Leaving It All Behind When Modern Cities Become Ghost Towns

Urban researchers in Berlin are exploring an eerie phenomenon -- the modern ghost town. From a deserted Cypriot holiday resort to a brand new Chinese city devoid of inhabitants, they are asking why people abandon their communities and exploring the stories that make these empty places so compelling.
Von Kate Katharina Ferguson

The Japanese island of Hashima was once among the most densely populated areas in the world. But with the decline of the coal industry, the island was deserted in the 1970s. Now history enthusiasts like to explore it in hopes of discovering remnants of the mining town it once was. The desolate ruins of the settlement also inspire filmmakers to replicate the haunting setting in their movies.

Hashima is just one example of a number of modern "ghost towns" around the world that has drawn the attention of urban researchers, who opened an exhibition on the topic on Thursday in the German capital of Berlin.

Neft Dashlari is another. An artificial settlement off the coast of Azerbaijan, it was constructed by the Soviets after World War II, when the state was facing a major oil shortage. Having found a large oil deposit 42 kilometers off the Azeri coast, officials decided to build a town to accommodate the rig workers, erecting motorways and housing on top of huge steel posts. But now, as reserves near depletion, the settlement is beginning to resemble a deserted scene from a science fiction film.

Laundry Still on the Line

Ghost towns are not only the result of deindustrialization, though. Human error and conflict can also rob a community of life. Former Cypriot beach resort Varosha lies abandoned as a result of the Turkish invasion in 1974, which led its entire population to flee the area. Tables in deserted homes remain set for a meal and laundry still hangs on lines near the long stretches of abandoned beach.

Accidents and natural disasters also cause people to desert their homes. An underground mine fire still burning after it began in Centralia, Pennsylvania in the early 1960s has forced all but a handful of residents out. Just seven resolute inhabitants remain living there today without infrastructure and electricity.

Ghost cities are certainly not a new phenomenon, though. In just one of many such occurences, a change of climate around 1400 is believed to have led to the abandonment of the prosperous ancient city of Angkor in Cambodia, which boasted an advanced water system and sophisticated international relations.

But perhaps even more striking are the existence of newly constructed cities that sit nearly empty, like Ordos in China, which has been described as the "best kept ghost town in the world." A modern city designed for 300,000, with street lamps run by wind turbines and freshly-laid asphalt, it now houses no more than 5,600 people, predominantly gardeners and builders who came for well-paid seasonal work.

Emotional Connection

Brigitte Schultz, urban researcher and editor of German architecture magazine Bauwelt, attributes the fascination with ghost towns to an emotional, rather than an intellectual connection to the phenomenon.

"I think people can connect to these stories," she told SPIEGEL ONLINE at the opening of the exhibition  featuring photographs of ghost towns around the world at the Architecture Museum at Berlin's Technical University on Thursday. "The tales aren't supposed to be didactic," said Schultz, who also curated the show. "Often they remind us of our humanity. Take the case of Centralia, for example. Here are seven people who say, 'No, this is our home. We will not go,' even if that means living without roads and electricity."

Museum head Dr. Hans-Dieter Nägelke asserted architecture represents the "essence of a person." Taking a look around the museum's exterior, where tufts of grass were sprouting wildly from in between slabs of concrete, he quipped that Berlin reminded him of some places featured in the exhibition.

"These ghost towns make us wonder how long we will all be here," he said. "A thriving city can turn into a ghost town much faster than we imagine."

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