shrinking cities

aschersleben ring road, courtesy of IBD

The British planning system is designed to manage urban growth, investment and development. But how well does it perform when our towns and cities are faced with decline, population flight and demolition?

I was a planning student in Glasgow in the 1980s when the debilitating effects of Clydeside’s industrial restructuring were at their most damaging. There was simply too much land. North Glasgow and the East End had vast tracts of ex-industrial land with no obvious use except for covering them with trees – not such a far-fetched idea for the dear green place that is Glasgow, and one that has since been taken forward just down the road in Lanarkshire as the Central Scotland Forest Trust.

Today, many of Scotland’s industrial towns and cities, particularly away from the buoyant market around Edinburgh, still have too much under-used land – now both former industrial and residential land, due to the increasing demolition of post-war public sector housing in the last few years. Some towns face a particularly difficult combination of an excess of land and a declining population – Inverclyde, for example, where the government’s latest population projections indicate a 13% decline in population between 2006 and 2031.

Should we be concerned about this? Yes. Declining populations cost us money, as central and local government still have to maintain roads, sewers and other public services in urban areas but have less tax revenue to do so. Developing unused countryside and leaving derelict land untouched is not very sustainable. And no-one should have to live amongst dereliction and neglect.

That begs the question of how best to plan for shrinking towns and cities. The British mentality is to fight the decline – trying to reverse it through encouraging private investment, with public subsidy if need be. Witness the series of public sector interventions in Inverclyde, from the Enterprise Zone in the 1980s to an Urban Regeneration Company now. The logic is that the market should fix it, with some help if necessary.

The aspiration is admirable, and much new investment has been brought in over the years. But I’ve long wondered if this approach – which is effectively denial that the market has moved elsewhere – is the only way forward.

eastern Germany

dessau, courtesy of IBD

A recent article in The Economist about the depopulation of eastern Germany – subtitled “innovative ways of dealing with population decline” – got me thinking about this again.

The state of Saxony-Anhalt, cradle of former East Germany’s chemical industry, lost a fifth of its 2.9m people in the 16 years after Germany’s unification in 1990. By 2025 it expects to lose nearly half a million more. The state government has begun a programme for 17 towns and cities known as IBA Urban Redevelopment 2010. The towns vary in size from 5,000 to 250,000 residents. Each is developing its own response to population loss and industrial decline. The common theme is that they realise that growth is not a realistic option: they are accepting their reduced size and planning for it accordingly.

Here’s a flavour of some of the innovative ideas that the 17 settlements are implementing:

Dessau-Roßlau is creating islands of urbanism surrounded by landscaping zones, created by building demolition.
Aschersleben’s inner ring road has been reconfigured as Germany’s first public gallery space, aDrive Thru Gallery with a range of changing exhibitions on vacant sites.
Halberstadt is encouraging people to see empty space as having value in itself – an aesthetic phenomenon that has many different connotations and will, they say, appear with increasing regularity in all shrinking cities in the future. By means of artistic interventions, the people are introduced to a different way of evaluating and seeing empty space more positively. The architecturally significant area surrounding the cathedral, for example, will be left permanently empty and redesigned as a landscape zone.

youngstown, ohio

youngstown 2010, courtesy of

On the other side of the Atlantic, Youngstown, Ohio has seen its population tumble from 200,000 in its postwar steeltown heyday to just 80,000 now. Having lost more than half its population and almost its entire industrial base in the last 30 years, the city has recognised that it is now left with an oversized urban structure.

After many years of vainly pursuing planning policies which pursued population growth and business investment, the city authorities finally accepted that this just wasn’t going to happen. The stories and controversies are well documented in two short CNN articles here and here. In planner-speak, the authorities now believe that Youngstown must recreate itself as a sustainable mid-sized city, with a strategic program to rationalize and consolidate the urban infrastructure in a socially responsible and financially sustainable manner.

That strategy – called Youngstown 2010 – was produced in 2002. Its vision is that Youngstown must become a healthier and better place to live and work. Over time people have grown accustomed to seeing rundown buildings and streets. Urban decay is a constant and demoralizing reminder of Youngstown’s decline. This has to change.

The whole process has been bottom-up – empowering communities to their say about what happens to their city, both for the strategy for the whole city and also in individual neighbourhoods. Local areas are working up future visions and proposals within the framework of the overall city plan, such as Wick Park.

What themes emerged from this planning process? Here’s a quick taste:

A greener Youngstown with more recreational opportunities and more generous with the available urban land land.
Less heavy industrial land, but more “green industrial land” for lower density, light industry in a landscaped setting.
30% less residential land.
Focussing commercial activity on important business nodes, with an overall reduction of commercial floorspace.


halberstadt, courtesy of IBD

There are clearly no easy answers to the problem of shrinking cities – but it’s interesting to see that there are other approaches beyond the conventional British/American approach, instead accepting the new reality that market have moved on.

Generous use of landscaping and recreational space are common themes in both the Saxony-Anhalt and Youngstown experiences; these have long been common responses in the UK too. What’s different is far greater trust in community-based approaches, and more use of art and design.

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