Some places never get a chance to be.
That, I fear, will be the case with the new Angolan city of Kilamba, a pre-planned, Chinese-built city designed for half a million residents, but which currently has only 220 occupied apartments.
I’m not sure I know of another example of a city of this size being built so fully in advance of actually having anyone to live there. And when you step back and think about how cities have developed over the millenia, this approach doesn’t really make much sense. Early cities formed at the crossroads of important trading routes, or around fertile and productive agricultural land as the local population settled and densified. There were reasons for cities to spring up and grow, reasons driven by the needs of the people who either lived nearby to or traveled through those places.
When you think of reasons why a person might move to a city today, they usually have something to do with what that person might expect to find there. Perhaps a job, or enhanced cultural opportunities. But one thing people generally aren’t seeking in a city is a whole lot of empty space:
Only a handful of the commercial units are occupied, mostly by utility companies, but there are no actual shops on site, and so – with the exception of a new hypermarket located at one entrance – there is nowhere to buy food.
For a city that is intended to be home to half a million people, this is a problem. “Build it and they will come” doesn’t work like this. Nobody’s going to want to move to a city that has no place to buy things.
Of course, those gleaming new buildings would be less likely to sit empty if actual Angolans could afford to live there:
Apartments at Kilamba are being advertised online costing between $120,000 and $200,000 – well out of reach of the estimated two-thirds of Angolans who live on less than $2 a day.
The per capita GDP of Angola was $9,000 last year. 40% of the population – somewhere around 8 million people – lives in poverty.
So what we have here is an entire city being built specifically for the uppermost Angolan classes, and there aren’t enough of them to fill the place.
The whole thing reminds me of the New South China Mall, the largest shopping mall in the world that, with its 47 stores, has something like a 2% occupancy rate. And what’s really funny (well, kinda funny, anyway) to me about that mall is that it seems to have failed because of … poor location. It’s not easy to get to. It’s too far from a population big enough to support it. There aren’t any other shopping areas nearby to take advantage of.
It seems to me that there’s a lesson in the New South China Mall for the developers of Kilamba. If only I could put my finger on it ….