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.

 
 
 
 

11 reasons the Lisbon Metro blows every other transport system out of the water

Telheiras station. Image: Cornelius/Wikimedia Commons.

Subways are great. It’s an undeniable fact. They’re speedy, spacious, don’t take up space above ground, and, depending on the design, can make you feel like you’ve been catapulted back to the ‘60s, or forward to, well, the ‘60s. But only one can be the best – and that one is the Lisbon Metro.

Here are 11 reasons why.

There are just six interchanges – and two zones

Subways are great – but they're not so great if you’re got a hopeless sense of direction, as anyone who’s had to battle through NYC City’s some 468 stations will tell you (yeah, we can’t really work out how many there are). No such larks in Lisbon, there are just six interchanges on the whole network.

The inevitable map. There are also zones 2 & 3 further out, but the metro doesn't go that far.

Sure, you might not quite have the scope of the Big Apple to play with, but the apple isn’t real anyway and custard tarts are better. Plus it still gets you pretty much everywhere you want to go, minus the fights about which route is quickest. What’s more there are only two zones, so you don’t have to work out the most convoluted route in the world just to avoid Shoreditch High Street on the Overground.

This said, zone two (which is confusingly called zone one; the central zone is zone L, for Lisbon) only actually has three stops in it, so it’d be a bit of a bummer if you ended up living there.

They’ve totally embraced naming lines by colours

Tourists don’t get tube systems. Locals end up explaining to tourists using the colours of the line. This is the rule of any metro system, and who are we to change fundamental human nature?

The development of the network, 1959-2012. Image: EpicGenius/Wikimedia Commons.

So, imagine my wonder upon discovering that the Lisbon Metro is all about those coloured lines. There’s a yellow line: it’s called the yellow line. The red line is called the red line. The green line is named in honour of the colour I turned in envy when I saw this deliciously simple system. Which is, for the avoidance of any doubt, green.


The stations are accessible

Getting around the UK using public transport can be chaos as it is, let alone if you need to use accessible stations and trains. It’s been some some 26 years since the Disability Discrimination Act (later replaced by the Equality Act in 2010), which protects disabled people from discrimination across wider society, came into force; yet something as simple as getting on the tube can still be a massive issue.

Just 73 of London Undergrounds 270 tube stations offer step free access, only slightly more than a quarter. An extra £200m was committed to created a step-free tube in 2016, but even this will only take the number to 100 – which eagle eyed mathematicians will note is still less than half.

Jump over to Lisbon, and while it’s by no means a perfect picture, 30 of the some 50 stations are marked as having disabled access: that works out at almost 60 percent.

It’s gloriously unbusy. Like, really

No, really. It was so un-busy the first time I got it I went back during ‘rush hour’ on purpose and it looked like this.

Where is everybody? 

There are countdown clocks which operate by the second

I’m from a village in rural North Devon, which means getting public transport is an exercise involving looking at a damp timetable stuck to a lamppost and hoping something might turn up in the next hour. Even in most bigger cities, the metro system will only give you the time you’ll be waiting for your train in minutes.

Lisbon pulls out all the stops though, and you can see how many seconds – yes, seconds – it is until your tube is going to arrive Your dreams of being able to sing countdown as tube arrives have come true.

Note the countdown. 

The hanging cords don’t swing and smack you

It’s a commuters worst nightmare: not only are you packed five centimetres closer to another human being than you’d ever wish to be, but then the stupid cord you’re supposedly hanging onto for support crashes you into them full frontal.

Not so in Lisbon, where the hanging cords are made of sturdier stuff, and your personal boundaries can live to see another dawn.

There’s a refreshing lack of adverts

In the interests of transparency, I’d like to state at this point that I did track down some ads – namely one for Burger King and a Simon & Garfunkel gig, which sounds like a wild night – but nowhere near the scale you’d see here in the UK. In fact, these were the only two I found.

A recent report from Transport for London showed they were the biggest holder of advertising space in the UK. In 2016-17, it hosted some 16,000 different adverts drawing in some £142.1m in cash by bombarding Londoners with pictures of West End shows, weird head skull shavers, and essays about Jack Daniels posted on literally any available space.

While I accept it’s a good money earner, it’s a bit of cheek that the operator say commuters actually appreciate the distraction.The latest TfL report claims that 60 per cent of commuters say adverts are a welcome distraction. Did they even notice the Clapham Common cats campaign?

I, for one, am all on board with the Portuguese approach and freedom to daydream. Hell, they’ve got the advertising spaces, they just haven’t filled them up.

There’s 4G on all the lines

Yep, even underground. It’s magical. I’m not entirely convinced it’s planned, but it’s pretty great.


Tickets are valid for 24 hours from the point of use

This is honestly a revolution, and is probably the last serious point we’ve got for you, but golly it’s a good one. It’s a simple premise: buy your day ticket and it’s then valid for 24 hours from first use. So if you buy it at 3pm on a Sunday, it’s valid until 3pm on Monday.

By way of contrast, if you find yourself in a similar situation in London, your day pass will only work up until the last tube that day.

You also don’t need a deposit to get a reusable card. The Lisbon Metro dolls out reusable (and non plastic) cards for a mere €0.50 a time.

There’s an announcement that sounds like a friendly grandfather clock

The beeps of commuter trains haunt me in my sleep. This, though, sounds just like the grandfather clock in my nan and grandfathers’ house. Cute.

It’s in Lisbon

The Tyne & Wear Metro might go to the beach, but it’s not quite the same.

Uncredited images courtesy of the author.