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The New City Building Phenomenon Is Finally Getting Interesting

Seven years of new cities …

I was interviewed by a reporter North Star and filmmaker named John yesterday about new cities. I was overwhelmingly pleased by this because he was primarily interested in the new city building movement that has swept over the emerging markets of the world and not about ghost cities — which is what most people prefer to call many of these projects.

We are in the midst of an all out new city building bonanza, as hundreds of completely new metropolises — hundreds of completely new dots on the map — are being constructed right now.

The winds on this topic appear to be shifting. A couple of months ago I was interviewed in Montreal for a CBC documentary about new cities, and it seem as if people are now a little more open to talking about this phenomenon that I find absolutely fascinating.

It may seem like a strange thing to talk about something as conspicuous as a new city flying under the radar. They’re big, their expensive, they’re destructive, they can shift an entire country’s bottom line — they are entirely new cities. Now let’s multiply this reaction a hundred-fold and you’ll have some kind of idea of what I’m hitting at.

We are in the midst of an all out new city building bonanza, as hundreds of completely new metropolises — hundreds of completely new dots on the map — are being constructed right now. Trillions of dollars are being invested by dozens of countries into these purpose-built places which are intended to be future economic lifelines and visions of what they aim, as a nation, to become (i.e. modern, international, high-tech, cosmopolitan, rich …).

I began visiting new cities when I was a university student in China in 2006. It started by accident: I was working on another project in the mountains of Tiantai and I stumbled into a town that was completely new … and completely deserted. As a young traveler such an odd place — something that I’ve never seen before, something that nobody could tell me anything about — was exactly what I was hungry for. So I began looking for new cities, and as I traveled around China I would find them ostensibly everywhere.

These new city travels were more of a recreational pursuit at that time — something which injected a bit of the “wow” element into my journey — but by 2012 I was working as a journalist in China and these new cities again lured me in. Only this time I would find out what they were all about. So I began the project that eventually produced Ghost Cities of China and probably close to a hundred articles in a variety of publications.

These new cities, taken altogether, are going to changed the layout of the world we live in — presenting either a reordered future where the backwaters of yesterday are the epicenters of tomorrow or the biggest economic bubble ever inflated.

Over the past three years I’ve stayed on the new city trail, traveling to them from China to Europe for a new book about the revival of the Silk Road.

However, the topic of the new city as a global phenomenon hasn’t really resonated.

Well, if I call them ghost cities everybody listens …

But new cities — especially ones that have been developed successfully or have the potential to do so — just doesn’t seem to generate as much attention as they’re probably due. These stories of societies intentionally rebuilding themselves brick by brick seem to come off as obtuse or lacking context to most readers in the West — it’s something that most have just never heard of before, so while it’s all happening it hasn’t yet been cast in the forefronts of our imaginations.

These new cities, taken altogether, are going to changed the layout of the world we live in — presenting either a reordered future where the backwaters of yesterday are the epicenters of tomorrow or the biggest economic bubble ever inflated. Is there really enough economic sustenance to go around to support hundreds of new cities that are being built at the same time in the exact same ways (often) by the exact same people? Are new cities the answer for the woes of every emerging market or oil-dependent sultanate?

These new cities are either the building blocks of tomorrow or the sinking anchor of debt that will pull everything else down with it.

I recently did a series about new cities on Forbes and it seems to have caught at least a few imaginations. Over the past few months I’ve been getting interviewed on the topic more often, referring to these places by their rightful title of “new city” rather than the generally inaccurate “ghost city.” (Well, except for this one.) It’s getting to the point where I no longer need to talk about vacant dystopias all the time … the story of a new map of the world is becoming good enough as it is.

Filed under: China’s Ghost Cities, Cities and Urban Development, New Cities

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 88 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3387 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Wade Shepard is currently in: Montreal, Canada

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