Shrinking Cities: The Rise and Fall of Urban Environments

Urban planning is often based on the assumption of ongoing demographic and economic growth, but as some environments face urban shrinkage, a new array of strategies comes into play. The shrinking city phenomenon is a process of urban decline with complex causes ranging from deindustrialization, internal migration, population decline, or depletion of natural resources. Referencing the existing research on the topic, the following showcases approaches to this phenomenon in different urban environments, highlighting the need to develop new urban design frameworks to address the growing challenge.

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Shrinking cities is an umbrella term for urban environments that undergo depopulation due to various complex reasons. It circumscribes monotowns, whose main economic activity becomes obsolete, post-socialist urban environments that struggle to survive the privatization of industries, the migration of the locals to more competitive urban environments, an ageing and declining population. The phenomenon was heavily discussed across Europe in the early 2000s, as post-socialist transformations lead to an increased interest in the topic of deurbanization. The term shrinking cities was popularized by architect Philipp Oswalt, who described it as a problem of multiplicity and different scales.

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Anina, mining town in Romania. Image © Tudor Constantinescu

In many cases, the narrative is closely linked to deindustrialization processes and economic decline. With some exceptions, the decline in population translates into the reduced capacity to care for the urban environment, leading to a deterioration of the infrastructure, extensively portrayed in media over the years. Initially studied across Europe and the American Rust Belt, shrinking cities is now recognized as a global challenge, affecting most countries in the Global North, but also medium-sized cities in China, India and Japan, as well as mining cities in North America and Africa. This year's Venice Biennale has brought new examples of how the phenomenon continues to unfold, with the Pavilion of Serbia and that of Romania showcasing extensive research on the local experience of shrinking cities.

Strategies for Shrinking Cities

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Hristina Stojanovic. ImageThe mining city of Bor

"Cities must learn to conceive of sustainable urban development as an ongoing cyclical process of change, rather than pretend that socio-economic development is a linear and predictable progression from the status quo to a better future" is the conclusion developed by URBACT, the European Union's project seeking concrete solutions for shrinking cities. The research into the phenomenon has led to various strategies and approaches, from speculative proposals, bottom-up initiatives to innovative urban policies. The focus seems to take two distinct directions: imbracing de-urbanization through methods like rightsizing/smart shrinkage, or re-inventing the city under new premises, often through the lens of art and culture, taping into tourism-led regeneration policies.

Imbracing De-Urbanization 

Most shrinking cities have tried to adapt to the new population levels rather than boost numbers to previous industrial levels. A somewhat controversial approach, in this case, is rightsizing, which means diminishing the supply of housing and amenities to match the city infrastructure with the current population. The strategy sometimes implies drastic measures like demolishing buildings and eliminating services to depopulated neighbourhoods, which raises questions of social justice, equity and sustainability. This smart shrinkage through downsizing the built environment is loosely defined by urban planners, and opinions on its validity vary. American cities like Detroit (whose population dropped from 1.8 million in 1960 to just over 670.000 inhabitants in 2016) or Youngstown have achieved mixed results.

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Dr.G.Schmitz, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons. ImageAltena, former industrial city in Germany

On the other hand, the German city of Altena is often cited as a success story, having addressed urban shrinkage by improving the quality of life for remaining citizens. The process entailed identifying overlooked assets the city could capitalize on, decreasing the volume of services while enhancing the remaining ones, activating citizenship, allocating interim urban uses for vacant land. Alternatively, an inventive approach to high-vacancy levels in inner-city districts was that of Leipzig. In 2004, a coalition of architects, urban planners and residents developed an agreement between tenants and residents where tenants paid no rent in exchange of protecting the buildings from vandalism and carrying out minor repairs.

Cultural Re-Invention 

Other approaches, this time bottom-up, resort to art to raise awareness on the decaying city infrastructure, initiate conversation and self-reflection within the community and jumpstart a process of re-invention. Such is the case in the former mining town of Petrila, the oldest one in Romania, where an artist and activist uses art and absurdism to prevent the disappearance of historical buildings but also to prevent the dissolution of the local community. One possible outcome of this approach can be found across the globe in the Chilean mining city of Sewell, declared a World Heritage Site in 2006, which is now uninhabited but preserved as a tourist attraction.

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Setnom from Chile, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons. ImageSewell mining town in Chile

In what Philipp Oswalt calls advertising the city, places like Manchester or Bilbao have used signature architecture as a tool to market the deindustrialized city. However, the issue is more nuanced, as the transformation of Bilbao was not entirely the result of one single, albeit spectacular building. The opportunity to build the Guggenheim Museum came after the city developed a plan to transform the various sites along the waterfront and sell the deindustrialized land to private developers. Nevertheless, the famous Frank Gehry building has radically changed the local economy. Similarly, Manchester has undergone a process of re-branding through a series of flagship developments.

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Photo by Antonio Gabola on Unsplash . ImageGuggenheim Bilbao

As circumstances vary widely, it is difficult to pinpoint a well-defined series of practices to address urban decline, making each shrinking city a complex urban, social and economic subject. As the phenomenon is relatively new and is counter to the general ethos of ongoing growth, it requires a departure from traditional planning models, meaning architects and urban planners are yet to research and develop a framework for sustainably approaching shrinking cities.

This article is part of the ArchDaily Topic: Migration. Every month we explore a topic in-depth through articles, interviews, news, and projects. Learn more about our monthly topics. As always, at ArchDaily we welcome the contributions of our readers; if you want to submit an article or project, contact us.

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Cite: Andreea Cutieru. "Shrinking Cities: The Rise and Fall of Urban Environments" 12 Jul 2021. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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