Zombies and Ghosts

In 21st-century finance capitalism, residential buildings are valued less as homes than as investment assets. The results are eerily underpopulated cities and bleak unfinished suburbs.

Clockwise from upper left: Ascaya, a speculative community near Las Vegas, incomplete after the financial crisis, 2015. 432 Park Avenue, a luxury tower designed by Rafael Viñoly Architects, whose units function as assets as much as shelter. Ascaya, where laborers rake the ground of the partly vacant community. One Hyde Park, a famously expensive residential building, designed by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, many of whose units are second homes.
Clockwise from upper left: Ascaya, a speculative community near Las Vegas, incomplete after the financial crisis, 2015. [Matthew Soules] 432 Park Avenue, designed by Rafael Viñoly Architects, a  luxury tower whose units function as assets as much as shelter. [Halkin Mason, courtesy of Rafael Viñoly Architects] Ascaya, where laborers rake the ground of the partly vacant community. [Matthew Soules] One Hyde Park, a famously expensive residential building, designed by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, many of whose units are second homes. [Paul Raftery]

In the years since Occupy Wall Street emerged, it has begun to seem that the most meaningful aspect of the movement was the name itself — “Occupy.” It has become clear that the very notion of occupancy is a fulcrum of 21st-century finance capitalism. How else to understand the normalization of “owned but empty” units in so many residential buildings in cities around the world? As housing is increasingly treated as an investment asset, its basic function — the provision of shelter — is beginning to appear outmoded. Any sober assessment of global real estate trends cannot avoid the conclusion that vacancy is a preferred investment class. 1 Economist Michael Hudson’s 2010 declaration that the “‘postindustrial’ economy turns out to be mainly about real estate” might reasonably be updated to pronounce that today’s economy turns out to be mainly about unoccupied real estate. 2

21st-century urbanism abounds with newly created ruins that blur the distinction between success and failure, growth and decay.

One of the signal by-products of finance capitalism’s emphasis on asset value over use value is the underuse of architectural space. High residential vacancies in parts of cities that are perceived as desirable as well as abandoned or largely empty speculative developments are both prominent features of 21st-century urbanism. And as these two conditions suggest, not all under-occupancy is the same. A large proportion of owned but empty residential units generates an in-between state of uncertain vitality — zombie urbanism — whereas a more dramatic proportion of vacant or unfinished units produces a very different phenomenon — ghost urbanism. 3 This divergence — again, between buildings for use and buildings for investment — complicates some widely held assumptions; chiefly, that underuse is associated with blight and decay, while new growth signals vibrant prosperity. Indeed, 21st-century urbanism abounds with newly created ruins that blur the distinction between success and failure, growth and decay. And in the process, they recalibrate theoretical and emotional conceptions of architecture.

Zombie urbanism occurs when an area has large numbers of owned but empty housing units, resulting in a de facto density that is significantly below the designed capacity. These areas mix present populations with absent populations, exhibiting an eerily low level of vitality in relation to their scale. They are not dead, but they are also not quite alive.

Zombie urbanism occurs when an area has many owned but empty housing units. The result is a place that is not quite dead, but not fully alive.

To be sure, no urban area has full residential occupancy at any given time, because there is never a perfect alignment between housing supply and demand. In addition, there is a steady rate of turnover as people move in and out, buy and sell units, and spend time away from primary residences — all of which contribute to a certain number of empty units at any moment. What is considered an optimal level of vacancy depends on local conditions that change over time. According to the U.S. Census, the vacancy rate in rental housing in the entire United States fluctuated between 7.6 and 10.6 percent from 1995 to 2018. 4 Over the same period, the vacancy rate of homeowner housing moved between 1.5 and 2.6 percent. 5 What housing analysts call the “equilibrium vacancy rate” is that which poses no upward or downward pressure on housing costs. 6 Zombie urbanism happens when vacancy rates are significantly higher than these ranges.

Owned but empty units tend to serve three functions: as wealth storage, as speculative assets, and as secondary residences. These functions can operate discretely but more often work in combination. The purchase of a second home for recreational use, for instance, is often informed by speculation. While a typical investor will rent out a second home for ongoing revenue, a very wealthy investor might leave it empty. These individuals’ substantial capital propels them to diversify their wealth storage while also facilitating a lifestyle of global mobility, in which multiple residential properties are desirable. The growth of this wealthy cohort — so-called “very high net worth individuals” — is significantly affecting numerous places around the world.

Secondary homes tend to be either recreational — like the rural dachas outside Moscow — or urban — like the pieds-à-terre in central London. Such properties have been manifestations of wealth and privilege for centuries, but they began to proliferate during the Industrial Revolution, as both the upper class and the growing middle class sought relief from the dirt and clamor of the modern metropolis. By the early 20th century, large areas around London — the so-called cocktail belt and stockbroker’s belt — contained country and weekend homes. 7 The French term pied- à-terre (foot to the ground) was coined in the 19th century to describe short-term or secondary lodging; now, of course, it denotes a second home in the city, typically an apartment.

One Hyde Park, designed by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, London, 2011, where the dark windows indicate units that are unoccupied, and often as not secondary residences.
One Hyde Park, designed by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, London, 2011, where the dark windows indicate units that are unoccupied, and often as not secondary residences. [Graham Turner, courtesy of Redux Pictures]

Finance capitalism has significantly increased the prevalence of secondary housing. Midtown Manhattan, for example, is packed with under-occupied residences. 8 Underuse in Paris appears even more widespread. A 2017 report by the Paris Urbanism Agency indicated that second homes in the city experienced a significant uptick between 2008 and 2013; in the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Arrondissements, an astonishing 26 percent of homes were empty. 9 As Ian Brossat, the city’s Housing Commissioner, put it, “It’s a really worrying issue. It’s not normal to have 200,000 empty or semi-occupied homes. It represents twice the housing available in a big arrondissement like the 18th.” 10 Likewise, London is more and more the locus of empty residences. “Some of the richest people in the world are buying property here as an investment,” said Paul Dimoldenberg, a Westminster Council politician. “They may live here for a fortnight in the summer, but for the rest of the year they’re contributing nothing to the local economy. The specter of new buildings where there are no lights on is a real problem.” 11

Finance capitalism may be rife in global power centers, but its impact is increasingly felt in cities throughout the world.

Finance capitalism may be especially rife in global power centers, but its impact is increasingly felt in cities throughout the world. The latest Canadian census indicates there are nearly 100,000 vacant or under-occupied housing units in Toronto. 12 In parts of central Vancouver, 25 percent of condominiums sit largely empty. 13 In Miami, hard data is scarce, but real estate studies suggest key factors for high residential vacancy. In 2007, for example, more than one-third of all houses and almost 60 percent of condominiums in Miami–Dade County were secondary residences. In 2015, more than 30 percent of condominiums purchases in the county were made by buyers who lived 50 or more miles away. 14 A large percentage of the residential towers in Panama City appear to be empty, at least partly due to money laundering. 15 In Melbourne, an Australian NGO analyzed domestic water usage in 2014 to determine the number of vacant units and found more than 100,000 empty or hardly used homes. 16 The municipal government in Barcelona identified more than 100,000 units with zero or very little water consumption in 2016, indicating vacancy or under-occupancy. 17 Beirut’s city center is filled with sparsely occupied condo towers as a result of a boom in luxury construction targeted toward expatriates and foreigners in the Persian Gulf. 18

These locations are all perceived as both desirable places to live and good places to bank wealth in property. In no small part this is because their real estate values will likely rise over the long term. Vancouver offers the transparency and stability of Canadian law and governance, alongside exceptional natural beauty. Beirut is perceived as a liberal oasis in West Asia and boomed after the end of Lebanon’s long civil war. Melbourne is a safe city with a mild climate; it also benefits from relative proximity to the population centers of Southeast Asia.

In response to the challenges posed by zombie urbanism, many jurisdictions are exploring tools to reduce its incidence. Paris introduced a 20 percent tax on second homes in 2015 and increased it to 60 percent in 2017. 19 In 2016, Vancouver enacted the Empty Homes Tax — an annual one percent tax on the assessed property value of units unoccupied for more than 180 days. Melbourne enacted its Vacant Residential Property Tax in 2017, and Washington, D.C. and Oakland, California, have similar taxes. Hong Kong, Toronto, and Los Angeles are now debating whether to implement their own vacancy taxes.

Basic decisions regarding the provision of services and amenities are based on historic levels of population density. Zombie urbanism upends these expectations.

Zombie urbanism is now a defining attribute of the contemporary city even as dominant modes of designing, managing, governing, and conceptualizing the city continue to rely on longstanding assumptions of high occupancy. Basic decisions regarding the provision of services and scaling of amenities are based on historic levels of population density. Zombie urbanism upends these expectations. As the New York State Senator Liz Krueger recalls, “I met with a developer who is building one of those billionaire buildings on 57th Street, and he told me, ‘Don’t worry, you won’t need any more services, because the buyers won’t be sending their kids to school here [and] there won’t be traffic.’” 20 As ongoing vacancy is normalized, should cities rethink zoning requirements, infrastructure needs, and public services?

The vacancies of zombie urbanism are not the result of an overt system failure, or of deficiency or calamity, as in the post-industrial Ruhr Valley or in post-Katrina New Orleans; rather they are the vacancies born of market success. They emerge not from oversupply or low demand, or because of a declining job market, but instead within the context of strong demand and high growth. Buildings are selling out, developers are making profits, governments are collecting fees, property values are escalating. Yet the city feels not quite alive.

If zombie urbanism is defined by reduced occupancy that operates in the context of success, ghost urbanism is characterized by high vacancy that contributes to the perception of failure. Ghost urbanism can make a place feel experientially dead and reinforce a palpable sense of decline; most commonly it is marked by a noticeable volume of unsold or incomplete housing units that may be in some state of decay.

Ghost urbanism happens when suburban developments remain empty or unfinished — and as a result feel experientially dead.

As ever larger quantities of capital flow into real estate and exaggerate cycles of expansion and contraction, the usual result is over-building on the upswing and mass vacancies on the downswing — a version of what the economist Joseph Schumpeter famously called “creative destruction.” Or, as the geographer David Harvey argues, “Under capitalism there is … a perpetual struggle in which capital builds a physical landscape appropriate to its own condition at a particular moment in time, only to have to destroy it, usually in the course of a crisis, at a subsequent point in time.” 21 Ghost urbanism, which occurs when plans go awry, is always a form of crisis, and its spaces of crisis can be found throughout the world. As cases in point, consider the booms and busts that happened in Ireland and Spain in the years before and after the 2008 financial crash, and that offer poignant portraits of the ruthless vicissitudes of built territory operating primarily as an investment asset.

Battery Court, a ghost estate in Longford, Longford County, Ireland, 2013.
Battery Court, a ghost estate in Longford, Longford County, Ireland, 2013. [Josimar Dominguez]

Completed but unoccupied houses at a ghost estate in Drumshanbo, County Leitrim, Ireland, 2013.
Completed but unoccupied houses at a ghost estate in Drumshanbo, County Leitrim, Ireland, 2013. [Matthew Soules]

Roads bordered by "temporary" walls that enclose the Castlepark ghost estate in Mallow, County Cork, Ireland, 2013.
In Mallow, County, Cork, Ireland, “temporary” walls enclose the Castlepark ghost estate, 2013. [Matthew Soules]

During the boom, Ireland was blanketed in new construction — urban perimeter blocks, peripheral mega-projects, commuter estates, numerous rural houses.

The Irish property boom, which started in the mid 1990s and lasted until roughly 2007, radically altered the nation’s landscape. During this period, more than 750,000 units of housing were constructed — approximately 40 percent of the housing stock in Ireland during this period. 22 As the boom gained momentum from 2001 to 2007, an average of 70,000 housing units were constructed each year, with more than 90,000 in 2006 alone. In a country with a population of nearly 4.6 million, this translates into 18 units per 1,000 people per year, giving Ireland, along with Spain, the highest rate of construction in the European Union, nearly triple the rate of the next highest nation, France. 23 In those years the island was blanketed in new construction — urban perimeter blocks, peripheral mega-projects, exurban commuter estates, and a proliferation of one-off rural houses. Nor was the boom limited to housing. In the years before the crash, there were millions of new square feet of shopping malls, resulting in the second-highest per capita area of retail malls in Europe; nearly 13 million square feet (1.2 million square meters) of office space; and more than 18,000 new hotel rooms. At the zenith of the property boom, in 2006, the construction sector in the Republic of Ireland accounted for €37 billion ($47 billion), or nearly 25 percent of GNP. 24

Irish scholars have compiled copious statistics that convey the magnitude of the boom: Between 1995 and 2006, Irish house prices rose by more than 300 percent nationally, and by more than 400 percent in Dublin. Raw land prices increased by approximately 1,200 percent. 25 The value of commercial real estate grew by 250 percent. 26 These metrics conveys the enormity of a real estate expansion that involved large numbers of new participants in the market. Many Irish people described owning second, third, fourth, and fifth investment homes in addition to their primary residence. It was said that banks were cold-calling customers and encouraging them to acquire more property and more mortgages. 27

Then, in 2008, in Ireland as elsewhere, the fever broke; the contagious perception that the supply of real estate had become radically decoupled from real demand caused the once hot market to freeze. Mortgage markets collapsed, property purchases halted, prices plummeted. 28 Mortgage holders found themselves in negative equity and developers were buried in debt. Builders packed up, leaving a landscape of partially completed projects. In 2011, 294,000 housing units sat empty and abandoned, many situated in what the Irish came to call “ghost estates” — forlorn developments that were mostly or entirely empty, often only partly built, with perhaps one or two occupied dwellings amidst a larger bleakness. 29

After the crash, in Ireland as elsewhere, the fever broke. Mortgage markets collapsed, purchases halted, prices plummeted. Builders packed up, leaving a bleak landscape of negative equity and unfinished projects.

The ghost estates captured the popular imagination because of their intimate connection with the struggles of individuals and families. Yet there was a parallel world of zombie hotels, phantom golf courses, and empty shops and offices. Sometimes a hotel might lie empty, an all too tempting target for vandals; in other instances, it might remain half-open, offering rooms at rock-bottom rates. Mixed-use developments lumbered along with unrented ground-floor retail while the carcasses of half-finished malls hulked on the horizon. Golf courses without patrons have been converted to agricultural fields for the production of silage or the roaming of horses. Post-crisis Ireland was strewn with all these high-vacancy failures — a 21st-century ghost landscape.
Asset urbanism needs to be understood in relation to global as well as local parameters. The Irish economy started to expand in the mid 1990s as the nation attracted increasing numbers of multinational corporations, all drawn by the lure of low taxes and wages alongside a highly educated, English-speaking workforce. As a member of the European Union, Ireland offered tariff-free access to the single European market. Once the Celtic Tiger took off, the country experienced strong in-migration for the first time in decades. Meanwhile, in the early aughts, the liberalization of international credit markets helped lubricate the flow of lending capital from German and French banks to Irish banks, which in turn fueled the building and buying boom. Irish banks responded to the intensifying demand with increasingly lax mortgage requirements, including longer terms and reduced down-payments — and ultimately the infamous zero-down, forty-year mortgage.

An occupied home adjacent to an unfinished residence, one of the unsettling juxtaposition in post-crisis Ireland.
An occupied home adjacent to an unfinished residence, one of the unsettling juxtaposition in post-crisis Ireland. [Josimar Dominguez]

The Waterways ghost estate being demolished, Keshcarrigan, County Leitrim, Ireland, 2013.
The Waterways ghost estate being demolished, Keshcarrigan, County Leitrim, Ireland, 2013. [Lőrinc Vass]

For years after 2008, the Irish landscape was pockmarked with various combinations of fenced-off and cleared land awaiting development; roads and infrastructure that went nowhere and served nothing; arrays of concrete foundation slabs sitting empty; buildings without roofs, shells of homes without siding or glazing, and row upon row of completed dwellings awaiting a home-owning population that did not yet exist. The years right after the 2008 crash were devoted to sorting out the financial and physical debris as the real estate and construction industries largely stalled.

In 2010, the Irish government started surveying “unfinished housing developments” and began a multiyear effort, through various programs and initiatives, to “resolve” these developments. 30 As a result, ghost conditions eased somewhat. Empty units were eventually occupied, and construction resumed on partially finished projects. A small number were simply demolished without ever being inhabited; Irish media reported in 2013 that a plan authored by the Minister of Housing and Planning identified roughly 40 estates as candidates for destruction. 31 Given the sensitivity of the topic, however, it is difficult to determine just how many estates fell into this category; official statistics seem improbably low, and likely undercount physical conditions on the ground. 32 Even now, more than a decade after the crash, it is easy to find its ghostly ruins.

During the boom, Ireland and Spain built roughly the same amount of housing per capita; but Spain experienced far more absolute building activity. About four million homes were built in Spain between 2001 and 2008, an average rate of 565,000 per year, more than double that of the previous decade. 33 In 2006, the country saw 865,000 housing starts, more than Germany, France, and the United Kingdom combined. 34 And a great deal of infrastructure was also constructed. The highway system was extended by about 8,000 miles (13,000 kilometers) between 1993 and 2011; Spain now has one of the highest capacity road networks in the world, surpassed only by the United States and China. Five new international airports were built, and thirteen existing airports received new terminals. At the market’s height, construction accounted for approximately 11 percent of Spain’s GDP. 35 Meanwhile property values were rising dramatically: between 1996 and 2007, raw land values increased by 260 percent, and the national average housing price by 200 percent. 36

Residencial Francisco Hernando, a two-thirds complete development in Sesena, Toledo, Castile-La Mancha, Spain, 2014.
Residencial Francisco Hernando, a two-thirds complete development in Seseña, Toledo, Castile-La Mancha, Spain, 2014. [Matthew Soules]

In tandem with its intensified construction and price escalation, Spanish real estate became increasingly financialized.

In tandem with its intensified construction and price escalation, Spanish real estate became increasingly financialized. In the decade before the crash, the average length of a home mortgage grew from eighteen to 28 years. As the Spanish economist José García-Montalvo reported in 2006, “Today we are talking about forty-year loans. The majority of the mortgages are for 100 percent of the purchase price plus 10 percent for additional costs.” 37 Within this atmosphere of easy credit, mortgage debt mushroomed, and by the height of the boom the value of Spanish mortgages reached 100 percent of GDP. 38 All the while Spanish financial institutions, like those in the U.S, securitized mortgage debts and thereby directly connected indebted Spanish households to global financial markets. 39

During the boom years, ownership of second homes became commonplace. By 2007, according to the Madrid-based economists Isidro López and Emmanuel Rodríguez, 35 percent of Spanish households owned multiple residential properties. 40 Also in those years the country attracted foreign investors as a steady stream of Britons, Germans, and other Northern Europeans purchased units in Spanish developments that often explicitly catered to them. In several municipalities on the southern coast of Alicante, almost 80 percent of homes were vacation properties, and 47 percent of the population were “registered foreign holiday home residents.” 41 As the Spanish sociologist Aitana Alguacil Denche stated, “The fundamentally speculative character of foreign investment can be appreciated from its high concentration in certain geographic areas. Foreign housing investment tended to be concentrated in island communities (Canary and Balearic Islands) and the eastern Spanish coast (Andalusia, Murcia, and the Valencian Community), which are the areas that registered the highest increases in prices during the upswing of the cycle.” 42

Leisure-oriented investment development along the Mediterranean coast of Spain, near Valencia, 2013.
Leisure-oriented investment development along the Mediterranean coast of Spain, near Valencia, 2013. [Matthew Soules]

Spanish champions of neoliberalism encouraged the investment frenzy, passing a law which reclassified the entire country as a territory open to development.

Spanish champions of neoliberalism encouraged the investment frenzy. In 1998, the Spanish government passed the Land Act, which effectively reclassified the entire country as a single territory open to development. In the words of the government, “The present Law aims to facilitate the increase in land supply, meaning that all land which has not yet been incorporated into the urban process, in which there are no reasons for preservation, can be considered capable of being urbanized.” 43 This law exemplifies the type of market liberalization that drives finance capitalism. Nor was it unique. A few years earlier, in 1994, the Valencian Community had enacted the Regulatory Law of Urban Activity, or LRAU, which created a new actor in land development — the agente urbanizador, or developer agent. In subsequent years, other regional governments passed laws modeled on Valencia’s, with the effect that the agente urbanizador became a key propagator of development all across Spain. 44 It should be noted that the original Valencian law emerged from the political left; its central hypothesis was that by increasing the supply of urbanized land, the price of housing would fall. But the hypothesis was incorrect; prices did not fall. As Fernando Gaja i Díaz, a professor at the University of Valencia, and a fierce critic of the law, has argued, “The LRAU has contributed to the increased production of urbanized land without reducing the land prices that have accompanied the spiraling, inflationary real estate market; meanwhile [it has aided] the concentration of property in the hands of large urbanizing businesses.” 45

One of the profound by-products of the investment-driven building frenzy in Spain, as in Ireland, was dramatic overproduction. By 2010, Spain had more than one million unsold homes on the market; two years later that number was reported to be closer to two million. Numerous mega-developments on Madrid’s periphery, each with thousands of units, were largely vacant. The ghost airports were empty for years; Murcia Airport, for instance, was completed in 2012, but did not open for flights until 2019. 46 A vast amount of the land that was “urbanized” during the boom lies empty and in various stages of decay. It is reported that this supply of underused land has the potential to meet demand until almost 2040. 47 And then there are the countless partly constructed buildings that continue to litter the landscape.

Arcosur, an incomplete urban ensanche in Zaragoza, Aragon, Spain, 2014.
Arcosur, an incomplete urban ensanche in Zaragoza, Aragon, Spain, 2014. [Lőrinc Vass]

Empty urbanized land in Majadahonda, Madrid, Spain, 2014.
Empty urbanized land in Majadahonda, Madrid, Spain, 2014. [Josimar Dominguez]

All aspects of the mega-project are designed to maximize quantity and minimize expense. The result is an almost inhuman space of speculation.

The ghost urbanism of post-crisis Spain has at least three discernible morphological patterns —post-metropolitan islands, foreign investment enclaves, and urban ensanches. Post-metropolitan islands are discrete mega-developments, geographically separate from existing urban fabric — isolated satellites orbiting an urban center at a distance. 48 What makes them post-metropolitan is the presence of an enormous volume of housing in the absence of complementary urban programs. Such projects can be found outside many large and midsize Spanish cities, forming what can be described as investment archipelagoes. The most infamous example is Residencial Francisco Hernando (named after its developer) in Seseña, almost twenty miles (30 kilometers) outside Madrid. All aspects of the design — 13,500 units in a series of repetitive mid-rise housing blocks — are intended to maximize quantity and minimize expense. The result is an almost inhuman space of speculation. One investor’s experience during the boom, as recounted in the Spanish newspaper El Mundo in 2007, was typical:

My family bought various units in Residencial Francisco Hernando at a very good price with the intention of getting a high return. And that is how it has been. We have seen the rise of the end of the real estate cycle, and we have decided to get rid of them. I have gotten rid of three units that cost me 120,000 euros for 180,000. 49

Just over 5,000 units at Residencial Francisco Hernando were completed before the 2008 crash; a year later, an estimated 2,000 were unsold and vacant. 50 And for years afterward the development remained a semi-wasteland, with thousands of unlucky residents occupying the isolated environs of the unfinished mega-project.

The post-metropolitan islands drew mostly Spanish buyers; the foreign investment enclaves consist of new housing that drew a disproportionate percentage of foreign purchasers, typically from wealthy European countries. These enclaves occur mainly along the Mediterranean and now form what has become a kind of linear city stretching along the coast. Many are organized around golf courses or beaches — a calculated combination of climate and speculation. Like the post-metropolitan mega-developments, they are isolated and often homogeneous in character. 51 As are the urban ensanches — 21st-century versions of traditional ensanches, or city extensions. During the boom, most cities in Spain experienced hyper-expansion at their peripheries; and in most instances, these rapidly developed territories have languished for years — the Spanish architect Isabel Concheiro calls them “stand-by landscapes.” 52 Today, more than decade since the financial crisis, Spain’s ghost urbanism persists — a ruinous landscape that underscores the punishing intensity of building booms and busts in the era of finance capitalism.

Ghost urbanism is hardly limited to Ireland and Spain. It can now be found across the world, and perhaps unsurprisingly, it is happening at an exceptional scale in China. 53 China’s phenomenal growth over recent decades has been accompanied by equally phenomenal increases in real estate prices; in almost three dozen major cities, average housing prices have increased roughly 380 percent. 54 China’s property boom is likely the largest in history, and it has left in its wake extensive territories of ghost urbanism. The most infamous instances are China’s so-called ghost cities: under-occupied or incomplete new towns at the periphery of second- and third-tier cities. 55 The Kangbashi District on the edge of Ordos, in Inner Mongolia, has already been widely covered by the Western media. Inaugurated in 2006, the district was planned to house one million people; by 2014, the official population was only 30,000, and 70 percent of its buildings were vacant. 56 Reliable statistics are difficult to find, but photographs from 2020 depict a mostly empty urban environment. 57

Kangbashi District, Ordos, Inner Mongolia, China, 2012.
Kangbashi District, Ordos, Inner Mongolia, China, 2012. [Tim Franco]

China’s property boom is one of the largest in history, and has left in its wake extensive territories of ghost urbanism.

Given the extraordinary scale of Chinese urbanization — in 1980, less than 20 percent of the population lived in cities; today the figure is 60 percent — there were likely to be significant gaps in supply and demand. Nonetheless, the practices of finance capitalism have exacerbated this inevitability and amplified its proportions. China’s burgeoning upper and middle classes have relatively few options for investing their new wealth. Regulations limit the ability of Chinese citizens to own foreign stocks and bonds, and, compared to their Western counterparts, Chinese banks offer low returns on investment. At the same time, China has no property tax. The predictable result is that real estate quickly became a popular investment. As the landscape architect Christopher Marcinkoski writes, “It is not uncommon for middle-class Chinese families to own two or three apartments as investment vehicles.” 58 Eventually the trend became so pronounced that it provoked government concern, and an effort to limit the purchase of second homes. 59 Underscoring the challenge, Chinese President Xi Jinping declared in his address to the Nineteenth Party Congress in 2017, “Houses are built to be inhabited, not for speculation.” 60

Zombie neighborhoods and ghost cities present a newly dynamic terrain for architecture — a topography shaped by ever-shifting investment flows, and by the unnerving simultaneity of frenzied growth and rapid decline. Much 21st-century architectural discourse has orbited around two dominant paradigms of urbanism: on the one hand, the rapidly growing city-region, exemplified by the Pearl River Delta; on the other, the shrinking post-industrial city, exemplified by Detroit. These paradigms are ontologically premised upon temporal and spatial distinctions; upon the assumption that growth happens at a certain time and place, while decay happens at another time and place. But now the particularities and peculiarities of finance capitalism are propelling novel manifestations of these paradigms in which growth and decline can co-exist all at once.

Why are development and decay happening simultaneously, as if collapsing in upon each other?

Why are development and decay happening simultaneously, as if collapsing in upon each other? One major reason is the rise of finance capitalism, and the flood of money now flowing through architecture. The sheer volume of capital is producing ever higher peaks and ever deeper valleys in the expansion/contraction cycle, generating a greater volume of buildings during the boom and a larger oversupply during the bust. This oversupply is at ever greater risk of falling into disrepair and decay, which in turn makes it harder to be absorbed back into the market when the cycle turns yet again.

Below-grade infrastructure rearing its head at a large, abandoned development site in Mallow, County Cork, Ireland, 2013.
Below-grade infrastructure rearing its head at a large, abandoned development site in Mallow, County Cork, Ireland, 2013. [Matthew Soules]

Traditional concepts of real estate posit the primacy of “market fundamentals” as determining factors of growth and decline. According to these fundamentals, the basic relationship between supply and demand is driven by employment, population, and wages; common wisdom dictates that an increase in these three will cause increased demand for housing, and vice versa. Today, however, the magnitude and fluidity of real estate investment has decoupled expansion and contraction from these fundamentals. It is no longer the case that rising prices are a function of the local job market, nor that increased demand is related to a growing population. And so we see the instant ruins wrought by the dynamics of finance capitalism — the unsettling adjacencies of asset urbanism.

In post-crash Ireland, we see the stark juxtapositions of inhabited buildings next to vacant, unfinished ones — a family living alone with no neighbors in the surrounding homes; patrons of rooftop bars ordering food and drink while looking out upon abandoned construction sites; motorists moving through uncanny landscapes defined by seemingly permanent construction hoarding or security fencing. Today the degree to which plant life and rural activities have overtaken abandoned sites is striking. Many projects were halted after utilities had been already installed, resulting in landscapes where below-grade power, water, and sewage infrastructure are all in place; where conduits, pipes, and manholes now mingle with hardy vegetation; and where horses roam and children play ball.

In the past decade, the figure of the zombie has staked out a prominent position in fiction, television, and film. Some observers have connected this pop-culture phenomenon with the contemporary political economy. I’m thinking of books like Zombie Capitalism: Global Crisis and the Relevance of Marx, by the British journalist and socialist Chris Harman, which appeared in 2009, and Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism, by historian David McNally, published in 2011. In an essay in the New York Times, from 2014, literature professor David Castillo and literary critic William Egginton capture the trend: “Today’s zombie hordes may best express our anxieties about capitalism’s apparently inevitable byproducts: the legions of mindless, soulless consumers who sustain its endless production, and the masses of ‘human debris’ who are left to survive the ravages of its poisoned waste.” 61

The film 28 Weeks Later, directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, appeared in 2007, at the height of the global property boom, and envisioned an empty, post-apocalyptic London. In an early scene, the camera pans over the city and we see streets with no cars or people; the population has been ravaged by a zombie-producing virus. Another movie released that year, I Am Legend, directed by Francis Lawrence, follows a character played by Will Smith who is living alone in an emptied-out Manhattan, except for the zombies who emerge when the sun goes down. And in Marc Forster’s World War Z, from 2013 — the highest-grossing zombie film to date — a global battle between the living and the undead is won by humans who discover that if they temporarily infect themselves with lethal viruses they will be rendered too unattractive for zombie reanimation. 62 In other words, living human beings must begin the process of active dying in order to protect themselves against becoming zombies.

It is ironic that many world capitals that have been emptied out — zombified — by asset urbanism continue to rank high on global livability indexes.

This solution resonates with the paradoxes of zombie and ghost urbanism and their blurring of growth and decay. These nonliving buildings and developments are predicated on the belief that full life is somehow the current condition or future likelihood; they rely upon the historical viability of their hosts. London is a magnet for international capital precisely because it is considered a safe and stable investment — and a good place to live now and in the future. Vulture capitalists scoop up Irish ghost estates because they believe these properties will eventually be activated and return to life. In a further irony, many of these undead world capitals rank high on global livability indexes and other measurements of vitality: Melbourne and Vancouver, New York and San Francisco, are stars. According to the logics of finance capitalism, to be highly livable is also to be the perfect host for exactly the sort of spatial-financial investment that will enervate if not destroy urban life as we have known it.

Editors' Note

This essay is adapted from Icebergs, Zombies, and the Ultra Thin: Architecture and Capitalism in the Twenty-First Century, which is being published this month by Princeton Architectural Press. It appears here courtesy of the author and publisher.

  1. While vacancy rates always shift over time and change from context to context, in the United States, for example, the vacancy rate, including seasonal use-related vacancies, increased by 44 percent between 2000 and 2010, growing from 10.4 million to 15 million units. U.S. Government Accountability Office, Vacant Properties: Growing Number Increases Communities’ Costs and Challenges, GAO-12-34 (Washington, DC: GAO, 2011), 12.
  2. Michael Hudson, “The Transition from Industrial Capitalism to a Financialized Bubble Economy” (working paper 627, Levy Economics Institute, 2010): 7 (unpaginated).
  3. The phrase “zombie urbanism” appears to have originated with Jonny Aspen, who used it to describe “formulaic and increasingly similar” globalized urban design characteristics. See “Oslo — The Triumph of Zombie Urbanism,” Shaping the City: Studies in History, Theory and Urban Design, Second Edition, eds. Rodolphe el-Khoury and Edward Robbins (London: Routledge, 2013).
  4. U.S. Census Bureau, “Rental and Homeowner Vacancy Rates by Area,” Housing Vacancies and Homeownership, Annual Statistics: 2018.
  5. U.S. Census Bureau, “Rental and Homeowner Vacancy Rates by Area.”
  6. Daniel A. Hagen and Julia L. Hansen, “Rental Housing and the Natural Vacancy Rate,” Journal of Real Estate Research 32, no. 4 (2010): 413–33. (As an example, Seattle has an EVR between 4.97 and 5.25 percent.)
  7. J. W. R. Whitehead, “The Settlement Morphology of London’s Cocktail Belt,” Tijdschrift voor economische en sociale Geograpfie 58 (January–February 1967): 20–27.
  8. When the New York Times analyzed data from the Census Bureau’s 2012 American Community Survey, it found that on the eight blocks from East 59th Street to East 63rd Street between Park Avenue and Fifth Avenue, 628 of 1,261 homes were vacant most of the time. Julie Satow, “Pied-à-Neighborhood,” New York Times, October 24, 2014. While Midtown is an epicenter of pieds-à-terre, the phenomenon extends across the city. The 2017 New York City Housing and Vacancy Survey lists 75,000 vacant pieds-à-terre in New York City compared with 55,000 in 2014. Jeffrey C. Mays and Jesse McKinley, “Lawmakers Support ‘Pied-à-Terre’ Tax on Multimillion-Dollar Second Homes,” New York Times, March 11, 2019.
  9. Atelier Parisien d’urbanism, recueil thématique 1er, 2e, 3e et 4e arrondissements de Paris (Paris: Paris Urbanism Agency, 2017), 18.
  10. Evie Burrows-Taylor, “Paris: 26 Percent of City Centre Homes Lie Empty,” The Local, August 18, 2017.
  11. Quoted in Sarah Lyall, “A Slice of London So Exclusive Even the Owners Are Visitors,” New York Times, April 1, 2013. Savills World Research reports that during 2011–12, 59 percent of sales of existing residences in prime areas of central London, such as Chelsea and Kensington, were purchased by overseas buyers; a significant number of these properties were not primary residences and were not occupied for much of the year. Savills World Research, Spotlight: The World in London (London: Savills Research, 2012), 4.
  12. “Population and Dwelling Count Highlight Tables, 2016 Census,” Statistics Canada.
  13. Measuring the Presence of Absence: Clarifications and Corrections in the Reportage of the BTAworks’ Foreign Investment in Vancouver Real Estate, March 25, 2013.
  14. Jan Nijman, Miami: Mistress of the Americas (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), 168. Katrin Kandlbinder, Norman G. Miller, and Michael Sklarz, “Leveling the Playing Field: Out-of-Town Buyer Premiums in US Housing Markets over Time,” International Journal of Housing Markets and Analysis 12, no. 3 (June 2019): 387.
  15. “Narco-A-Lago: Money Laundering at the Trump Ocean Club, Panama,” Global Witness, November 2017.
  16. Catherine Cashmore, Speculative Vacancies 8: The Empty Properties Ignored by Statistics (Melbourne: Prosper, 2015), 18.
  17. “The Housing Crisis in Cities: Causes, Effects and Responses: Summary of the Talks Given at the Barcelona Housing and Renovation Forum,” MACBA Auditorium, Barcelona, March 19–21, 2019, 15.
  18. Scott Bollens, “An Island in Sectarian Seas? Heritage, Memory and Identity in Post-War Redevelopment of Beirut’s Central District,” in Urban Heritage in Divided Cities: Contested Pasts, eds. Mirjana Ristic and Sybille Frank (London: Routledge, 2019), 179.
  19. Feargus O’Sullivan, “Paris Is Tripling Its Tax on Second Homes,” Bloomberg CityLab, January 26, 2017.
  20. Satow, “Pied-à-Neighborhood.”
  21. David Harvey, The Urbanization of Capital: Studies in the History and Theory of Capitalist Urbanization (London: Basil Blackwell, 1985), 16.
  22. Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, as referenced by Rob Kitchin et al., A Haunted Landscape: Housing and Ghost Estates in Post-Celtic Tiger Ireland (Maynooth, Ireland: National Institute for Regional and Spatial Analysis, 2010), 17.
  23. Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, as referenced by Kitchin et al., Haunted Landscape, 17, 10.
  24. Retail Space Europe: Yearbook 2010 (Amsterdam: Europe Real Estate Publishers, 2010), 23. Andrew MacLaran, Katia Attuyer, and Brendan Williams, “Changing Office Location Patterns and Their Importance in the Peripheral Expansion of the Dublin Region 1960–2008,” Journal of Irish Urban Studies 7–9 (2008–10): 60. Peter Bacon & Associates, Over-Capacity in the Irish Hotel Industry and Required Elements of a Recovery Programme, November 2009, 12. DKM Economic Consultants, Review of the Construction Industry 2007 and Outlook 2008 to 2010 (September 2008), ii.
  25. More specifically, land prices jumped from about €5,000 ($6,368) to almost €60,000 ($76,416) per hectare (2.5 acres). Kitchin et al., Haunted Landscape, 11, 12.
  26. Morgan Kelly, “The Irish Credit Bubble” (working paper 09/32, UCD Centre for Economic Research Working Paper Series, University College Dublin, December 2009), 9.
  27. The degree to which speculation fueled home purchases in Ireland is clarified by the distribution of two dominant mortgage types: primary dwelling home mortgages and buy-to-let mortgages, which are used by investors. In most cases, BTL properties are purchased as a source of both ongoing rental income and capital gains to be realized from price escalation — speculation in the proper sense. In 2011, approximately 16 percent of outstanding mortgages were BTL. But in these years new primary home purchasers, many aiming to build capital to leverage future purchases, also entered the market. The Irish economist John FitzGerald noted a new disposition: Irish families had once been likelier to buy a property that they intended to live in for their entire lives, whereas during the boom many approached home purchases as investments. See Barend Wind, Caroline Dewidle, and John Doling, “Secondary Property Ownership in Europe: Contributing to Asset-Based Welfare Strategies and the ‘Really Big Trade-Off,’” International Journal of Housing Policy 20, no. 1 (January 2020): 25–52. See also Manuel Aalbers et al., Buy-to-Let: gewikt en gewogen (Leuven: KU Leuven and University of Amsterdam, 2018). Anne McGuinness, “The Distribution of Property Level Arrears,” Economic Letter Series, Central Bank of Ireland 6 (2011): 3. John FitzGerald, in discussion with the author, Dublin, July 23, 2013.
  28. By 2012, prices for existing homes had dropped by 34 percent, for existing apartments by 49 percent, and for new apartments by 54 percent. “House Price Statistics,” Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Ireland.
  29. “Housing Stock and Vacant Dwellings 2006 and 2011,” Central Statistics Office, Ireland.
  30. Its first survey counted approximately 3,000 ghost estates with 180,000 units. Over the subsequent seven years, that number dropped to 420 estates with a total of just under 25,000 units. Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government (Republic of Ireland), Resolving Unfinished Housing Developments: 2017 Annual Progress Report on Actions to Address Unfinished Housing Developments (February 2018).
  31. “Forty Ghost Estates Targeted for Demolition,” The Journal.ie, November 18, 2013.
  32. The official statistics seem low because the government removes developments from its list of unfinished projects once they are designated as resolved, and the specific definition of resolution makes it possible that the government is undercounting. For example, resolution does not require the estate to have an electrical connection, only a supply of potable water. Housing Agency, Department of Environment, Community, and Local Government (Republic of Ireland), National Housing Development Survey: Summary Report, November 2012, 8.
  33. Isabel Concheiro, “Interrupted Spain” in After Crisis: Contemporary Architectural Conditions, ed. Josep Lluís Mateo (Baden, Switzerland: Lars Müller Publishers, 2011), 13.
  34. William Chislett, “Is Spain Different? The Political, Economic and Social Consequences of Its Crisis,” International Journal of Iberian Studies 28, nos. 2–3 (June 2015): 258.
  35. Christopher Marcinkoski, The City That Never Was (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2015), 81. Paco Segura, “Infraestructuras de transporte, impacto territorial y crisis,” in Paisajes devastados. Despues del ciclo inmobiliario: impactos regionales y urbanos de la crisis (Madrid: Traficantes de Sueños, 2013), 85. “Gross Domestic Product,” Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
  36. Angel Bergés and Emilio Ontiveros, “La nueva Ley de Suelo desde la perspectiva económica. Sostenibilidad y eficiencia en los Mercados del Suelo.” Ciudad y territorio: Estudios territoriales no. 152–53 (2007): 260; Ministerio de Transportes, Movilidad y Agenda Urbana, “Precios del suelo.” Ministerio de Transportes, Movilidad y Agenda Urbana, “Valor tasado de vivienda libre.”
  37. Asociación Hipotecaria Española, Indicadores del coste de la deuda hipotecaria, 2010. José García-Montalvo, “Deconstruyendo la burbuja. Expectativas de revalorización y precio de la vivienda en España,” Papeles de economía española 109 (2006): 49.
  38. Banco de España, “Indicadores del mercado de la Vivienda.”
  39. It is reported that between 2000 and 2006, the gross value of securitized assets in Spain rose from €8 billion ($10 billion) to €100 billion ($127 billion). Isidro López and Emmanuel Rodríguez, Fin de ciclo. Financiarización, territorio y sociedad de propietarios en la onda larga del capitalismo hispano (1959–2010) (Madrid: Traficantes de Sueños, 2010), 292.
  40. Isidro López and Emmanuel Rodríguez, “The Spanish Model,” New Left Review 69 (May–June 2011): 10.
  41. Tomás Mazón, Elena Delgado Laguna, and José A. Hurtado, “Mortgaged Tourists: The Case of the South Coast of Alicante (Spain),” in Second Home Tourism in Europe: Lifestyle Issues and Policy Responses, ed. Zoran Roca (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2013), 36.
  42. Aitana Alguacil Denche et al., La vivienda en España en el siglo XXI (Madrid: Cáritas Española Editores, 2013), 104.
  43. Quoted in Concheiro, “Interrupted Spain,” 19.
  44. The role and powers of the agente urbanizador are considerable. Granted powers of expropriation, the agente is an individual or private corporation that can develop land regardless of the desires of private landowners. In other words, the agentes can develop land for market purposes against the will of landowners; the only requirement is that they must compensate them for the expropriated land. In practice, this compensation is derived from the value created through “urbanization” (the process in which an area is subdivided into lots, road and utility infrastructure installed, and buildings constructed). It is important to note that almost any private business was able to act as an agente urbanizador. Professor Fernando Gaja i Díaz, University of Valencia, in discussion with the author, Valencia, Spain, July 7, 2014. In the words of Spanish architect Isabel Concheiro, “The creation of this figure was to end the retention of land by owners who refused to participate in urban development [and] to speed up the urbanization process.” Concheiro, “Interrupted Spain,” 19.
  45. Fernando Gaja i Díaz, “Una desamortización a finales del siglo xx: el ‘urbanizador’ en la legislación urbanística valenciana,” in Ordenación del territorio y urbanismo en Castilla-La Mancha, ed. Francisco Blázquez Calvo (Toledo, Spain: Almud, Ediciones de Castilla-La Mancha, 2008), 138–39.
  46. Marcinkoski, The City That Never Was, 73. Tom Allet, “The ‘Ghost’ Comes to Life,” Airports International 52, no. 2 (March 2019): 18. Similarly, the Ciudad Real Central Airport, made infamous by the international media and said to have been constructed for more than €1 billion ($1.2 billion), was empty from 2012 to 2019.
  47. It is difficult to accurately account for the total area of empty urbanized land, but some estimates are as high as 290,000 hectares (716,606 acres). Eugenio L. Burriel, “Empty Urbanism: The Bursting of the Spanish Housing Bubble,” Urban Research & Practice (2015): 7; doi: 10.1080/17535069.2015.1110196.
  48. Eugenio L. Burriel de Orueta, “El estallido de la burbuja inmobiliaria y sus efectos en el territorio,” in Geografía de la crisis económica en España, ed. Juan M. Albertos Puebla and José Sánchez Hernández (Valencia: University of Valencia, 2014), 136. José María Ezquiaga Domínguez uses the phrase “post-metropolitan archipelagos” to describe aspects of Madrid’s urbanization. I have borrowed the phrase, although I define it differently. To read his use of the phrase, refer to “Archipiélagos post-metropolitanos,” Cuestiones Urbanas 1 (2010): 46–56.
  49. Jorge Salido Cobo, “Venta de pisos a contrarreloj,” El Mundo, October 10, 2007,
  50. “Cuatro bancos se quedan con 2,000 pisos de El Pocero,” El País, January 15, 2009.
  51. According to the Spanish urban planner and activist Ramón Fernández Durán, “These new developments are increasingly more segregated from the existing urban fabric and homogeneous in terms of nationalities from rich European Union countries.” Ramón Fernández Durán, “El Tsunami urbanizador español y mundial,” El Ecologista 48 (2006): 22.
  52. “Southeastern landscape is currently a ‘stand-by’ landscape, defined by land works and the construction of new roads and infrastructure,” awaiting the development halted by the market’s collapse. Concheiro, “Interrupted Spain,” 23.
  53. In 2018, the Dutch architect Reinier de Graaf, a partner at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, led a Harvard Graduate School of Design studio that focused on ghost urbanism. They examined 50 developments in 22 countries, each one square kilometer or more in area, with reported vacancy rates above 50 percent that persisted for a minimum period of one year. See Phantom Urbanism.
  54. Kaiji Chen and Yi Wen, The Great Housing Boom of China (working paper 2014-022C, St. Louis: Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, 2014; revised 2016), 1.
  55. Marcinkoski, The City That Never Was, 46.
  56. Max D. Woodworth and Jeremy L. Wallace, “Seeing Ghosts: Parsing China’s ‘Ghost City’ Controversy,” Urban Geography 38, no. 8 (2017): 1272, doi.org/10.1080/02723638.2017.1288009. Max D. Woodworth, “Ordos Municipality: A Market-Era Resource Boomtown,” Cities: The International Journal of Urban Policy and Planning 43 (March 2015): 127; doi.org/10.1016/j.cities.2014.11.017.
  57. The local government redrew the boundary of Kangbashi to exclude an area with a large number of unfinished residential buildings, and in 2016 it reported the population had reached 153,000 — but with an original population aimed at one million, the report still suggests significant underoccupancy. Uchralt Otede, “Kangbashi: The Richest ‘Ghost Town’ in China?,” in Prosperity, ed. Jane Golley and Linda Jaivan (Canberra: Australian National University Press, 2018), 79.
  58. Marcinkoski, The City That Never Was, 47.
  59. According to the Survey and Research Center for China Household Finance, in the first quarter of 2018, 41 percent of all home purchases were of a second home and a shocking 31 percent of a third home. “A Fifth of China’s Homes Are Empty. That’s 50 Million Apartments,” Bloomberg News, November 8, 2018. In 2011, the state-owned China Daily reported that the Beijing Municipal Government banned Beijing families who own two or more apartments and non–Beijing residents who own one or more from purchasing more property in the capital city. “Beijing Issues New Rules to Limit House Purchase,” China Daily, February 16, 2011. In subsequent years, other jurisdictions have enacted similar regulations. Xinhua News Agency, China’s official press agency, reported in 2017 that Hangzhou prohibited single adults from purchasing second homes. “More Chinese Cities Restrict House Purchases,” Xinhua Net, March 29, 2017. “China’s Home Vacancy Rate Is Over 20 Percent,” China Scope, December 30, 2018.
  60. “Housing Should Be for Living In, Not for Speculation, Xi Says,” Bloomberg News, October 18, 2017.
  61. David Castillo and William Egginton, “Dreamboat Vampires and Zombie Capitalists,” New York Times, October 26, 2014.
  62. For an exciting examination of zombie films and urban geography, see Jeff May, “Zombie geographies and the undead city,” Social and Cultural Geography, 11:3 (May 2010); doi.org/10.1080/14649361003637166.
Matthew Soules, “Zombies and Ghosts,” Places Journal, May 2021. Accessed 01 Oct 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/210521

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