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On a bridge in Zhengdong New District, Zhengzhou.

On a bridge in Zhengdong New District, Zhengzhou.

Photographer: Yufan Lu for Bloomberg Businessweek

The Big Take

China’s Ghost Cities Are Finally Stirring to Life After Years of Empty Streets

Vast new urban districts that stood vacant are gaining residents and businesses.

Conjured out of nothing and lived in by seemingly no one, China’s so-called ghost cities became the subject of Western media fascination a decade ago. Photos of these huge urban developments went viral online, presenting scenes of compelling weirdness: empty apartment towers stranded in a sea of mud; broad boulevards devoid of cars or people; over-the-top architectural showpieces with no apparent function.

“In places called ghost cities you find massive, ambitious urbanizing projects that spark investment but don’t draw population all at once,” says Max Woodworth, an associate professor of geography at Ohio State University who’s written extensively on the topic. “The result is a landscape that appears very citylike but without much action in it.” China was underurbanized for many years, Woodworth says, and has raced to correct that. But the pace of building often outstrips the rate at which newcomers move in, even with investors snapping up apartments as Chinese home prices rise.