Wasted cities in urbanizing China

Guizhen He, A.P.J. Mol, Yonglong Lu*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

38 Citations (Scopus)


Urbanization is a characteristic of the 21st century, especially in countries with developing economies and a large amount of rural-to-urban migration. In China, the emergence of "wasted cities and towns" has paralleled urban expansion; large newly built areas that remain unpopulated and have created significant economic and social costs. We conducted a systematic investigation into the prevalence and geographical distribution of these "wasted cities and towns" through an analysis of spatially-detailed data from 1992 to 2014, and by estimating the environmental impacts of these "wasted" cities using available data in mainland China. Between 2008 and 2012, at least 28 ghost cities/towns were documented within 16 provinces, with severe effects on land use and the ecosystem, creating a waste of resources and energy. These cities contributed to poor air quality and climate change, and created unneeded construction and demolition waste. To prevent a further increase in wasted cities, and to turn existing ones into sustainable cities, China has to dramatically change its urbanization and housing policies in tandem with strengthening environmental policies, while taking long-term prevention and short-term execution strategies. Knowing how to manage the phenomenon of "wasted cities" in China is not just an environmental question, but also has strong effects on urbanization and sustainability. Developing reasonable management plans may establish an example for developing countries, and emerging economies in particular. The sustainability of urbanization might be affected if the problems identified here are not resolved. China's experiences with the environmental challenges of urbanization may provide valuable lessons for other emerging economies if the measures recommended here are implemented successfully.

Original languageEnglish
Article number18
Pages (from-to)2-13
JournalEnvironmental Development
Publication statusPublished - 2016


  • China
  • Environmental impacts
  • Urban planning
  • Urbanization
  • Wasted cities


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