Our cities are shrinking. Modern, highly developed cities around the world are facing large-scale population losses and concurrent reductions in urban density, in a process that challenges the hegemony of the capitalist growth model.
Although shrinkage is not a new phenomenon, the two hundred years of rapid growth in western cities following the industrial revolution, has led to the situation where ‘growth has become an expectation’.
This dissertation argues that population stability, and even controlled shrinkage should be viewed alongside growth as legitimate phases in a city’s evolution. Urban shrinkage must first be recognised and accepted before we can begin to approach the population loss and urban perforation in a constructive way.
Can urban shrinkage be harnessed to achieve an improvement in urban living conditions despite continuing population loss?
Globally 450 cities with populations over 100,000 have lost at least 10% of their population since the 1950s. One in four shrunk between 1990 and 2000, with this shrinkage primarily concentrated in Eastern Europe and former industrial cities across Europe, Japan and the Amercian Rust Belt.
This process of massive population loss and the resultant restructuring of the urban fabric has received surprisingly little attention in contemporary architectural and planning discourse. The predominant response from municipal authorities is outright denial, coupled with optimistic growth strategies that fail to recognise the reality of the situation. Shrinkage is viewed as symptomatic of failure.
However the Earth is a finite system, and the indefinite growth espoused and striven for by politicians and planners is an inherently unsustainable concept. Uneven development is in the very nature of capitalism and pressures of competition are compounded by demographic realities. The majority of highly developed post-industrial countries are experiencing a decline in population, with the EU predicted to lose almost 20% of its working age population by 2050.
Should shrinkage therefore be viewed as a failure of planning and economic policies, or rather, as a natural and entirely predictable part of the life cycle and maturation of the contemporary city?
If we accept the premise that in certain regions shrinkage is unavoidable, the question then, is how to harness this shrinkage in a constructive manner. Planning policies with a tropism towards growth exacerbate problems of shrinkage by failing to engage with the issues on the ground, squandering limited resources while also missing the unique opportunities offered by a shrinking, perforated city fabric.
Planners and urban policy makers have begun to reverse this mentality in certain parts of the world, notably in cities in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) states in Eastern Germany, but this constructive response to the phenomenon is still an exception rather than the norm. The lessons learned in cities such as Leipzig have immediate relevance to other declining post-industrial urban areas, both in Britain and internationally. Sharing and communicating these ideas is of paramount importance if we are to overcome the traditional combative mind-set and instead work to harness shrinkage as a tool for improving urban quality of life.