Over the past twenty years China has constructed hundreds of new cities and districts, revamped thousands of towns, and thrown up an almost uncountable number of new neighborhoods. Many of the larger-scale of these new developments tend to stand virtually empty for a significant amount of time after their downtown cores are built — the infamous ghost city phase — as a population and commercial base is gradually grown as a new area comes to life.
The first and probably most profound challenge for populating China’s so-called ghost cities could be called the Catch-22 of new city building: few people are going to move into a city without adequate transportation links, stores, schools, healthcare, and places to work, and these entities are slow to move into a place without people. So how does China get people to move into its new outposts of progress? The same way the country does almost everything else: by fiat.
The way China builds an initial population in its new cities is simple: it makes people move into them. So when a municipality decides to flip on the switch of one of its large new cities or districts — like Shanghai’s Pudong, Zhengzhou’s Zhengdong, or Guangzhou’s Zhujiang — the wheels start moving: government headquarters, the offices of banks and state-owned enterprises, and university campuses are shipped in, subsidies and tax breaks are given to private companies to relocate, and everyone who is associated with these entities are compelled to follow along.
Universities, especially, are a major tool to break the inertia of stagnant new urban developments in China. Often built into the master plans of many of the country’s large new areas are massive university towns, where more than a dozen new campuses can be built side by side that will bring in, literally, hundreds of thousands of students and staff. The idea is that seeding a developing area with a fledgling population base can initiate the beginnings of a local business ecosystem, which will then make the place more attractive to prospective home buyers and residents, which will then attract even more businesses.
China’s students are essentially turned into troops of urbanization as they are sent off to the front lines of their country’s urban frontiers. The effect is that for a good span of the ghost city phase China’s under-inhabited new cityscapes are transformed into epicenters of youth.
Nanhui New City, which sits on the coast of Pudong right outside the Yangshan Free Trade Zone, 60 kilometers from the core of Shanghai, is slated to become a “mini-Hong Kong.” But before it can become such an epicenter of commerce it first has to have some people. Although plots of construction land here often sell for record prices and nearly all the residential properties are quickly bought up as though tossed into a feeding frenzy, for many years actual residents were hesitant to move in. Helping to rectify this situation were eight new university campuses lined up in a row along the western edge of the city, creating a educational compound of more than 100,000 students. The effects of this migration were clear during the early phases of vitalization (prior to 2014) here: when you walked down the streets there was pretty much nobody but students. Rows of them were riding bicycles around the central lake, young couples were stiffly walking side by side through parks, gangs of boys in color-coordinated track suits were jocularly pushing each other around. Without these young people Nanhui New City would have been dead.
Many other cities across China have stimulated their new districts in a similar way.
Longzihu College Park sits in the heart of Zhengdong New District in Zhengzhou, the capital of Hunan province, which was at one time known as China’s largest ghost city. Construction on the university town began in 2003, when most of the broader 150 square kilometer new district was little more than barren development land. It is now a sprawling 11.21 square kilometer educational zone that’s home to 15 university campuses and 240,000 students and staff.
In the 1990s Dachang township was hardly anything more than a village sitting two hours by bus from the center of Shanghai. When the area began to redevelop the first thing the city did was build a new flagship campus for Shanghai University. For some years it sat as a sterile new development — an ivy outpost sprouting up from farm country — but eventually the streets around the university began filling up with restaurants, bars, karaoke parlors, department stores, and international fast-food and cafe chains. Shanghai metro line 7 was extended out to it, significantly reducing the commute from the city center, and people began moving into the new middle class housing complexes which were by then encircling the university.
In Shanghai’s Songjiang district there is a 533-hectare university city which holds the title of China’s largest tertiary education hub. It houses new campuses for at least eight large universities, which have brought thousands of new consumers into a rapidly urbanizing area.
While Suzhou has its Dushu Lake Higher Education Town, a 25 square kilometer, university-speckled expanse with over 100,000 students that’s located in the ever emerging Suzhou Industrial Park.
Chenggong New District in Kunming, Longgang in Shenzhen, and many other cities across China have built large university towns which help vitalize their developing urban areas.
Generally speaking, the decision to construct these university towns isn’t something where a struggling new city or district is like, “Hey, we really need to attract some more people and business, let’s build a university town.” Rather, university towns and new cities tend to have a symbiotic relationship in China, and these educational zones are hardwired into the broader master plans of developing new areas. China’s university system is expanding incredibly fast, absorbing millions of new students, and there is a very real need for new campuses to accommodate these surging masses. At the same time, new university campuses need large amounts of space, which is usually not readily available in the crowded cores of established cities. So new campuses are often shipped out to new developments in the outskirts, where there is plenty of space for them to be built.
As I walked through the downtown part of Nanhui New City, I started up a conversation with a student who had moved there all the way from Gansu province in the far west of China. Her name was Ju Jing, and I could only imagine the shock she must have felt after traveling across the country to go to a university that was technically in Shanghai, the world’s most populated city, only to end up exiled in a partially-built new city that hardly had any people.
“Do you think there will be more people here in the future?” I asked her.
“Yes.” She replied, as though the matter wasn’t debatable.
“How do you know?”
“Because the government will make people come here.”
“With universities and companies.”
Something she knew first hand.
This article was originally published on Forbes.com and in Forbes Asia.