Abandoned cities are an unfortunate consequence of life and growth on our planet. The reasons for abandoning a city are as varied as the people who once inhabited their buildings and walked their streets. Many of these cities are forgotten and simply line the pages of history. Some are examples of poor urban planning, some the result of the depletion of natural resources, while others are poignant reminders of the fragility of life in a nuclear world. Below are some striking images of abandoned cities from around the world. Many of these cities have been abandoned for decades, however, due to rapid growth and expansion, particularly in China, we are now in an era of “modern” abandoned cities.


A small, 15-acre rock that protrudes from the ocean off the coast of Nagasaki, Japan known as Hashima Island. This island was once a major coal mining center that thrived for almost a century. The island sits atop ­a coal deposit that descends deep into the ocean floor beneath. In 1890 the coal was tapped by Japan’s Mitsubishi Corporation who in turn purchased Hashima from the local families who owned it, and that is when the heyday of Hashima Island began. Rather than ferry the workers needed to mine the coal deposits, Mitsubishi built a city for its workers on the island. At its peak in 1959, Hashima Island was the most densely populated city on Earth, with 5,259 inhabitants. That’s 835 people for every 2.5 acres. By 1974, petroleum had overtaken coal as the world’s preferred energy source, and Mitsubishi revealed the mine would be closed. By April 1974, the last of the island’s residents were ferried onto the mainland, and the island was permanently closed.


The abandoned Hashima Island, Japan found contemporary fame by appearing in the latest James Bond movie Skyfall

In 1970 the Soviet government built an small city for the Chernobyl nuclear power plant workers. The city of Pripyat enjoyed conveniences many other Soviet cities could only envy: high-rise apartment buildings, schools, a cultural center, hospital, swimming pools, theaters, stores, restaurants, cafes, playgrounds, and a stadium. On the morning of April 26 1986, however, this city would be irrevocably changed. On the day following the Chernobyl power plant disaster, as helicopters buzzed overhead and thick smoke billowed from reactor four, the Soviet government issued the immediate evacuation of the city of Pripyat. The residents were told that they had two hours to gather all essential belongings and board a bus for mandatory evacuation. They were informed that their evacuation was only temporary, for perhaps three days at the most, and so the residents left most of their clothing, photographs, toys, and family pets behind. The 50,000 citizens departed Pripyat on a line of Kiev-bound buses that stretched for miles, all of them expecting to see their hometown again in just a few days. They would never return.


The eerily desolate city of Pripyat, Northern Ukraine

Kowloon Walled City was once a densely populated and largely ungoverned settlement in Kowloon, Hong Kong. Dating back to the Song Dynasty it served as a military out-post to defend the area against pirates and to manage the production of Salt before eventually coming under British rule. During Japanese occupation in World War II the population ballooned as thousands of Hong Kong residents sought refuge in the makeshift enclave. Once Japan surrendered from the city, the population dramatically increased again with numerous squatters moving in. By the early 1980s it was notorious haven for criminals and was home to brothels, casinos, cocaine parlours and opium dens. The city eventually became the focus of a diplomatic crisis with both Britain and China refusing to take responsibility. Eventually, both the British and Chinese authorities found the city to be increasingly intolerable, despite lower crime rates in later years. Ungoverned by health and safety regulations or any building codes, the quality of life and sanitary conditions in which the estimated 50,000 inhabitants lived, was cause for much concern and in 1991 the evacuation of the Walled City began. Many residents protested the evacuation and demolition. Despite the protests, the compensation and rehousing of the residents cost the government $2.7 billion Hong Kong dollars, and the last residents left in early 1992. The subsequent years saw the leveling of the entire city and by 1995 the Kowloon Walled City Park was opened on the site where this infamous city once stood.

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The scale of the Kowloon Walled City is evident from the air (main image), while a postal worker navigates the corridor-like streets to deliver mail (bottom left).

There are probably more than two dozen other abandoned cities similar to the cities mentioned above, however, as we enter 2013 we are faced with the growing issue of “modern” abandoned cities. This phenomenon is unique as these are cities that were built in anticipation of growth and expansion, but development outpaced the influx of proposed residents. Although this problem can be seen in many countries, such as Ireland, it is in China where this problem can be witnessed on a massive scale. China’s unprecedented growth is evident for all to see. It is estimated that 20 million people migrate from rural areas to cities every year. These numbers seem only to be rising and according to BREEAM (BRE Environmental Assessment Method) China will subsequently be home to the worlds first Mega-cities.


The empty streets and commercial and residential buildings of Zhengzhou, China are just one example of China’s many unoccupied cities.

The city of Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan Province was labeled China’s largest ghost city in 2010. It is, in fact, just a part of the even larger area of Ordos which was developed to accommodate 1.5 million people but remains largely desolate and unoccupied. These ghost cities, bridges to nowhere and empty highways fuel skepticism from many Western analysts of what they consider an unbalanced Chinese economy. In 2011, the percentage of the Chinese population in urban areas reached an astonishing 51.3%, compared to less than 20% in 1980. OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) projects that China’s already mushrooming urban population will expand by more than 300 million people by 2030 – an accession almost equal to the current population of the United States.


This aerial view of down town Zhengzhou eludes to the scale of the development. Even from this satellite image the streets can be seen abandoned.

These ghost cities seem to phase few in China however, their confidence in their colossal urbanisation is reinforced by the many examples of “empty” urban construction projects of the past, such as Shanghai Pudong. Built in the late 1990’s, Shanghai Pudong is the classic example of how a city lay empty for a long period but slowly became occupied. It has a population today of roughly 5.5 million. China does not wait to build its new cities. Instead, investment and construction must be aligned with the future influx of urban dwellers. Employment in urban areas skyrockets at a consistently rapid pace and the development of infrastructure and accommodation in anticipation of growth has always been part of China’s grand plan. All the rest of the world can do is simply bare witness the largest urbanisation the world has ever seen.