Kazakhstan Central Concert Hall Astana, photo by Elena Giussani (Wikimedia Commons)

Astana is the second largest city in the central Asian country of Kazakhstan. It is a planned capital, located smack dab in the middle of the inhospitable Kazakh steppes, where temperatures range from -40C to 40C (-40F to 14F). Its population in 1999 was 281,000 but is expected to top 1 million by 2030.

Like other planned capitals, including Brasilia and Canberra, Astana is a ‘capital from zero’. But Astana’s purpose – at least according to its now deceased architect, Japan’s Kisho Kurokawa – was to meet and profit from the coming protein crisis spurred on by China’s rocketing economic growth. Astana and Kazakhstan would supply the region with peas and beans.

Yet Astana itself is built on Kazakhstan’s oil boom.

Like Gulf cities, Astana floats on an exhalation of petrodollars. Like Gulf cities and new Chinese cities such as Shenzhen, Astana inspires wonder that it is there at all; but while having some buildings of eye-aching ugliness, it has a greater sense of order. At street level in Dubai all is congestion. Here it is trimmed hedges, well-behaved traffic, well-kept paving and a complete lack of litter, or of visible signs of prostitution, drug-taking or beggary. It most resembles the controlled cleanliness of Singapore.

–The Observer

This kind of planning and population explosion may pale however, when compared to what is happening in China.

Ordos, a coalmining subdivision in the Chinese region of Inner Mongolia, is home to the new ultra-modern Kangbashi district, which is being built with stimulus money from the Chinese government. It is full of new middleclass houses and apartments designed to house one million inhabitants. It has wide avenues and impressive public buildings – the museum and library are breathtaking – but practically no one lives there.

The city boasts the second highest per-capita income, behind to Shanghai but ahead of Beijing.

–Time Magazine

Most of Kangbashi’s homes have been sold, as real estate investment is more or less a guaranteed payoff in China, but the real population of Ordos still lives 30 km away as workers cannot afford to live in Kangbashi’s flashy new housing.

These are two examples of the strange remote, yet fiercely modern Asian cities that fossil fuel is building.

For more on Astana and Ordos see the following articles:

Observer – Astana, Kazakhstan: the space station in the steppes

Time Magazine (slide show) – Ordos, China: A Modern Ghost Town

Also check out this Al Jazeera English video report:

China’s empty city