Basically, the result of a city or county government spending tons of money to build something that has little to no use. The reason may vary: the city council might have been taken in by a Con Man, a Corrupt Politician, the knee-jerk reaction of a terrified populace, or the Vast Bureaucracy made the project so complicated that it had cost overruns and even when complete, it didn't meet the people's needs or the leaders are just plain crazy and power-mad.
The reason the project is useless varies. In some cases, the main purpose is funnelling contracts to cronies, so there's no real interest in whether the end product or facility actually works. In other cases, the project was done by underqualified firms with insider connections, so the end result is poorly done and the public doesn't like it. With some projects, such as statues or avant garde public art, it is a vanity exercise for the politician, so they don't care if the public like it.
In some cases, it might not be the local government but rather a charity or non-profit. The result is usually the same: A lot of money is spent on something that ends up being utterly useless.
In Real Life, projects like these are sometimes labeled "Follies": Buildings that are built for no practical purpose except for decoration and/or to show off the wealth of whoever ordered it built. The grandest examples are probably the Egyptian pyramids, built partly to inflate the Pharaoh's vanity and partly to keep a large agricultural workforce occupied during the season when the farmland was flooded. A more modern Real Life example would be "pork barrel" projects (expensive projects approved by Congress that only really benefit the district of the congressman who proposed the project in the first place). However, one person's pork barrel is another person's much needed civic improvement, so No Real Life Examples, Please!
- Discussed and invoked a few times in Salaryman Kintaro. Being set in Japan right after the asset price bubble burst and Kintaro hiring himself in a construction corporation, he often butts heads with corrupt officials and less scrupulous constructors that were syphoning public funds during the bubble to line their pockets. At the same time, the post-war reconstruction that put Yamato Construction on the map is routinely portrayed as a valiant, noble effort that put the nation back on its feet.
- The villain of Jack Reacher is described as exploiting these — according to Helen Rodin, "They build bridges no one needs, highways no one uses" — as his primary criminal enterprise, by buying out a local construction firm ahead of civic redevelopment and then, presumably, price-gouging on absolutely everything to line his pockets. And has done this at least twelve times already. Don't ask how they were able to get away with fifteen years of pointless and presumably sub-standard construction without anyone (that they couldn't just kill) noticing.
- In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the Big Brother regime constantly builds things like monuments to both inspire mindless nationalism and to soak up excess resources. This is to keep living standards so low that the people are too worn down to resist.
- In Jerry Pournelle's CoDominium stories, the colony planet of Hadley is in serious need of industry and infrastructure... but the CD builds them a giant sports stadium instead. Unsurprisingly, the company that got the contract is owned by a corrupt CoDo Senator.
- Lampooned by Dave Barry in his book Dave Barry is Not Taking This Sitting Down, in a column called "Eye of the Beholder":
[Recently] Dade County purchased an office building from the city of Miami. The problem was that, squatting in an area that the county wanted to convert into office space, there was a huge ugly wad of metal, set into the concrete. So the county sent construction workers with heavy equipment to rip out the wad, which was then going to be destroyed. But guess what? Correct! It turns out this was NOT an ugly wad. It was art! Specifically, it was Public Art, defined as "art that is purchased by experts who are not spending their own personal money." The money of course comes from the taxpayers, who are not allowed to spend this money themselves because (1) they probably wouldn't buy art, and (2) if they did, there is no way they would buy the crashed-spaceship style of art that the experts usually select for them."
- The Agatha Christie novel Dead Man's Folly features an ugly building built with the usual good taste associated with the Nouveau Riche. In this case, it was built with a purpose: to hide the corpse of the owner's real wife, with the second wife posing as her ever since they'd arrived.
- In The Fold this claim is leveled at the titular research project into teleportation. The evidence of such is that the project has soaked up four years of funding with no stated timeline, the team refuses to share their documentation, and all the paperwork that is generated looks like wasteful busywork. The evidence against the label is that the damned thing works.
- Limes Inferior by Janusz Zajdel has the entire global economy run like that, solely for the sake of it, as part of a Benevolent Alien Invasion. One of the stipulations made by the aliens was imposing their social norms, where masses are kept employed and stratified for the sake of public order, rather than producing anything of value or purpose. And the goal is to eventually just stop bothering with even that, once the population is sufficiently docile.
- In the Retief story "Dam Nuisance", a local alien asks the eponymous hero for aid from the CDT to repair his house. However, Retief notes that the Corps is prohibited from building anything useful - the CDT experts believe that it would cause the aliens to lose self-esteem as a result. However, Retief notes that the CDT is more than happy to construct something pointless should the need arise.
- Stephen King's (as Richard Bachman) story Roadwork has as a final, depressing note on its epilogue that the titular construction (which was going to demolish the protagonist's home and caused much drama and a standoff) was one of these by the local government — they needed to build a certain number of miles of road per year to avoid losing funding.
- The incredibly expensive, country-spanning Anti-Smite Shield commissioned by the British government in the Thursday Next series. It actually did serve a function: using up surplus government stupidity with one massive, incredibly stupid project.
- In Benson, federal auditors discover an unexpected budget surplus of $8 million and insist that the state spend that money or their federal distribution will be reduced by twice that much the next fiscal year (which starts tomorrow), so Benson & Clayton try to find a way to spend it before the end of the day. In the end Benson decides that's stupid, and just announces that they have a surplus.
- In the Frontline episode "Let the Children Play", the Frontline team did a community service project for disadvantaged inner-city youth as a ratings grab. Despite all the kids wanting a basketball court, they decide to build a playground as it makes better television. And then the playground is found to be unsafe and cannot actually be used, as a result of Mike mistakenly hiring a dodgy contractor the team were planning to do an expose on.
- In the M*A*S*H episode, "Dear Truman," the staff of the 4077 are visited by a senior office who offers increased support for the field hospital as long as he sees some increased effort in local beautification. Col. Potter, after getting his jaw back after hearing something so stupid in a war zone, angrily protests that this flies in the face of medical and military priorities, but the visiting officer will not be persuaded otherwise and the camp has to play along.
- In Parks and Recreation, Ben is ridiculed for being the former 18-year-old mayor of his small town. One of the decisions that led to his impeachment was that he attempted to build a state-of-the-art ice skating rink facility. This results in people questioning his ability to be a state auditor.
- Utopia (2014) is an Australian workplace sitcom set in the "National Building Authority", a Government department that is intended to come up with large scale infrastructure projects, which almost inevitably get wrecked by Government bureaucracy, political interference and the occasional piece of corporate corruption. Assuming they even get built that is. One major example is that after a gigantic failure of a Government information technology project, one of the main characters advises the minister that it will cost billions more dollars and take years to fix, and that her recommendation is to simply cancel it. The Government Minister responsible responds by immediately approving the fix and to put out a press release crowing about the huge spend.
- Something of this nature is discussed but doesn't actually happen in an episode of WKRP in Cincinnati. The local homeless shelter's kitchen catches fire and it will cost $40,000 to rebuild. Jennifer gets a bunch of wealthy Cincinnaitians together to donate the money, but they decide "why just rebuild the kitchen when we can build them a whole new shelter?" One man will donate a plot of land he has sitting around and a couple of others donate $150K for building it. Then the users of the shelter show up, and point out they don't need nor want a new building, especially not one in a distant suburb no one can get to via public transportation. What they need is to have the shelter's kitchen rebuilt.
- It's a Wonderful World can be best described as a balancing act between as many civic projects done for the sake of themselves and building a functional economy. A significant portion of the mega-projects to construct are extreme resource sinks that don't really benefit you at all... but provide a variety of point multipliers during the final tally, which can easily win you the match. The trick is to know if you will be able to afford them before the game ends.
- 2nd edition of London has the deck split into three sub-sets: money-makers, support cards... and a whole lot of public projects that have zero or close-to-zero application other than a huge amount of points they give in the end. Gameplay-wise, you are burning resources for the sake of the end-game tally, and you might even go as far as to make poverty twice as big of an issue on the way to your personal glory.
- City-Building Series had this going from Pharaoh onward. You have various massive, long-term projects and monuments to construct that don't benefit your own city in any way, being often extreme resource sinks (even requiring importing all that stuff)... but you have to build them to finish the specific mission. Tropes Are Not Bad, since that's part of the fun of those games, but the point still stands: the projects you build have no practical application. This is probably best exemplified in Emperor, where you build things like sections of The Great Wall of China or The Grand Canal, but they don't work as actual fortifications nor open new trade routes.
- A subset of those projects is using work camps - providing manual labourers for the construction - as a quick way to sink up a large amount of unemployment, even when you are not building anything at all. When you need that excess labour, you can always just remove the camps, while the wages come back via taxing and keeping crime rates low due to full employment, without overproducing any goods that would be impossible to trade away. This allows to finish various missions that come with very high population requirements without tanking your ratings due to high unemployment.
- Building at least one is traditional in Dwarf Fortress. The more gratuitous, the better. The forum even ran a contest to see who could build the best tower out of soap, in a game where soap is surprisingly hard to come by.
- Often, however, these 'megaprojects' do serve a useful purpose; they give the local population something to do note , and they boost the economic value of the settlement, attracting more migrants and larger trade caravans... And larger and more numerous enemy invasions, to keep things interesting.
- Immortal Cities: Children of the Nile: Long-term, expensive, monumental construction projects like statues and tombs are the primary means of boosting your Prestige score, which enables your city to retain more skilled workers. Tombs at least get occupied (and woe unto your dynasty if the Pharaoh dies without a tomb ready).
- In Not for Broadcast, a Running Gag involves the People's Republic of Tyranny using taxpayer money to bankroll a series of plays by a talentless math teacher named Geoff Algebra for Bread and Circuses.
- This being a game of cynical politics and manipulating the masses, certain projects and structures from Rise of the White Sun are openly designed as pork barrel stuff. They either placate people with amenities or simply by being impressive, but they are just as crooked as your government. This is most notable with building irrigation projects in places that really don't benefit from expanding agriculture, but it still sways on your side both the landed gentry and peasants. Some buildings even have it openly stated in the description to be a scam.
- As El Presidente, players can do this in Tropico. Some of the factions only care about a particular building being built, not that it is ever in service and used. The Religious want a church, the Loyalists want you to build museums to your childhood, the Militarists want more armories, and so on, whether they're necessary or not. You can invoke this in other ways with the Building Permit edict as well, which increases the cost of every building placed while it's active, but diverts a percentage of the total cost to your Swiss bank account. In addition, you can also build Follies as mentioned above, but they serve a purpose. A golden statue of El Presidente causes citizens to respect you more, which can turn them into loyalists and make things easier during an election, while a giant statue of Jesus earns you serious brownie points with the Religious faction. Other statues can make people feel safer while also beautifying the area, which is taken into account when people choose where to live and when tourists visit.
- The Blood And Wine expansion for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt has a sidequest that gets Geralt involved in securing the construction of a religious monument. It is ultimately revealed as a money-laundering scam that went out of hand and was repurposed to keep a bunch of people on the payroll. The questline is a parody of a similar, real-life monument construction in Poland.
- King Dimwit the Excessive of the Zork series got his nickname for commissioning large numbers of these, such as a flood control dam in a region that was never in danger of flooding and a statue of himself several miles high. He was planning to create an artificial continent that was shaped like his face when he died. He had to levy a 98% income tax to fund all these projects, which might explain why three civil wars and roughly 16,000 tax riots broke out over the course of his reign.
- The demented city council in Welcome to Night Vale approves several pointless projects.
There is no water at the actual waterfront. And that is a definite drawback, I agree. For instance, the boardwalk is currently overlooking sagebrush and rocks. The Business Association did not provide any specific remedies to this problem, but they assured me that the new harbor would be a big boost to Night Vale nonetheless. Maybe wait until the next flashflood and head down there for the full waterfront experience.
- The town's continued project to build a drawbridge in Old Town Night Vale, despite there not being any rivers or bodies of water nearby, and no boats to even necessitate a drawbridge. The project keeps on failing due to the engineers insisting on using hilariously inappropriate materials, such as cardboard. And non-dairy creamer.
- There's also the Night Vale Harbor and Waterfront Recreation Area...in a city that's landlocked and in the middle of a desert. Unlike other projects the council apparently realized their mistake, and covered by claiming that no such thing had ever been built, that the town has simply suffered a mass hallucination that caused them to believe it had, and that if they saw it there standing uselessly in the desert, they should dismiss this as a continuing symptom of their hallucination.
- The town also elects to replace the typical white and yellow road stripes and steel highway dividers with quirky and vaguely horrifying art projects.
- The Night Vale Stadium, which on October 10th hosts a parade of the many sinister hooded figures who haunt the town, and stands there, empty and dark, for the rest of the year.
- The Night Vale Clock Tower, which supposedly keeps perfect time, but nobody can confirm this because it's completely invisible and changes location constantly.
- The Night Vale Private Library, an extension of the Night Vale Public Library which can only be entered by Marcus Vanston, who freely admits that he never intends to actually read any of the books available.
- Family Guy: Mayor Adam West commissions an unusual war memorial for Quahog's deceased soldiers: "I can think of no greater tribute to their memories than this solid gold statue... of Dig 'em the Sugar Smacks frog".
- The Simpsons:
- The Monorail project in the episode "Marge vs. the Monorail". In it, the townspeople are sold on the idea of the monorail by the slick-talking monorail salesman, despite the fact that Springfield has no need for a monorail. The end of the episode reveals that the city routinely builds pointless things, such as a Popsicle Stick Skyscraper, a 100ft Magnifying Glass (that sets the Popsicle Stick Skyscraper on fire) and a huge escalator to nowhere (upon reaching the top, riders simply plummet to their death).
- In another episode, Kent Brockman mentions the Clamatorium, described as "a million dollar boondoggle based on nothing more than clever word play."
- In the episode "The Seven-Beer Snitch", after Shelbyville mock Springfield as being full of "stupid hicks", the townspeople commission a Frank Gehry-designed music hall costing tens of millions of dollars specifically as a "'screw you' to Shelbyville". They then proceed to prove Shelbyville absolutely right by walking out on a performance of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony after just a few notes, and the music hall becomes a porno theater, "An Evening with David Brenner", and finally, a prison.