Accidents and natural disasters also cause people to desert their homes. An underground mine fire still burning after it began in Centralia, Pennsylvania, in the early 1960s has forced all but a handful of residents out. Just seven resolute inhabitants remain living there today without infrastructure and electricity.
Ghost cities are certainly not a new phenomenon. In just one of many such occurrences, a change of climate around 1400 is believed to have led to the abandonment of the prosperous ancient city of Angkor in Cambodia, which boasted an advanced water system and sophisticated international relations.
Perhaps even more striking are the existence of newly constructed cities that sit nearly empty, like Ordos in China, which has been described as the "best kept ghost town in the world." A modern city designed for 300,000, with street lamps run by wind turbines and freshly-laid asphalt, it now houses no more than 5,600 people, predominantly gardeners and builders who came for well-paid seasonal work.
Brigitte Schultz, urban researcher and editor of German architecture magazine Bauwelt, attributes the fascination with ghost towns to an emotional, rather than an intellectual connection to the phenomenon.
"I think people can connect to these stories," she told Spiegel Online at the opening of the exhibition featuring photographs of ghost towns around the world at the Architecture Museum at Berlin's Technical University on Thursday.
"The tales aren't supposed to be didactic," said Schultz, who also curated the show. "Often they remind us of our humanity. Take the case of Centralia, for example. Here are seven people who say, 'No, this is our home. We will not go,' even if that means living without roads and electricity."
Museum head Dr. Hans-Dieter Nägelke asserted architecture represents the "essence of a person". Taking a look around the museum's exterior, where tufts of grass were sprouting wildly from in between slabs of concrete, he quipped that Berlin reminded him of some places featured in the exhibition.
"These ghost towns make us wonder how long we will all be here," he said. "A thriving city can turn into a ghost town much faster than we imagine."
Intellpuke: You can read this article by Spiegel journalist Kate Katherina Ferguson in context here: www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/berlin-exhibition-explores-modern-ghost-towns-a-835282.html