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Coping with City Shrinkage: A Global Issue

Artikel vom 31.03.2006

The shrinking city phenomenon is a multidimensional process, comprising cities, parts of cities or metropolitan areas that have experienced dramatic decline in their economic and social bases. An international comparative viewpoint is essential to the discussion since the urban phenomenon of shrinking can be perceived all over the world, albeit within different cultural and socio-economic settings.

Types of shrinking cities - Introductive Notes

Common denominator of shrinking cities all over the world is the fact that they are embedded in the context of globalization leading to societal changes. Urban decline and the loss of employment opportunities are closely linked in a downwards spiral, triggering an out-migration of population.  This process of decline is often due to the post-industrial transformation of cities and to the shift from manufacturing activities to services, a process that has left industrial and working-class cities with very few resources in terms of employment and fiscal base.

On a global scale, urban shrinkage is a widespread phenomenon. According to different studies every 6th to 4th large city worldwide has lost population in the 1990ies.Even though the processes of shrinkage take place in different cultural and socio-economic settings, an international comparative view is essential to the debate. This task has been taken up by "Shrinking Cities Group", an interdisciplinary group of scholars from five continents (North America, South America, Europe, Asia, and Australia). The group was initiated by the visiting scholars’ roundtable at the Institute of Urban and Regional Development, University of California, Berkeley, in 2004. It proposes the following definition of the shrinking city phenomenon as an essential basis for international comparisons:

“A shrinking city is defined as a densely populated urban area with a minimum population of 10,000 residents that has faced a population loss in large parts of it for a more than 2 years and is undergoing economic transformations with some symptoms of a structural crisis.”

Starting from this definition a basic typology of shrinking cities can be outlined. Generally, city shrinkage can be attributed to four types of causes:

  • Suburbanization as the main cause of shrinkage, showing in development patterns like Hollowing Out or 'Doughnut', sprawl and segregation.
  • Industrial Transformation as the main cause, affecting old industrial Areas  like Rust Belts (Steel, Coal), Harbours, Dockyards or Textile Industries
  • Selective Collapses, resulting from
    • economical causes, e.g. oil crisis, dot-com hype or the abandonment of mining areas,
    • environmental causes, e.g.(natural) disasters, pollution or epidemics,
    • political causes, e.g. Banishment, War or Famine
  • Politcal Strategies as the driver of shrinkage, since shrinking cities can also be the result of controlled (re)settlements, the political definition of depopulation areas, or the retreat from former controlled colonisation areas.

Shrinking Cities in Western Europe: France and Great Britain

City shrinkage is a common phenomenon in a number of countries in Western Europe, but it takes very different forms, as examples from France and Great Britain show.

In France, three different types of city shrinkage can be observed:

  • Shrinkage in rather large urban areas located in old industrial regions (1 out of 6 of the largest urban areas)
  • Shrinkage in small urban areas isolated from metropolitan development and transport infrastructures (1 out of 3 urban areas)
  • Shrinkage in the central cities and inner suburbs of some growing urban areas.

In Great Britain, city shrinkage is concentrated in the largest urban areas:

  • all of the eight largest conurbations (except London and West Yorkshire) lost population during the 90’s,
  • within the declining conurbations, the cities themselves fared worse than their suburbs,
  • other large cities also lost population, although on a smaller scale,
  • declining cities are concentrated in declining regions (industrial regions of the North East, North West and Scotland)

In Great Britain as well as in France, city shrinkage is the result of globalization. However, city shrinkage can take various forms: it does not affect similar areas in the same way. This diversity of cases calls for a diversity of strategies to address the problem of urban decline.

Shrinking Cities in Central and Eastern Europe

The development of the settlement system in Central European countries is influenced by the combination of the long-term decreasing births rates, suburbanization processes, transformation of the society from the industrial to post-industrial information society, including the transformation towards knowledge economy, and changes of the value systems and lifestyles. This has important consequences in form of the selective development of settlement units at both regional and local levels.

Part of this development is the shrinking of many traditional urban centers. While the main indicator is the decline of their population, other aspects have to be taken into account and researched. The situation of urban centers in the new EU member states in the Central Europe has several specific features and frame conditions accelerating and modifying the processes of settlement development concerning the urbanization, suburbanization, de-suburbanization and re-urbanization phases and especially the shrinking process of the cities.

In the transitive regions, the interdependences between shrinking processes, the social security system, social capital, economy and labor market, public finance and the quality of urban environment are very complex and of bilateral causality.

Shrinking Cities in the United States of America

In the USA, shrinkage can either be part of post-industrial transformations related with a long-term industrial transformation process due to the decline of the manufacturing industry, or be triggered by economic changes in the so called postindustrial transformations of a second generation concerning the high tech industry (e.g. dot-com hype). A shrinking city is characterized by economic decline and (as an effect) urban areas in transformation. Moreover, the loss of a certain type of employment opportunity is setting off partial out-migration.

The phenomenon of shrinking cities is not only related to the well-known post-industrial Rust-Belt examples, but other areas are affected as well. There is not one type of a shrinking city in the USA. Due to the overall population growth triggered by immigration, many cities in the USA have to provide for redevelopment in shrinking areas and for growth-related development at the same time.

Unlike as in Europe, the shrinking cities debate is a rather new research sphere in the USA planning realm. Here, urban planning often concentrates on either managing urban growth, or tackling redevelopment in a fragmented (not a regional) way - this despite the fact that shrinkage often occurs throughout an entire metropolitan region. The current discourse in urban and regional planning in the USA still shows a high affinity to growth tendencies. Despite the revitalization approach, planning is usually focused on city centers, and there is no active discussion of shrinking cities.

Three cases of shrinking cities in the USA are Pittsburgh, Youngstown, and San Jose. Each of them represents a different path of shrinkage, but all three show certain patterns of shrinkage:

  • They are affected by changes or decline in one specific economic sector.
  • They have lost a significant amount of population following the economic changes.
  • The loss of population might be concealed (not compensated!) by in-migration of population with other demands for jobs and housing.
  • Economic and population changes have triggered or will most likely lead to changes in planning strategies.

Pittsburgh’s shrinkage process followed a “traditional” hollowing out pattern: The decline of the steel and manufacturing industries led to a loss of almost half of the population since the 1950s. Despite efforts to revitalize the city center, shrinkage continues until most recently. Pittsburgh’s downtown lost 89,375 people between 1980 and 2000. In the same period of time the suburban region (Allegheny County) was losing 12 % of its population. Population loss was mostly due to the out-migration of young people.

The planning reactions to urban decline followed different paradigms of revitalization:

  • 1950s: Tear-downs and new constructions
  • 1960s and 1970s: preservation of  historic buildings and enhanced citizen participation
  • 1980s: Diversification of the economy, community building, focusing on key projects and events
  • 1990s: Mixed use in the city center, reconsidering pedestrian-friendly spaces
  • 2000s: Regional approaches

Also Youngstown’s shrinkage process was triggered by the downturn in the steel industry. Its population was cut in half, from 166,000 in 1960 to 82,000 people in 2005. This shows in a large number of vacant industrial and housing units as well as a general loss of vitality of the city. Older quarters disappeared and only desolate abandoned spaces remained. As Youngstown has no chance to experience a significant rise in population ever again, it is faced with the problem of maintaining a largely oversized infrastructure. Conventional planning reached its limits.

A planning process “Youngstown 2010” tried to implement a realistic vision: to accept the fact that Youngstown is a smaller city now. But it also sought to define the role of the city under the premises of a new economy and to improve Youngstown’s image and quality of life. Important parts of this planning process are its regional governance, e.g. the search for solutions on a regional scale and stronger inter-local cooperation. Another important part is the ecological component: Planning aims to rebuild the city as a “greener” system of space and place. Generally, planning in Youngstown marks a shift in paradigm leading from growth to „shrinking smart“

San José is a much younger case of city shrinkage, which followed the bust of the dot-com growth hype. In the years 2001 – 2004 shrinking observed at the local as well as the regional scale: The San Francisco Bay Area lost 450.000 jobs, Santa Clara County lost 200.000 jobs and San Jose lost 50.000 jobs. But due to a still positive net migration shrinkage did not result in housing vacancies, but in abandoned office buildings. While large and long planned-for flagship projects can no longer be realized (Coyote Valley, extension of San José’s airport), less growth or even shrinkage are seen to be a relief for the region’s housing shortage and infrastructure needs. The real estate sector shifted its activities away from producing office buildings towards providing housing. The consequences regarding office space vacancies remain unclear, as no there is no strategic approach to manage the process of downsizing.

In general, shrinking cities in the USA are perceived as part of the discourse around suburban space versus the city center. Planning in these areas is to a large extent only focused on revitalizing the distressed city centers. But shrinkage in the USA is more complex than perceived by urban and regional planning thus far. The question is: will planning be capable of dealing with a stigmatized topic in a pro-active way?

Communities in Transformation in Australia

The process of urbanization in Australia often follows different patterns than those observed in other highly urbanized societies such as cities in America and Europe. The debate on shrinking cities is very limited in Australia and for a long time research efforts have focused on growing urban centers and large metropolitan regions. We can observe two types of shrinking processes:

One refers to processes of reurbanization and suburbanization. Australia is characterized by a rapid urbanization process of its main cities: Sydney, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide, and Melbourne. Population growth is steady but far from homogeneous and in fact there have been changes in the patterns of population change in Australian cities from 1981 to 1996. Decline in population growth shows ‘doughnut’ patterns in the center and middle city in some cases or in the peripheral rings in other cases.

The other refers to transformation processes of resource-intensive cities and regions. There are some characteristics of urban development in Australia that specially relate to mining towns as per their often rural/remote nature, the high economic and governance dependence on the minerals sector, and its significance to the national economy. The nature of the mining industry in Australia and its added value to host communities has unique characteristics for the study of the impact of demographic and economic changes in regional communities. A number of these communities have actively pursuit strategies to cope with these growth-shrinkage dynamics. The study of these communities is underrepresented in international comparative research despite its global significance. In Australia, its analysis is also limited despite the critical impact that cities such as Broken Hill, Whyalla and Mt Isa have in regional Australia.

Inequality and Shrinking Cities - a close relationship in Latin America

The territorial dynamics of the cities in Latin America cannot be understood without considering their unique contexts: their enormous socio-economic inequality, and the historical, economical, and political processes that lead to that context. The income inequality, the poverty increase and the exclusion process of the Latin-American urbanization are key points for the understanding of the population mobility that leads to the abandonment of significant areas in the metropolis and medium size cities of the continent.

Specifically in Brazil, the approval of the law in 2001 known as "Statute of the City" offered opportunities for public administrators to implement plans for a re-democratization of the use of the urban land and possibilities for the reversion of the degradation and shrinking process of old industrial areas. Unfortunately, that opportunity has been lost due to the urban land oligopoly, the lack of public resources and by the inadequate use of the legal tools of urban politics expressed in the "Statute of the City".

But it remains unclear if the existing “urban management tools” could help to revert doughnut type shrinkage in Metropolitan areas. And considering the “political-economic” environment of the developing countries, it might not be possible to rely on “public-private” partnerships to recover shrank blight areas. On the other hand, it will be difficult to bring back life to empty Metropolitan areas when Municipal budgets are too low to be able to acquire land and to deal with land occupancy.

Shrinking Coal Mining Cities in Asia

In general, the phenomenon of shrinking cities in Asia has not been observed so much as in the United States and Europe. Most Asian countries have been seeing continuous population and economic growth. However, the shrinkage of cities took place in some rural areas as well as in areas with traditional industries such as textile and coal-mining.

Urban areas have rapidly expanded (urbanization) as many people migrated out of rural areas over the years. Recently, the rate of population growth has been declining in countries such as Japan and Korea. If this trend continues with the restructuring of some industries, the phenomenon of city-shrinkage will be more visible in this part of the world.

Examples of shrinking cities in Asia are coal-mining cities in Korea and Japan. The Korean coal industry has a relatively short period of history of less than a century, from the discovery of mines to its growth and decline. The study of city shrinkage needs to address the changing domestic and international energy environment as well as the rationalization policy of the coal industry.


This article is based on presentations held at the 2006 conference "Coping with city shrinkage and demographic change - lessons from around the globe", organized by the Leibniz-Institute of Ecological and Regional Development (IÖR) and the Schader-Stiftung in Dresden/Germany. The speakers were Thorsten Wiechmann (Germany); Sylvie Fol and Emmanuele Cunningham-Sabot (France); Maros Finka and Dagmar Petrikova (Slovakia); Karina Pallagst (Germany/USA); Cristina Martinez-Fernandez and Chung-Tong Wu (Australia); Sergio Moraes (Brasil); Dong-Chun Shin (Republic of Korea).



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