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Coping with City Shrinkage: Tackling Urban Decline

Artikel vom 31.03.2006

The international comparison of shrinking cities showed similar effects of shrinkage on cities as well as their local people, despite of different cultural and socio-economic settings. But which is a promising strategy to stop the process of shrinkage?

Culture-led Regeneration Strategies for Shrinking Cities

Globalization, economic restructuring and de-industrialization have led many cities to experience demographic shrinkage and economic decline - the "shrinking city" effect. Many cities are now promoting cultural activities and creativity as an effective strategy for economic regeneration. Today, the so-called creative economy is showing unexpected dynamism in both post-industrial and developing countries, adding value to existing intellectual and cultural assets - creativity is seen as the new form of capital. Culture and creativity can play a role in re-inventing shrinking cities in the context of this new economy.

The debate on culture and cities has developed worldwide in the last decade and is informed by a growing municipal understanding that cities are competing to attract the knowledge sector, investors (to re-locate) and visitors (tourism).

Innovative approaches taken by leading city regions are expected to integrate economic development, cultural development, and urban design to create jobs, generate income, enhance the municipal image and generally improve the quality of life vis-à-vis a city’s ability to attract and retain the creative sector. While the links between arts, culture, urban design and regeneration are complex and subject to many interpretations, successful culture-led initiatives can enhance the physical, social and economic wellbeing of an area (resulting in improved quality of life) in a holistic way.  

Model projects and strategies fall in the following categories:

  • Creative industries
  • New Media Initiatives
  • Arts and creative Education projects preparing youth or adults for the creative economy
  • Region to region collaborations emphasizing creative talent and global industry linkages

Tackling Urban Decline through Innovation Activities

Innovation might have a major role to play in the transformation processes of shrinking cities. An important strand of economic-development work, which grew in importance over the 1980s and especially over the 1990s, focused on the importance of innovation to economic growth and more recently of well-functioning systems of innovation. International research has shown that some countries and regions have higher levels of innovation than do others and that these levels are not random. They are higher when all aspects of knowledge generation, transmission and transfer, the regulatory framework and other public policies affecting the operation of businesses, notably taxation, and the availability of venture capital work smoothly together. This characteristic of innovation has led observers to speak of ‘systems of innovation’. These systems function at national level, even in a globalizing world but also at local and regional levels. There has thus been increasing interest in how systems of innovation might work at the level of the city and the metropolitan region and hence how local governments can best direct the resources available for local economic development of their cities and regions. The search is now on for the best ways of quantifying and measuring the effectiveness of innovation systems at all levels as the basis for further policy development. Localized learning has been shown to be especially important.

However the application of the innovation literature to the analysis of new planning paradigms has not attracted much attention of the academic community that has focused much more on the economic growth of cities. Some analysts argue that innovation holds the key to economic growth; others focus on innovative regional clusters as an engine of economic growth and so on. What is missing here is a more detailed analysis of communities in transformation through cycles of shrinkage and growth and the role that innovation -or the lack of it- plays in the decline.

A preliminary analysis was done of the role of knowledge and innovation activities of communities in transformation in Australia and some of the strategies put in place by city stakeholders. This analysis shows that innovative solutions are linked to the history of the place and therefore difficult to generalize. The management of shrinking cities needs to “keep people”, which requires innovative skills & strategies. . One of the key challenges of shrinking cities is the ‘knowledge-drain’: the transfer of knowledge and innovation processes from the main industry to other businesses and organizations. In the economic context of shrinkage, assets need to be re-thought and transformed in new uses. Connectivity and networking might be harder than in growing places – which have a negative impact on the regional innovation system. In innovation and renewal of these cities, public-private partnerships have a role.

Environment and the shrinking city

The challenges posed by shrinking cities are faced by planners in every region of the world. At the same time, awareness of environmental issues has been increasing among both policymakers and the general public: some countries have undertaken binding commitments in the environmental sphere under the Kyoto process, while others -such as the US- are implementing programs at the sub-national level. These issues come together in the consideration of how actions in the environmental sphere can help to address the challenges posed by shrinking cities.

From experiences in a number of cities in Europe and America, including Pittsburgh (US), Gelsenkirchen (Germany), and the Newark and Sherwood district in the UK the relation of different manifestations of shrinkage to sustainability criteria used for established assessment methodologies in the built environment can be assessed.

Since environmental issues have in the past been targeted by policy approaches in cities faced with conditions of economic crisis attended by population loss, a number of policy options for improving environmental sustainability within shrinking cities can be identified. The thesis drawn from these cases is that environmental concerns can act as an important catalyst for change in conditions of stasis and retrenchment. In short:  Environmental issues can be an important catalyst for change.

Discussion: Tackling city shrinkage in different parts of the world

Urban decline does not necessarily go along with demographic shrinkage. Therefore, not shrinking but urban decline is the problem. What is needed are political programs, like the Federal and State Governmental Program "Stadtumbau Ost", to stop the process of decline. There is also need for programs and strategies against unemployment because the process of shrinking is mostly linked with social and economic aspects. In general there is still a lack of awareness about the process of shrinkage and its various problems. That is why the debate should continue on an international level.

On the other hand, it is difficult to adopt political programs from other countries. However, what is the same in most countries independent of their strategy in dealing with urban decline are the effects on the people living and working in shrinking regions. The reason is the correlation between shrinkage and economic decline. Thus, we need a more intense theoretical debate on shrinkage that focuses not only on economical rationalism.

From a Korean point of view, there is a need for a definition of shrinking with a special emphasis on infrastructure. However as shrinkage is a slow process of decrease, there is still enough time to react. Most important of all is a better communication between all participants: government, companies, local people and workers. More case studies could also be helpful, as the process of globalization causes a co-existence of growing and shrinking cities.

While it is true that there is no clear definition of shrinkage, there are probably various causes that have similar effects - the effects of shrinkage. However, there is no doubt that we need strategies to prevent shrinkage. The future discussion should try to focus on improving the quality of life. When doing so, the participation of locals is considered a crucial point, as well as the implementation of (new) regional innovation systems and a rethinking of institutional set-ups. From the research point of view, the theoretical debate needs to be intensified. Finally, "soft" factors of planning need to be linked with economic questions and the "hard" infrastructure.

The discourse illustrates that some of the problems can be solved by changing urban planning policies. There is a need of change in the debate of growth in general; and constructors, housing companies and politicians take aspects of demographic change into consideration when planning. In any case, the discussion showed that shrinkage can also make room for creativity and innovations.


This article is based on presentations and discussions 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 and discussants were Jasmin Aber (USA), Cristina Martinez-Fernandez (Australia), Helen Mulligan (UK), Sylvie Fol (France), Dong-Chun Shin (Republic of Korea), Clemens Deilmann, Tobias Robischon and Bernhard Müller (Germany).



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