Incredible City Transformations

Let's take a tour of the most unbelievable city transformations ever! Take a look at these before and after pictures showing how famous cities changed.


Home to the rich and famous, the world’s most celebrated cities are places where wealth and luxury reign supreme. However, these bustling metropolises weren’t always this way; go back just a few decades and you’d barely recognize them! From the Big Apple all the way to The Big Smoke, let’s take a tour of some of the world’s most shocking city transformations.

Dubai, the Manhattan of the Middle East

Full to the brim with towering skyscrapers, Dubai has taken glitz and glamor to all new heights. It’s home to the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa! Standing a whopping 2,717ft tall, it’s almost nine times the size of the Statue of Liberty.


But back in the 1950s, Dubai was just a humble fishing port. So, what happened? Well, Kuwait’s head of state, the Emir, saw big potential to utilize the port as a trading hub.

So, in 1959, he pumped millions of dollars into it to expand it, enabling it to accommodate larger ships. Then, just a few years after the port’s renovation, Dubai made a miraculous discovery – oil. And oil means money.

Before long, the once sleepy fishing port was making tons of cash exporting the liquid gold to countries around the world. By the eighties, it had successfully reinvented itself as a popular tourist destination, and then the money really started coming in.

Over the following years, the city was renovated, market stalls were swapped out with luxury shopping malls, and bit by bit the arid desert was covered with architecture.


Back in 2001, the Dubai government started quarrying vast quantities of rock to create massive man-made islands on the city’s coast. The most successful of these now has a population of over 10,000 people living there, and plays host to a whole swathe of hotels, resorts, and housing.

The city has come a long way since the fifties. Nothing quite says success like creating your own island.


Las Vegas

When you think of Las Vegas, you think of gambling, partying, and world class entertainment. But in the middle of the 19th Century, the now-sprawling metropolis was just a tiny Mormon settlement!


So, how on earth did a Mormon settlement become a partygoer’s paradise? It all started back in 1910, when the US state of Nevada banned gambling. By then, the Mormons had all left, and Las Vegas had developed a taste for gambling. So, unsurprisingly, people didn’t stop when it was outlawed – they just setup bootleg casinos and gambled illegally instead!

Las Vegas quickly became a breeding ground for illegal activities. Seeing this, mobsters moved into the growing city, and by the time gambling became legalized again in 1931, the place had become a crime hotspot.

The most notorious mobsters, like Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky, even opened up a string of hotels there that still stand today – like the iconic Flamingo, set up by Siegel in 1946! Unfortunately for Siegel, he was murdered a year later – but that’s kind of a risk of the job.


Other mobsters continued to develop the city though, and from the ‘40s to the ‘60s, many iconic hotels and casinos were built from racketeering and drug money. Eventually, they were bought up by legitimate owners, and Las Vegas’s reputation as entertainment capital of the world was steadily established.

Today, 40 million tourists flock there every year. And every one of them has a bunch of crooks to thank for transforming a patch of uninspiring desert into the now-iconic Las Vegas strip.


Times have been tough on Japan’s largest city, Tokyo. Imagine a natural disaster destroys your home, so you rebuild it, only for it to be bombed into oblivion a few years later!

Well, if you were a resident of Tokyo back in the 1920s, you wouldn’t have to imagine. That’s because in 1923 a huge earthquake hit the city, levelling it entirely and leaving a tragic 140,000 bodies in its wake.


Rebuilding efforts began, but just 22 years later the city was brutally destroyed again – this time by a US firebombing attack during World War 2. So, after all this, how did the city possibly become the gleaming high-tech megalopolis that it is today?

Well, the US was worried that obliterating several of Japan’s cities had made the struggling nation consider adopting communism. As the antithesis of the American way of life, this would’ve made Japan a threat – which couldn’t be allowed to happen!

So, to get it back on its feet again and avoid creating a new communist enemy, the US sent Japan a huge sum of money, around $2.2 billion. That’s the equivalent of a colossal $31.5 billion today!

With this sudden influx of money, the Japanese government embarked on a building frenzy like the country had never seen before. In Tokyo alone, 10,000 office and residential buildings were built, four 5-star hotels erected, and a swanky new railway system installed that still functions today! How’s that for a comeback!


Gangnam Style

You’ve probably heard of K-Pop megastar PSY’s “Gangnam Style”. But do you know what the song’s actually about? Well, unless you’re fluent in Korean, probably not. It’s poking fun at Seoul's notoriously ostentatious Gangnam District. But in 1900, this wealthy hot spot was more farmland than megacity!


Seoul steadily developed throughout the 20th century, but it wasn’t until 1961, when the really dramatic changes happened. That year, Park Chung Hee became President of South Korea and decided to embark on a strategy of rapid industrialization.

To achieve this, he instigated policies to support domestic production and reduce reliance on foreign imports. By giving financial support to South Korean family-run businesses, called Chaebols, he helped guarantee their success and subsequently the success of the economy.

South Korea stopped relying on imports and started turning over huge profits from their own products – and the Chaebols became responsible for a colossal two thirds of all of South Korea’s exports. You probably own at least one of their products.

With key sources of income secured, South Korea rapidly modernized. But in the rush to build up as fast as possible, corners were cut – with devastating consequences. Not only did the Seongsu Bridge collapse in 1994, but the Sampoong Department Store crumbled to the ground in 1995, leaving hundreds of casualties in its wake.


Despite these tragedies, however, South Korea’s famously fast approach has had some serious results – in just 50 years, Seoul has completely transformed. Today, the city is one of the hippest cultural capitals in the world, full of innovative architecture and luxury shopping destinations


Abu Dhabi

Life in the United Arab Emirates’ sprawling city of Abu Dhabi moves in the fast lane. For real – it’s home to Ferrari World, which houses the world’s fastest rollercoaster! But, like Dubai, Abu Dhabi was once one big desert.

The man responsible for the dramatic change was Sheikh Zayed, who was the leader of the Emirates. He went on a mission in 1970 to turn the drab desert into the lush green space it is now.


But how do you turn one of the driest places in the world into a vibrant green city? Well, first, you plant 40 million palm trees. By leveling sand dunes, putting a layer of clay over the top of them, and surrounding them with trees, the Sheikh created farmable land that was protected from the wind. Then, he gave these farms to citizens and taught them how to cultivate the land.


As the dry desert was steadily replaced by lush greenery, Abu Dhabi became more and more attractive to visit. Over time, dazzling tourist attractions emerged across the city, funded by the UAE’s main money maker: oil exportation.

Now, there are super-modern art galleries, impressive mosques, and even Formula One racing tracks! What an out-sand-ing revamp!

London, the Big Smoke

The Capital City of England is renowned for a skyline so distinctive that it’s recognizable from its silhouette alone. But this historical city once looked very different. During the Blitz in World War 2, London was hit with over 12,000 tons of bombs, destroying over a million buildings!


Afterwards, it was almost unrecognizable – and, understandably, there was a major housing crisis. So, in the years after the war, the government churned out a slew of cheap concrete high-rises. Stylish they were not, but they were cost and space effective.

Today, these high-rises are notoriously unattractive, but there’s one exception to that rule – the Barbican Centre. First built on bombed land, the performing arts center is now the largest of its kind in Europe.

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The Barbican is one of the most desirable places to live in London too, complete with over 2,000 apartments, an art gallery, and its very own conservatory! Indeed, the city’s growth hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down, with its skyline continuing to dramatically expand in the last 20 years.

These days, London is one of the richest cities in the world, and its affluence has led to some truly iconic buildings – like The Shard, The Gherkin and The Cheese Grater. What's up with the names though? It sounds like they are making a burger.


Jakarta, the Sinking City

We have covered some pretty big cities so far – but none of them are quite like Jakarta, in Indonesia, which is literally sinking under its own weight. Over 10.5 million people live there now, but back in 1960, there were less than a quarter of that!

So, why did the population snowball so rapidly? Well, due to fewer job opportunities in the countryside, Indonesians started migrating to urban areas in the hope of a better life. To accommodate them, Jakarta needed to rapidly urbanize, so large buildings were thrown up in any available space.

The national monument of Indonesia was also built around the time of this population boom, in 1961. Back then, the area looked about as barren as it gets. Today, however, the monument sits in the center of a popular square, and you can get a crystal-clear view of the surrounding urban jungle from the platform at the top.


This is all well and good, but I know you're waiting for the sinking part. Essentially, Jakarta is built on soft soil, held up by the pressure of groundwater below.


This means that when the many residents of Jakarta use wells to extract this groundwater, it leaves empty space underneath, causing the land to literally sink! An issue which is only worsened by the thousands of heavy buildings resting on top.


Understandably, the Indonesian government are treating this problem pretty damn seriously. To relieve pressure on the overcrowded urban center, they’re building an entirely new, 30-billion-dollar capital city!

They’d better be fast though – Jakarta is currently sinking at the shocking rate of up to six inches a year! In fact, it’s estimated that a whole third of the city could be submerged by 2050 if nothing changes. It really is sink or swim in this modern world.


Kuala Lumpur and the Rubber Rainforest

Kuala Lumpur, the biggest city in the whole of Malaysia, used to look like a village in 1920s. The secret behind this crazy transformation is tires.


When the US automobile industry went through a boom in the 1920s, there was a sudden, huge demand for rubber tires. Rubber trees, however, don’t grow in the US. Any guesses where they do grow? Malaysia!

Out of nowhere, everybody wanted the country’s rubber, and the price of the highly sought-after commodity shot sharply upwards. Kuala Lumpur flourished from the increase in trade. Foreign planters flocked to the town to establish new rubber companies, and between 1900 and 1931 the population almost quadrupled in size, from 30,000 to 110,000!

As the years went by, Kuala Lumpur grew and grew. Now, it’s complete with almost 2,000 high-rise buildings, which have popped up around traditional landmarks like the Jamek mosque and the clocktower in Old Market Square.

The greatest sign of how far the city has come has to be the iconic Petronas Towers. At a dizzying 1,500 feet high, they’re the tallest twin towers in the whole world! In case you are wondering, they’re not made of rubber.


Hong Kong, The Vertical City

Over 500 skyscrapers dominate Hong Kong’s skyline, landing it the nickname “The Vertical City”. But as recently as the 1960s, the horizontal city would’ve been a much better name for it, the mountains being the most vertical part!


After World War 2, Hong Kong was a tiny territory with a frail economy. But during the late forties and early fifties, hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the Chinese Civil war settled in the region, bringing over valuable skills and cheap labor.

Armed with this influx of new workers, Hong Kong was all set for some super-rapid industrialization. To meet North America and Europe’s growing demand for manufactured goods, the city specialized in things like textiles, shoes, and plastic.

Exporting these goods pulled heaps of money in, and as the 20th century progressed, Hong Kong progressed with it. Now, it’s littered with so many towers you can barely make out the mountains behind!


And they’re completely obscured when the nightly Symphony of Lights kicks off – the world’s largest light and sound show! With stunning lasers and pyrotechnics lighting up the sky, it’s hard to imagine this place was ever a sleepy little town.

Watch on YouTube


Of all the places to become stupendously rich, can a barren place of desert be on their level? And yet, in just 50 years, it has become almost unrecognizable! The place in question is Doha, and like other cities in the United Arab Emirates, it used to be little more than a small pearl fishing community.


The town chugged along, slowly growing, until the sudden discovery of oil in 1939, which opened up a whole host of new money-making possibilities. However, just as Doha began exporting oil, the value of pearls dropped sharply, stunting the city’s growth.

It wasn’t until the 1950s and ‘60s that the real wealth started coming in, and the government was quick to act, razing its slums to the ground and building modern settlements in their place.

From then on, Doha grew from strength to strength, building a deep-water port in the ‘70s which opened it up to even more trade and income. And as modern architecture replaced traditional, the city quickly rose in status and importance.


In 1997, the government even built a huge learning hub at the edge of Doha called “Education City” – which, at five square miles, is literally the size of a small city. Jump to now, and Doha itself is as extravagant as it comes, with miles of futuristic buildings taking over the coastline, and its own manmade island.


Fortaleza, Brazil

Brazil is well known for its climate, lush rainforests, and beautiful beaches. So, it’s no surprise that the sprawling beachside city of Fortaleza is a hugely popular tourist destination.

More surprising, however, is the rate at which it became so popular. Back in 1800, Fortaleza had just 3,000 inhabitants, but when both a port and railroad were installed in the town, this number grew exponentially throughout the nineteenth century.


Because of its new transport links, Fortaleza became the trading hub of the region, and its biggest export – cotton – grew conveniently nearby. As its importance to trade grew, Fortaleza grew with it. By 1920, its population had increased dramatically to nearly 79,000 people! Even so, it was still far from what it is today.

Naturally, the growing population only increased production, spurring the city to expand ever more. And as it did so, it began to attract the attention of tourists, drawn to its majestic beaches. They pumped even more money into the city, and by the 1970s, the once peaceful coastline was transformed into a busy urban landscape.


Today, Fortaleza is famous for its urban beaches, which sit against a modern backdrop of hotels, resorts, and beach bars. It would be easy to forget it was ever anything else! These built-up beaches give the city a unique selling point, creating the perfect fusion between ‘city break’ and ‘beach holiday’. Talk about the best of both worlds!


Shanghai is the richest city in East Asia. As such, it would be easy to assume that it’s always been the thriving business powerhouse it is today. But guess what? Back in 1900, this megacity was a mere fishing village.


So, what caused Shanghai’s big glowup? Well, it’s perfectly located for trade – allowing convenient access to ships from China’s neighboring countries, while also providing the perfect gateway to China itself. Still, this handy location wasn’t properly capitalized on until the nineties, when China fully opened itself up to global trade.

Recognizing the city’s geographic importance, China’s leader, Premier Zhu Rongji, poured money and resources into Shanghai. In doing so, he made the city one of the most powerful trading locations on Earth. As the money flooded in, rapid urbanization came with it, and Shanghai’s skyline transformed completely in a matter of decades.


These days, the city looks more like a sci-fi metropolis than a fishing port. Its iconic rocket-looking building, the Oriental Pearl Tower, was the tallest building in China until 2007, when the Shanghai World Financial Centre took the crown! Although neither building is going to take you to space, they certainly look out of this world.

Rio de Janeiro, the Carnival City

Now, it’s time to take a trip to the city of the world-famous Copacabana beach! Slap bang between the mountains and the sea, Rio’s location is so breath-taking that UNESCO has named it a world heritage site.


But rewind back in time, and the landscape is barely recognizable without its iconic statue of Christ the Redeemer. Built over a hundred years ago, the statue supposedly protects the people beneath it. Unfortunately, however, it hasn’t always done its job.

Since 1950, Rio’s population has risen at an astonishing rate, with over 10 million people settling in the city. Usually, this would be great for a city – but the radical influx of people wasn’t initially met with sufficient housing or infrastructure.

Because of this, many of Rio’s inhabitants had to develop their own self-built neighborhoods, called Favelas. These neighborhoods were built on steep forest slopes, without sanitization or electricity. These areas became less-than-ideal places to live.


Fortunately, Rio gained a much-needed cash injection when oil and gas were discovered off the coast in 2006. Since then, the government has been trying to upgrade its housing situation, despite numerous cases of corruption. Sadly, favelas still remain throughout the city.

Despite ongoing disparity between the rich and poor however, today Rio is a built-up megacity, famous for its spectacular coastal landscape. And these beautiful views make it the perfect spot for the Rio Carnival, a vibrant celebration which attracts 2 million attendees each day that it runs.

New York, the City that Never Sleeps

New York City – or, as it’s widely known, The City That Never Sleeps. Indeed, the most populated city in the US doesn’t sleep anymore; but it definitely used to. In fact, this vast concrete jungle of nearly nine million people had just 5,000 inhabitants at the turn of the 18th century.


Not that it would stay so small for very long – just a century later, in 1800, it had expanded to host 60,000 people! Its location on the banks of the Hudson River made it perfect for trade, both from the sea and inland.

Because of this, the city established itself as one of the country’s most important ports, and eventually an international trading center. The money this trade brought in was monumental for New York’s success and sparked an incredible process of urbanization. At the start of the 1900s, Times Square wasn’t even called Times Square – it was Longacre Square, and instead of dense traffic, horses and carriages patrolled the streets.

It was renamed Times Square in 1904, when the New York Times moved their publishing house there, significantly increasing the prestige of the area.

The publishing house, Times Tower, was an architectural marvel at the time, and the second-tallest building in the city, at over 400 feet high. Nowadays, this is comparatively tiny, but the structure still stands – albeit looking a little different to how it used to.


It wasn’t until the roaring twenties and thirties that the city really kicked its urbanization up a gear, with the construction of a whole host of now iconic skyscrapers. Beautiful art deco buildings such as the Chrysler and the Empire State emerged on the skyline.

Incredibly, the Empire State Building only took 13 months to build. Jump to present day, and NYC is chockfull of huge, dominating structures.


Singapore, the Magical Metropolis

The South-East Asian Island of Singapore is so small, you can drive across the entire thing in just an hour! Despite its tiny size, however, it has one of the highest average incomes in the world. On the other hand, in the mid-20th century, the island was one of the poorest places on the planet.


That’s one massive turnaround, and it’s all thanks to the city’s public housing strategy. By the time the 1960s rolled around, Singapore had had a housing crisis for decades. There were too many people for too few houses, so many of them lived in abject squalor.

But in 1966, the government housing board decided enough was enough, and made a massive effort to change this. Affordable housing was built, and schemes were set up to help the poor save up for a proper place to live. Because of this, the quality of life for hundreds of thousands of people dramatically improved.

And with its citizens happier and better off, the government began building factories on previously unused swampland. This created a ton of jobs and massively boosted the economy, paving the way for Singapore to become the economic powerhouse it is today.


Now, the Marina Bay Sands Resort is one of the city’s most famous attractions, along with the enchanting 250-acre Gardens by the Bay. But did you know the very ground they’re built on didn’t used to be there?

Naturally, Singapore is hilly, which isn’t conducive for building on. So, in the 1970s, the government had a crazy idea: they cut out ground from nearby hills and brought it over to the coast on a huge, 16-mile-long conveyor belt system!

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The relocated ground was planted off the coastline, and over time it was built upon, growing alongside the main city. Today, the manmade island is incredibly popular, and Singapore is a tourist hotspot. I think we can all agree, after its radical transformation it should be called Singa-rich.

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