially from a lack of community and soul, so to speak. “First you have to create an economy, then a community,” Lavasa’s architect said of this in an interview. “Soul is something that the city develops over time.”

In other words, these cities may start out as shells, but when people come — as population rates indicate is inevitable, should they be able to afford it — we can only hope they’ll breathe life into the architecture, and create a real vibrancy not captured by design.


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Jennifer Markert