The incredible shrinking city!

Many of the world's cities are shrinking, and some urban planners say that's a great opportunity to redesign and re-green urban spaces. Forget smart growth. The new trend is "smart decline."
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Seattle: getting that shrinking feeling?

Many of the world's cities are shrinking, and some urban planners say that's a great opportunity to redesign and re-green urban spaces. Forget smart growth. The new trend is "smart decline."

Here in Pugetopolis it's still a matter of faith that growth is unstoppable and the urbanization is the answer to all our prayers. I've written that growth is often the result of national policies (land grants, homesteading, land reclamation, tax incentives, bank deregulation) and as such, it can be steered and controlled. We could, for example, create policies that could help repopulate fading rural areas, such as the proposed New Homestead Act.

But U.S. rural areas aren't the only places losing population. Many of the world's cities are also shrinking. That trend is most visible in Europe (new and old) and in the United States. Here, we think of dying Rust Belt burgs like Detroit, Cleveland, and Youngstown. But overseas, it's pronounced in other areas. According to City Mayors, a think-tank devoted to boosting urban life and issues, more cities have shrunk in the last 50 years than have grown:

The populations of 46 countries, including Germany, Italy, Japan, most of the former Soviet states, and several small island states, are expected to be smaller in 2050 than they are now. These demographic trends are reflected at the city level, as well. In the last 30 years, more cities in the developed world shrank than grew.

Negative growth trends are largely associated with cities in North America and Europe, where the number of shrinking cities has increased faster in the last 50 years than the number of expanding cities. In the United States alone, 39 cities have endured population loss.

In the United Kingdom, Germany and Italy, 49, 48, and 34 cities, respectively, shrank in size between 1990 and 2000. A number of cities in countries of the former Soviet bloc are losing their populations. Nearly 100 Russian cities experienced negative growth in the 1990s; in Ukraine, 40 cities experienced population loss.

In the case of cities in the developed world, the report notes that on average, 2.3 million people migrate into developed countries each year. This means that migration — both legal and illegal — accounts for approximately one-third of the urban growth in the developed world. Without migration, the urban population of the developed world would likely decline or remain the same in the coming decades.

So in spite of global urbanization, there is a significant counter-trend. The Shrinking Cities International Research Network (SCiRN) is a group of academics tracks the shrinking cities trend and looks at urban development implications and solutions. Karina Pallagst, program director at the Center for Global Metropolitan Studies at the University of California Berkeley, defines a shrinking city as "a densely populated urban area with a minimum population of 10,000 residents that has faced population losses in large parts for more than two years and is undergoing economic transformations with some symptoms of a structural crisis." Such crises are due in part to migration, economic dislocation, globalization, political and economic transformations (the fall of the old Soviet Union), and low birth rates (such as in Germany and Italy).

A big question facing urbanists is, what to do with shrunken cities? One possibility would be re-populating them. Could the New Homestead Act be revised to give a boost to places urban zones like Detroit? Isn't it more environmentally sustainable to re-populate existing cities where land has already been cleared, infrastructure is in place, and homes can be re-inhabited? Possibly. But in very distressed urban areas that cannot count on a resurgence of urban settlers, cities could be permanently re-scaled to something smaller. There's a new movement to reclaim urban areas by clearing parts of them and even letting them go back to nature.

The New York Times has a story about the efforts to do that in Flint, Michigan, "An effort to save a city by shrinking it." According to the Times, when Flint did its Master Plan in 1965, "it was a prosperous city of 200,000 looking to grow to 350,000. It now has 110,000 people, about a third of whom live in poverty." As the city copes with an economic collapse and budget crises, some believe there's a need for bold action, and downsizing might be just the thing. According to the Times this is possible because of recent changes in the law:

Planned shrinkage became a workable concept in Michigan a few years ago, when the state changed its laws regarding properties foreclosed for delinquent taxes. Before, these buildings and land tended to become mired in legal limbo, contributing to blight. Now they quickly become the domain of county land banks, giving communities a powerful tool for change.

Instead of waiting for an economic or growth upswing that might never come, county and city planners can work with land bank properties to pick and choose which neighborhoods to invest in, and which to bulldoze. In other words, why fight for more growth when downsizing and re=greening a city might make the city more viable and more livable for those who remain? Business could be relocated into more dense, more transit friendly neighborhoods. Cleared areas could be turned into open space, parks, greenbelts, or even forest. It would be a reversal of urban sprawl:

"Decline in Flint is like gravity, a fact of life," said Dan Kildee, the Genesee County treasurer and chief spokesman for the movement to shrink Flint. "We need to control it instead of letting it control us...."

Mr. Kildee was born in Flint in 1958. The house he lived in as a child has just been foreclosed on by the county, so he stopped to look. It is a little blue house with white trim, sad and derelict. So are two houses across the street.

"If it's going to look abandoned, let it be clean and green," he said. "Create the new Flint forest — something people will choose to live near, rather than something that symbolizes failure."

The thinking on this front is spreading. There's even an Shrinking Cities Institute that looks at the making of hay out of decline and as an alternative to the endless-growth mentality that has seized the imagination of most urban planners:

This alternative model could include the demolition or dismantling of under-utilized housing and other building stock, the removal of redundant streets, and downsizing of municipal infrastructure to correspond to declining population. Once unneeded components of the built environment are removed, opportunities may arise for restoring native landscape ecologies and reconstituting a new kind of city, where pockets of development are surrounded and connected by natural areas. Planned shrinkage can identify opportunities to establish lively and attractive development clusters that take advantage of the best the region has to offer, while improving air and water quality, enhancing wildlife habitat, and establishing exciting new recreation opportunities.

What could be more metronatural?

Such strategies are hardly uncontroversial. Look at the race and class issues that have come up during the efforts to rebuild and repopulate New Orleans. Some have argued that it should have been treated as a shrinking city and downsized as an example of "smart decline," a new urbanist spin on "smart growth."

However, the shrinking city phenomenon ought to have our attention. Could efforts to slow or reverse growth have environmental and livability benefits? Must we wait for the depths of a bust before thinking about re-scaling Pugetopolis? Would it make better policy to resettle shrinking cities rather than cramming more people into newer ones or sprawling metro regions like ours? And what are the planning positives that could come out of an economic slowdown when we have a chance to pause, reflect, and catch our breath before the next growth spurt hits?

Surely cities like Flint and Youngstown (not to mention memories of the Boeing bust in the '70s) teach us too that there is gravity to growth, and that it can't be kept up forever by the hot air of boosters and speculators. We might not need it today, but some day we might want a strategy that instructs us how to do more with less instead of relying on ginning up another boom to keep us going.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.