Increasing number of abandoned homes in Tokyo

As the population declines, Tokyo has more abandoned homes:

Despite a deeply rooted national aversion to waste, discarded homes are spreading across Japan like a blight in a garden. Long-term vacancy rates have climbed significantly higher than in the United States or Europe, and some eight million dwellings are now unoccupied, according to a government count. Nearly half of them have been forsaken completely – neither for sale nor for rent, they simply sit there, in varying states of disrepair.

These ghost homes are the most visible sign of human retreat in a country where the population peaked a half-decade ago and is forecast to fall by a third over the next 50 years. The demographic pressure has weighed on the Japanese economy, as a smaller workforce struggles to support a growing proportion of the old, and has prompted intense debate over long-term proposals to boost immigration or encourage women to have more children.

For now, though, after decades during which it struggled with overcrowding, Japan is confronting the opposite problem: When a society shrinks, what should be done with the buildings it no longer needs?…

Tokyo could end up being surrounded by Detroits,” said Tomohiko Makino, a real estate expert who has studied the vacant-house phenomenon. Once limited mostly to remote rural communities, it is now spreading through regional cities and the suburbs of major metropolises. Even in the bustling capital, the ratio of unoccupied houses is rising.

The population loss in Detroit and Tokyo are driven by different factors yet the Motor City could help other cities around the world think about what to do when the population decreases.

This particular article doesn’t talk much about negative consequences of having a lot of abandoned homes. Any problems with squatters? People tearing apart the buildings for scraps? Animals? Neighbors unhappy about the lack of upkeep? Bloated infrastructure costs that need to be reined in? Perhaps the consequences of abandoned homes are quite different across national contexts.

What motivates people to document the “urban ruins” of New York City?

There is the glittering New York City, capital of the world, and then there are the urban ruins:

From the creepy to the bizarre, Ellis’ exploration of the derelict and decrepit has lead him to document nearly 50 locations across New York City and beyond. The images chronicle forsaken schools, asylums, and forts, along with railroads and waterfronts. He updates his popular blog constantly, and a collection of 150 images has been published in Abandoned NYC.

Ellis has become somewhat of an expert at discovering the city’s hidden ruins. He gleans a lot of information from other “urban explorers” who post their findings online. He also uses Google Earth — if he sees a building with a collapsed tree outside or what look like abandoned cars, it’s a sure sign no one’s inside. In three years of urban spelunking, he’s somehow avoided being arrested. There are occasional run-ins with security guards, but he usually leaves when they tell him to and that’s that. “Getting in is easier than you think,” he says.

Wired runs stories like these regularly and you can find lots of such pictures online (particularly from Detroit). What is the appeal? My guesses at the moment:

1. It contrasts with the glittering/branded images most cities want to present.

2. It fits in with those interested in darker things like deviant activity (not necessarily illegal, but at least out of the mainstream), horror films, and post-apocalyptic stories. And all of this may be down the block or around the corner in the city! And there are such artistic opportunities!

3. It strikes me that it may be relatively easy to find these sites. Some of the pictures here are from larger sites but some could be from relatively small buildings. It may not be clear from the outside how ruined it looks inside.

4. Perhaps this is some reaction to the orderly middle- to upper-class presentation of the world where everything has to be in its right place. Sites like these present an opportunity to revel in disorder.

5. Humans can survive in such spaces? Again, we are used to seeing the more upscale settings in which the rich and famous live but seeing how the lower half lives may just be more hidden and/or blocked.

6. This is about preserving history. Without such photos, it is easy for buildings to quickly or slowly disappear.

Scarier than McMansions: half-completed McMansions

In the middle of a slideshow about the “World’s Eeriest Abandoned Places” is an image of a South Florida neighborhood of half-completed McMansions. The description of Lehigh Acres (picture 7 of 8):

There’s something bluntly creepy about the abandoned exurbs of Florida. Forsaken construction sites, like the ones in the middle-class development of Lehigh Acres in Florida’s southwest, are filled with half-built McMansions, unkempt yards overtaken by alligators and snakes, and derelict cul de sacs that lead to nothing. Florida’s population is diminishing for the first time ever, and nowhere is the exodus felt stronger than here.

Before Halloween, I wrote about the trend of horror films using McMansions as scary settings. Perhaps abandoned sites are more in the genre of post-apocalyptic films…

Overall, I’m not sure why abandoned buildings are viewed as being so creepy. I wonder if this fear has increased with the prosperity of the Western world in recent decades. With so much money out there, it strikes us as very odd that a building would just be left behind and unused. Is there something horribly wrong with the building? Why wouldn’t someone want to preserve and reuse it? But, I assume this has happened plenty throughout human history. Think about the ruins of empires; what happened with all the structures the Romans built when their empire slowly collapsed over the centuries? Or what exactly happened to those Mayan cities in the jungle? I remember as a kid learning about the “Lost Colony” of Roanoke but this certainly happened with other explorer settlements like the Vikings in Greenland. Until recent history, abandoned buildings and settlements were probably more common and “normal.”

A more upbeat assessment of the state of Detroit

In recent years, numerous media outlets have focused on the troubles of Detroit. Photo essays of now abandoned but once glorious buildings have become normal.

There is one grassroots news organization that is now pushing back against these more bleak images. VICE/VBS.TV explains their approach:

In August 2009, Vice published a story called “Something, something, something, Detroit: Lazy journalists love pictures of abandoned stuff,” about the roving gangs of photojournalists prowling the empty city and feasting on its highly photogenic carcass. Since then, some of the worst offenders have abashedly changed their approach to covering Michigan’s largest city. But most outlets are still fixated on the all-you-can-click pageview buffet that is “misery porn” of the decaying Motor City…

The fact of the matter is that the situation in Detroit is daunting. The city that so successfully realized the 1950s American dream is now a visual testament to its grandiose demise. But is that really news?

We like to think that the story is better told by identifying those who remain in Detroit and those who are moving back precisely because it is challenging. We set out to give the people of Detroit a platform to tell their story. The city has become a place where enterprising classes can find the space and time to do whatever they want, cheaply and hassle-free. It’s a raw space where they can create community and start rebuilding their city from the inside out.

I’ll be curious to see how much attention their coverage generates. And the possible transformation/regeneration of Detroit will continue to be a fascinating story.