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.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.