Thursday, May 5, 2011

SHRINKING CITIES—Growing Domain for Urban Planning?

by Tim Rieniets

Our understanding of urban planning is closely connected to an assumption of ongoing demographic and economic growth. Its concept of planning is above all a result of accelerated urbanization associated with industrialization and its demand for adequate urban solutions. Growth had to be controlled and designed in the interest of society. Since then, urban planning has had a quasi causal relationship with urban growth. Its methods, visions, and values, only become justified through the assumption of continuous growth.
However, economic and demographic indicators, in particular in developed countries, are clearly signaling that the epoch of stable and continuous growth was a historical episode. Urban growth, which was characteristic for most European cities during industrialization, has already slowed down since the first half of the twentieth century, and for an increasing number of cities and regions stagnation or even shrinkage have taken its place (Fig. 1).
Today’s urban planning, however, is completely unprepared for the new tasks associated with urban shrinkage: it possesses neither the suitable visions, adequate experience with regard to its own urban planning options, nor established methods and instruments for execution.
The causes and characteristics of shrinking cities are as manifold as cities in general. The shrinkage of cities means simultaneous quantitative and qualitative changes, which cannot, however, be said to follow a basic homogenous pattern. In quantitative terms, shrinking cities can be characterized by a decreasing population, in many cases preceded by a drop in economic prosperity. In qualitative terms, the shrinkage of cities may comprise changes in social and economic patterns, and in lifestyles and cultural values. In this article, however, shrinking cities are primarily defined by significant population losses.i
As taken up in the first part of this essay, an increasing number of cities entered a phases of population loss in the twentieth century (1).ii Hence shrinking cities are not a recent phenomenon, and architects and planners have been confronted with shrinkage for various reasons. In the light of seemingly inexhaustible economic growth, however, shrinking cities have been ignored, forgotten or considered taboo. With more and more urban planners unable to draw on their own experience or expertise, they instead opened up new processes of discussion and experimentation, as I will briefly summarize in the second part of this article. All the same, this quest obviously indicates only the beginning of a prolonged and comprehensive process within which urban planning needs to question its methods and values, as I will suggest below in part three.

more posts about urban form:

Study Shows Urban Sprawl Continues To Gobble Up Land

MEASURING THE CONFIGURATION OF STREET NETWORKS: the Spatial profiles of 118 urban areas in the 12 most populated metropolitan regions in the US

A Libertarian View of Urban Sprawl


  1. Is it the same article that we could find in "Cahiers thématiques. Space on a Large Scale, number 6" ?

    1. Yes, it is the same article. The full reference is here:

      Rieniets, Tim, „Shrinking Cities. Growing Domain for Urban Planning?“, in Cahiers thématiques. Space on a Large Scale, number 6, Lille, 2006.