Apparently, the future is all about cities, and 90pc of the world’s population in 20 years or so will live in mega-cities. But what can we learn from places that were once thriving, bustling cities, but now are home to only ghosts and footprints of life?
While there is a lot of talk about smart cities, the past offers clues to what can go right and wrong with urban concentration.
After the fall of ancient Rome, the city was abandoned and was home to a few shepherd villages before slowly, over hundreds of years, returning to growth and becoming the bustling, cosmopolitan city it is today.
But in more recent times – through man-made or natural disasters, or economic misfortune – entire once-thriving cities are now ghost towns. What can we learn from this?
Players of the classic game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare will recognise this scene as the abandoned city of Pripyat in Ukraine. But Pripyat is not fiction. Built in 1970 and located near the border of Belarus, the former Soviet nuclear city was abandoned in 1986 when the Chernobyl disaster struck.
At its height, it had a population of 49,360 people, but, apparently, 150 people have returned despite the radiation. The city, which won’t be habitable for hundreds of years, is pretty much a ghost town, but it is possible to visit as part of guided tours.
Motor City, Detroit
In the 1950s, Detroit had over 2m residents and was America’s third largest city thanks to the thriving automotive industry.
Thanks to Henry Ford’s manufacturing revolution, the city was the world’s pre-eminent producer of cars and trucks. But now, since manufacturing no longer really exists in the US, the city is home to swathes of abandoned districts that hint at its former industrial glory.
Hashima Island, Japan
Hashima Island in its heyday was an entire city of 6,000 people. Because they were crammed into a tiny, 15-acre space it was the most densely populated place on earth, with around 835 people for every 2.5 acres.
The island was purchased by Japan’s Mitsubishi Corporation in 1890 and, for the best part of a century, it was the centre of Japan’s coal mining industry. Located 18 miles from Nagasaki, it made more sense for Mitsubishi to build a city on the island rather than ferry workers to and fro. After World War II, the island enjoyed a golden age that ended in the 1970s when petroleum overtook coal as the energy of choice for the world. In 1974, the island permanently closed and all that remains is one of the most silent, ghostly cities on Earth.
Another abandoned coal boomtown is Centralia, which was established in 1866 and was a thriving place with churches, hotels and bars. However, workers burning trash in an open pit set fire to veins of anthracite coal and, for 20 years, a fire raged underground, destroying deposits.
Residents risked life and limb as massive sinkholes opened up beneath their feet. In 1982, the US federal government spent $42m to relocate the town’s population.
While not abandoned, Beichuan is about to be. Once home to 160,000 people, Beichuan, a city in China’s Sichuan province, was the epicentre of a major earthquake in 2008 that claimed over 50,000 lives.
The city, which nestles in one of the world’s most beautiful valleys is about to become a ghost town. Over 80pc of the city, where most of its population lived, was destroyed in the earthquake.
Humberstone and Santa Laura, Chile
Founded in 1862, Humberstone and nearby Santa Laura became wealthy thanks to the production of nitrate, an essential ingredient in fertilizer, and were at their most prosperous in the 1930s and 1940s.
However, in the 1930s, a cheap synthetic substitute for nitrate was invented and a steady and slow decline ensued, with the last factory shutting in 1961. Thanks to the desert sands, the towns are preserved just as they were when the last workers left.
Kolmanskop is a ghost town in the Namib desert, which bustled into life when a diamond was discovered there in 1908. German miners began settling there, and residents built a hospital, ballroom, power station, schools, theatres and the first x-ray station in the southern hemisphere.
The town declined after World War I and was finally abandoned in 1954. Today, the town is preserved by the desert sands and is a popular place to visit for tourists and filmmakers.
Main image of Pripyat fairground by Clay Gilliland via Flickr