“Do you remember the good old days before the ghost town?” asked The Specials in their classic 1981 hit. Released as riots swept the country, the song was describing the hollowing out of Britain’s cities, as – faced with urban decay, deindustrialisation, unemployment and violence – many of their residents just left.
In the bigger picture, the trend has long been in the other direction, and the tide of people moving from rural areas to the city seems pretty universal. Ten years ago, for the first time, half the world’s population was thought to live in a city. This is expected to hit two-thirds by 2050; it’s already at around 54 per cent.
Zoom in, though, and look more locally at individual cities especially in the post industrial world, the march of urbanisation seems a lot more fragile.
Unfortunately for the pride and wallets of most New Orleanians, their city is a textbook example of urban decline. When the oil industry, which had supported the city for so long, collapsed in the late 1970s, unemployment swelled and people began to leave.
Post-oil New Orleans failed to diversify its industries: the city fell back to tourism to provide economic support, but that didn’t quite cut it. Since then, poorer areas of the city have become synonymous with ongoing urban decay and depopulation, and between 1970 and 2000 the city’s residents moved out in their thousands, shrinking the population by 18 per cent.
The city’s economic problems were further compounded in 2005, with the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. Flooding 80 per cent of the city, it displaced huge numbers of people, many of whom never returned.
The UK has seen its own share of urban decline. The great northern city of Liverpool has experienced some of the worst, with the population of the city proper shrinking by 18.8 percent in the four decades after 1971.
The docks in 1920. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.
As in New Orleans, this decline was largely due to the disappearance of what brought people to the city in the first place: jobs. Liverpool had boomed as the north’s great port, and well into the 20th century the city’s economy was centred around its docks.
But as containers replaced the labour intensive break bulk cargo, unemployment in many dock towns skyrocketed. To make matters worse, many of the industries that the docks had served moved abroad.
Why has the city struggled to move on? One explanation is outdated skills: an in depth knowledge of cargo ships isn’t really going to help you in a bank. At any rate, the lack of jobs has meant that people left – and large swathes of Liverpool were left vacant.
Kitakyushu, in western Japan, was once a thriving steel town. It was home of the Imperial Steel Works, whose grandiose name fitted its importance to the industrialising nation.
And the city’s industrial might didn’t go unnoticed abroad. During WWII, the atomic bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki was actually intended for Kitakyushu; it was only cloud cover over the latter that protected it.
At its peak the steel industry in Kitakyushu employed 50,000 people – but today, it provides jobs for as little as 4,200. As steel production moved to developing countries where overheads were cheaper, citizens were left without a jobs. Despite steady automotive and robotic industries, they couldn’t provide employment for the large number of workers who’d worked at the steel mill.
So, the now familiar story happened there, too: widespread unemployment, leading to depopulation and urban decline. Last month, Kitakyushu’s amusement park, Space World, closed – and nothing screams decay quite like abandoned space themed rides.
These examples are in no way exhaustive; the list of depopulating ghost towns is long, and economics is often the cause. The common thread here is that all three were one-industry towns. New Orleans had oil, Liverpool the docks, and Kitakyushu steel. But the free-market stripped these cities of their main source of employment, leaving them hollowed out.
Blaming the markets, though, is liking blaming the wind if your house gets blown down: it may be to blame, but that doesn’t mean you can do literally nothing. These cities didn’t diversify when they had the chance – and when their industry left, they declined.
So to all you urban planners out there, if you value the longevity of your city, put on ‘Ghost Town’ by The Specials and get diversifying.