Shrinking cities: smaller populations, not smaller aspirations


Most leaders, whether or businesses or cities or otherwise, like to relay their progress in terms of growth. But for many city leaders, it is decline that they have to grapple with. Back in 2004, according to the New York Times, the UN released research showing that for every two cities that are growing, three are shrinking. Since 1950, more than 450 cities with populations of at least 100,000 have lost at least 10% of their population. In the US, eight of the 10 largest cities have since lost at least 20% of their population. There are a range of forces that lie behind this, including political change (Germany’s reunification, for example) and economic change (from industrially-led economies to services-led ones).

Indeed, Germany has led the way in managing shrinking cities, grappling with its mass migration from East to West Germany, which left masses of abandoned apartments in formerly busy communities. Back in 2002, this transition inspired the country’s Federal Cultural Foundation to launch a Shrinking Cities project, focussing on Halle and Leipzig in Germany, Manchester and Liverpool in the UK, Ivanovo in Russia and Detroit in the US.

Such work is ongoing. A three-year Cities in Transition programme, organised by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, will launch in October, with an aim of helping five US cities – Detroit and Flint, Michigan, Cleveland and Youngstown, Ohio, and Greater Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania region – navigate their way to a smaller, but hopefully more sustainable future. Much of the programme will examine the transition within Leipzig, now a case study in how to “shrink to grow”.

Part of the challenge for urban leaders comes with the difficult job of accepting the decline of the cities they love and cherish—no one likes to preside over a shrinking business, or income, or city. But accepting this, and then thinking about how to turn this loss into a new advantage is part of the challenge for city leaders. As Carol Coletta, head of CEOs for cities, put it in this article: “Cities that measure success by population growth have an outdated view of what success is all about.”

Many mayors and city planners have done so. Take Youngstown, in the US, which lost more than half of its population after the collapse of the steel industry in the 1970s. About five years ago, it set out a plan for 2010, with a goal of creating a “safe, clean, enjoyable, sustainable and attractive city”. To do so, it has relaxed planning laws, allowing residents to buy abandoned plots next to them to turn them into green spaces, even allowing the creation of small horse farms and apple orchards. Residents have been given incentives to move across streets, out of nearly entirely abandoned blocks, so that these could be rezoned into parks.

In Dessau-Rosslau (the two shrinking towns merged in 2007, to boost the population and presumably share administrative resources), city planners came up with the concept of “city islands”, which moved away from the idea of a compact central city, by rather embracing islands of houses. Blocks are “cut” out and “pasted” elsewhere, as the local planner describes it in this piece.

For Youngstown and Dessau-Rosslau, this is not simply a beautifying exercise, its also based on practical needs: one, “turning off” a block also allows the city to close water, sewage and electricity connections to that area, saving money; two, converting an abandoned block of homes, steadily falling into disrepair, into a green space, helps boost property values of the remaining (and slightly more populated) areas. The hope is that, in time, new growth returns: bigger homes and nearby parks encourage new families to move in, restaurants open, former warehouses are converted into trendy city lofts, and so on.

Such changes in thinking run counter to classical urban planning approaches. Indeed, Germany’s original approach to decline in its Eastern cities was to invest in new infrastructure – entire new streets, with lights, sewage and power – using the “build it and they will come” approach. Sadly, they didn’t. Luckily, new ideas have sprouted instead.

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