Ghost Cities: Built but Never Inhabited

Civic Data Design Lab at UrbanNext: “Ghost Cities are vacant neighborhoods and sometimes whole cities that were built but were never inhabited. Their existence is a physical manifestation of Chinese overdevelopment in real estate and the dependence on housing as an investment strategy. Little data exists which establishes the location and extent of these Ghost Cities in China. MIT’s Civic Data Design Lab developed a model using data scraped from Chinese social media sites and Baidu (Chinese Google Maps) to create one of the first maps identifying the locations of Chinese Ghost Cities….

Quantifying the extent and location of Ghost Cities is complicated by the fact that the Chinese government keeps a tight hold on data about sales and occupancy of buildings. Even local planners may have a hard time acquiring it. The Civic Data Design Lab developed a model to identify Ghost Cities based on the idea that amenities (grocery stores, hair salons, restaurants, schools, retail, etc.) are the mark of a healthy community and the lack of amenities might indicate locations where no one lives. Given the lack of openly available data in China, data was scraped from Chinese social media and websites, including Dianping (Chinese Yelp), Amap (Chinese Map Quest), Fang (Chinese Zillow), and Baidu (Chinese Google Maps) using openly accessible Application Programming Interfaces(APIs). 

Using data scraped from social media sites in Chengdu and Shenyang, the model was tested using 300 m x 300 m grid cells marking residential locations. Each grid cell was given an amenity accessibility score based on the distance and clustering of amenities nearby. Residential areas that had a cluster of low scores were marked as Ghost Cities. The results were ground-truthed through site visits documenting the location using aerial photography from drones and interviews with local stakeholders.

The model worked well at documenting under-utilized residential locations in these Chinese cities, picking up everything from vacant housing and stalled construction to abandoned older residential locations, creating the first data set that marks risk in the Chinese real estate market. The research shows that data available through social media can help locate and estimate risk in the Chinese real estate market. Perhaps more importantly, however, identifying where these areas are concentrated can help city planners, developers and local citizens make better investment decisions and address the risk created by these under-utilized developments….(More)”.