These modern ghost towns show the danger of an undiversified economy

The Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans in 2015, a decade after Hurricane Katrina. Image: Getty.

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.

New Orleans

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.

Liverpool

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

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.

 
 
 
 

How spurious imperial science affected the layout of African cities

Freetown, Sierra Leone. Image: David Hond/Freetown From The Air/Wikimedia Commons.

As the European powers spread across the world, systematically colonising it as they went, one of the deadliest enemies they faced was disease. In 1850s India, one in twenty British soldiers were dying from such diseases – on a par with British Empire casualty rates during World War II.

When Europeans started dropping dead the minute they got off the boat, the scientists of the day rushed to provide their own, at times fairly dodgy, solutions. This era coincided with a key period of city planning in the African colonies – meaning that there is still visible evidence of this shoddy science in the cityscape of many modern African cities.
For a long time altitude was considered a protection against disease, on the grounds that it was far from the lowland heat associated with putrefaction. British officials in India retreated to the ‘hill stations’ during the warm season; this practice continued in the African colonies established by all sorts of European powers in the late 19th century.

So it was that one bunch of imperialists established the capital of German Kamerun at Buea, high on the side of Mount Cameroon. The city still has a population of 90,000 today. Evidence of this height fetish can still be found in the ‘Plateau’ districts of Brazzaville, Dakar and Abidjan as well as the ‘Ridge’ district of Accra.


Malaria, particularly, was an ever present fear in the colonies, and it did much to shape the colonial cities. It’s a sign of the extent to which 19th century medical science misunderstood how the disease was spread that its name comes from the French for ‘bad air’. By the late 19th century, knowledge had managed to progress far enough to identify mosquitoes as the culprits – but views still wildly diverged about the appropriate response.

One solution popular in many empires was segregation. The Europeans had incorrectly identified Africans as the main carriers of the disease; African children under five were believed to be the main source of malaria so they were to be kept far away from the colonists at all times.

And so, many powers decided that the European settlers should be housed in their own separate areas. (Of course, this wrong headed but at least rational response wasn’t the whole explanation: often, sanitary concerns were used to veil simple racial chauvinism.)

The affluent Hill Station – a name reminiscent of the Indian colonies – in Freetown, Sierra Leone was built as a segregated suburb so Europeans could keep well clear of the local children. Today, it’s where the home of the president can be found. Yet despite all this expensive shuffling of Freetown’s urban landscape, inhabitants of Hill Station came down with malaria at about the same as those who lived elsewhere.

 

The Uganda Golf Course, Kampala. Image: Google Maps.

In Kampala, Uganga, a golf course now occupies the land designated by the British powers to protect the European neighbourhood from the African. A similar appropriation can be seen in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of The Congo, where a zoo, botanical garden and another golf course can be found the land earmarked for protecting colonial officials and their families.

All this urban juggling was the privilege of immensely powerful colonial officials, backed up by the military might of the imperial powers. The indigenous peoples could do little but watch as their cities were bulldozed and rebuilt based on the whims of the day. Yet the scars are still visible in the fabric of many modern African cities today.