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Europe’s post-crash ghost towns

Before 2008, Dublin was a boom town. Property prices were high; the economy was thriving; people were spending. Keen to take advantage of the moment, Irish officials and contractors built nearly 7.500 homes in 2006, many in large, high-budget housing estates. 

Then the 2008 financial crash happened, and the city’s house prices fell by 50 per cent in a single year.

Click for a larger image. Image: CityMetric Intelligence.

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Since then, the city’s rebounded, to some extent – in 2014, it had the second fastest-growing luxury property market in the world. But Dublin’s boom years are still haunting city officials in the form of those unfinished, unsold and uninhabited housing estates.

Aerial views of Castlemoyne and Belmayne, two estates in north Dublin, show where construction left off:

Castlemoyne. Image: Google Earth.

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Belmayne. Image: Google Earth.

Construction began on the Belmayne estate in 2007, but ground to a halt the following year. On many of the streets, only one or two houses have actually been sold.

In Castlemoyne, however, the frozen development ground back into life in summer 2014, and now the estate is completed. Here’s a recent picture of one of the streets from developer Shannon Homes:

Ghost town no more. Image: Shannon Homes.

However, across Ireland, as of November 2013, there were stillaround 1,000 of these unfinished “ghost” housing estates; and the most significant effort to tackle them so far has been the Irish government’s decision that year to demolish 40 of them. For the non-numerical among you, that still leaves a lot of empty houses.

Completed houses on the Belmayne estate.Image: Google Street View.

In some Spanish cities, the boom-and-bust of the noughties has had a similar effect. Across Spain, 5m homes were built between 2000 and 2009, increasing the housing stock by 25 per cent. But when the bubble burst, as in Ireland, the country was left with abandoned homes, apartment blocks and holiday resorts.

In Valencia, a coastal city, new builds mostly took the form of hotels and second homes. To further boost the city’s appeal, the city authorities turned a dry riverbed into a landscaped corridor at a cost of over €1bn. It contains a playground shaped like a sleeping Gulliver, of Gulliver’s Travels fame; four-man bicycles; and, according to the city’s tourism website, “well-trimmed arty gardens”.

Image: Valenciavalencia.com.

But since the crash, the city has faced frequent rounds of budget cuts and accompanying protests as it tries to make up for its pre-2008 overspending. (That, incidentally, also extended to a €2.4bn harbour development and a €1.1bn cultural centre shaped like a giant blue whale.)

Last year, a group of engineers and architects set up a site to visually track the growth of Spain’s towns. Aerial images hosted on Nacion Rotonda (“roundabout country”) show cities in 2001, surrounded by fields, and the same cities in 2012, filled with sprawling, empty developments. The group’s Tumblr page regularly features pages of roads that lead to nowhere, like this one near a development in Cadiz, a port city in south-west Spain:

Image: Google Street View.

Rafael Trapiello, one of Nación Rotonda’s founders, told The Guardian that he blames the pre-2008 appetite for new developments for the problems the country faces now:

These were developments that were thrown together with little consideration of social needs, just big expectations of making money…. What we’ve ended up with are ghost towns.

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This article was updated on 25/2/2015 to reflect the fact that development on the Castlemoyne estate restarted in 2014; and that the number of homes built in Dublin in 2006 was 7,500.
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