Redefining Shrinking Cities

In Volume 26 of the Berkeley Planning Journal, Ph.D. student Aksel Olsen’s ‘Shrinking Cities – Fuzzy concept or useful framework?’ enters the debate on urban decline. In this post, Masters of Urban Design student Tanvi Maheshwari explains why practitioners should look beyond simplified versions of the shrinking cities phenomenon.

Shrinking cities have been the subject of much conversation in recent years. With Detroit filing for bankruptcy protection and the growing concern about aging cities in Europe, the discussion is gathering ever more momentum. In a climate of hasty blanket statements and one-size-fits-all solutions, Aksel Olsen takes a step back to critically examine the phenomenon of shrinking cities, in order to find real, practical solutions.

A significant number of cities and regions across the US and Eastern Europe currently face population decline, economic contraction, or both. The ‘greying of Europe,’ where nearly a third of the population will be 65 or over by 2060, is increasing pressure on social services, urban infrastructure, and the labor supply. The trend is raising new concerns for planning and design, such as how to create different types of mobility structures for the elderly population. For Eastern European cities, the out-migration of young workers seeking better employment opportunities has made the equation even more difficult. As tax bases shrink, planners and politicians in both the US and the EU will need to attract and retain a younger workforce, in part by reforming immigration policy, and make the urban environment accessible for the elderly.

Percentage of Population over 65 in Europe. Source:

Percentage of Population over 65 in Europe. Source:

Shrinkage is not a new phenomenon. During the post-war years in the US, the middle classes fled in hordes from dense city centers to rapidly developing suburbs, aspiring for space and racial homogeneity, thus hollowing out the city cores. In the present context, however, intra-city shrinkage is not planners’ primary concern. In fact, many American suburbs are shrinking as well. Cities in the Rust Belt grew in an era when large-scale manufacturing required large amounts of labor. With much of their traditional labor force no longer as in demand in the modern economy, many Rust Belt cities such as Detroit face population and economic decline. Leaders in these cities have attempted different strategies, with varying success, to reinvent their image and their economy around creative industries, a manufacturing renaissance, or the service sector.

Decline of Detroit. Source:

Decline of Detroit. Source:

But shrinkage today is a complex phenomenon, not limited just to the Rust Belt. It is afflicting much more heterogeneous regions, including those around the Californian cities of Fresno, San Francisco, and San Jose. It should be noted that the time period when shrinkage was observed in these cities mostly coincides with the 2001–2002 recession. During this time, San Jose did indeed lose population at a rate of three per thousand or so for a two-year period. However, while the rate of population decline was at about three per thousand in 2002 and 2003, the number of occupied housing units appears to have increased over the same period at a rate of seven per thousand. This may mean that the shrinkage observed is San Jose may just a change is demographics, like change in size of household. It may not be valid to call San Jose a shrinking city, as shrinkage may be just a temporary result of a city in flux.

Aksel Olsen’s paper argues that shrinkages in Eastern European cities, the Rust Belt in the US, and in the Californian so-called “Sun-Belt” cities are not comparable. In fact, bundling them together creates a fuzzy definition, watering it down to the point where it is no longer useful to describe the vastly different trajectories of urban evolution. The scholarly definition of shrinking cities is ‘a densely populated urban area with a minimum population of 10,000 residents that has faced populationlosses for more than two years and is undergoing economic transformations with some symptoms of a structural crisis.’ A tighter definition, taking into account specific contexts, would be more helpful to planners.

The typical definition of a “shrinking city” is flawed in two key ways. First, it fails to distinguish shrinkage due to an aging population from shrinkage due to shifting industries. Each requires different policy strategies. A lower fertility rate may be a long-term problem, but in the short term, the migration balance matters more because it has a greater effect on the economically active population. Further, a thriving city center may still experience population growth despite industries moving out. The San Francisco Bay Area during the Dot Com Crisis of the years 2000–04 would be an example of population growth and a changing job base. This distinguishes a Detroit from a San Francisco.

Second, the typical definition of shrinking cities is too shortsighted. Planners should look at the long term. Olsen equates short-term forecasts of “shrinkage” to comparing ‘weather’ with ‘climate’, one representing short-term changes and the other, long-term structural changes.

A city with a rapidly growing economy might shrink deliberately, to create a better quality of life for a smaller population, or may going through a phase of transition. In the 1980s, Pittsburg began to focus on high-end retail. Pittsburgh seems to be in the midst of a transition to an entertainment economy, even as the city continues to lose population, again underlining the complex patchwork of prosperity and decline, here at the city scale. Despite half a century of population loss due to industrial decline, Pittsburgh is, if not thriving, certainly outperforming both the Rust Belt and the nation as a whole. Its unemployment rate of 7.8% is well below the national average.

Pittsburgh Skyline. Source:

Pittsburgh Skyline. Source:

Should shrinking cities then be defined as simply a state of being, defined on the basis of population loss or job loss? Or should a deeper investigation be made into its underlying causes? The latter is essential, if the city has to devise policy directions to deal with the situation. Growth and decline are a part of the natural cycle of a city’s life. If short-term fluctuations are assumed to reflect broader trends, urban policy-makers will fail to identify the true causes of shrinking cities resulting in uninformed policy decisions and a trivialization of the issue. Planners should think about ways to preserve affordable housing to prevent gentrification when there is rapid growth occurring.

Olsen’s paper left me convinced that contextual analysis, that is, a qualitative typology to define shrinking cities instead of a quantitative one, would lead to more useful observations. These can serve as a comparative framework for analyzing similar cities worldwide. A qualitative approach leads to more relatable comparisons between shrinking cities of erstwhile East Germany and the Rust Belt in the US, instead of the Sun Belt.

I would argue for uncoupling ‘prosperity’ from ‘ever increasing growth’, and urge cities to plan for ‘smart decline.’ Shrinkage may not always be a bad thing. In the words of Aristotle: “A great city should not be confounded with a populous city.”

Tanvi Maheshwari is a Master of Urban Design student at UC Berkeley. She is interested in urbanism of the global south and segregation in the public realm. She can be reached at