Ghost Cities Research Team Embarks on China Field Study

The research team for the project “Ghost Cities: Beyond the Image”—Prof. Sarah Williams (PI), Wenfei Xu (project manager), and Zhekun Xiong (MCP candidate)—conducted a four-city, nine-day field study and research trip to China funded by the Samuel Tak Lee Faculty Research Seed Fund. During the trip, the team went on site visits and interviewed key academics, planners, and real estate developers in Beijing, Tianjin, Shenyang, and Shanghai.

The Civic Data Design Lab has been working on the project to investigate Chinese residential building vacancy through the use of open-source data from Baidu, Dianping, and Fang, with the goal of identifying potential risks in China’s real estate market. The team, led by Sarah Williams, conducted ground-truth data in sites within Tianjin and Shenyang, which were selected according to the data model developed by the lab. The sites vary from real estate projects that are abandoned during construction to buildings just completed, or those that have been kept vacant for several years, including “ghost developments” such as the vast expansion in Binhai New District of Tianjin and a new satellite city on the border of Shenyang and Fushun. While on the trip, the team also took thrilling drone footage and photos of those largely underutilized developments, which will be integrated into future visualization of the research in publications and exhibitions.

The team interviewed local important stakeholders in the urban planning and real estate development process to gain a fuller and more meaningful understanding of the real estate story in China and to exchange ideas on the potentials and possibilities of this research project. Among key figures the team met with are academics such as Hongyu Liu, professor and director of the Real Estate Research Institute of Tsinghua University, and Yachen Liu, professor and Dean of Department of Management in Shenyang Architectural University; professional planners such as Xiaoke Zhang, senior engineer in the Shenyang Urban Planning Bureau, and Yixue Jiao, director planner of the Institute of Housing and Settlements in China Academy of Urban Planning & Design; and real estate developers, including Hai Zhang, vice president of Vanke, and Wenjie Sun, the former president of China State Construction. The team was also invited to a panel discussion by Tongji Urban Planning & Design Institute with academics and planners from the institute and Tongji University. They had a robust discussion on potential applications of data in future urban studies in China.

The team is currently refining the model for better performance and is compiling their documentations to include on the Ghost Cities website as well as in future scholarly work related to the topic.

- Zhekun Xiong, first-year MCP student in DUSP and STL Fellow